I was recently fortunate enough to be part of an evening of talks and discussion on the future of leadership, hosted by consultancy and tech company Akou Studios.
Here is the transcript of my talk (which, in person was somewhat less polished and rather rushed by the end — lots to learn for next time). I’d love to know what other people think about diversity and leadership, particularly in the environment sector…
We face extremely complex, urgent challenges. Climate change, huge levels of inequality and poverty, our public services decimated by austerity and overwhelmed by an ageing population.
Never more has there been a need for effective leadership
And, more than ever before, leadership needs to have a purpose behind it. We don’t need more leaders at the helm of companies selling us technologically superior disposable razors. We need people with a moral compass and a critical understanding of social issues to come forward and, critically, to collaborate with one another to solve these challenges.
At Forum for the Future where I work, we support leaders to progress on complex issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, and providing decent livelihoods for the farmers that produce the crops we depend on, to name a few things.
There is a particular skillset needed to be able to work to change complex systems like food, energy and health. It’s an emerging field, and my colleagues at Forum are continually identifiyng the practices that are needed from leaders working on systemic change. This really useful article from my colleagues at Forum for the Future goes into what those capabilities are.
However, I’d like to focus on some of the things getting in the way of more of us thinking of ourselves as leaders, and pushing forward on the issues we care about.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that many people, particularly women and people that are part of a minority group, encounter what’s known as ‘imposter syndrome.’ A deep feeling of self doubt and inadequacy. That you aren’t good enough at your job / at being a parent / at giving that high pressure presentation. That something awful could happen if you let your guard down.
First of all, let’s be clear that in the UK in particular, we have deep-seated issues with sexism, racism and classism that pervade our institutions and the halls of power. The feeling of not fitting in, being ‘less than’, that underlie the imposter syndrome is due in no small part to the gaping disparities in opportunity based on your background and privilege. Even knowing this, I was still very disheartened to find research showing that women make up just 22% of senior leaders in the UK.
We have a total deficit of female leaders in this country.
We have a glaring gender pay gap (11.9% in 2019, showing no improvement on the year before). And austerity has cost women dearly. 86% of the burden of austerity since 2010 has fallen on women in the form of cuts to benefits including working tax credits, cuts to public services and the loss of public sector jobs, all of which affected women more than men.
We need more women in positions of leadership with lived and varied life experiences. And not just more white middle class women. If you are black, if you are disabled, or Muslim, or working class, you are even less likely to be in a leadership position. The solution is not simply a case of women ‘leaning in’, having confidence and assertiveness training (although this may help in the short term). Any organisation working on complex issues should be taking a hard look at the profile of its staff and getting serious about diversity — there is no shortage of information out there about how to do better.
My profession is extremely white. A recent study found that the ‘environment professions’ were 97% white British. The only profession less white was farming. I was shocked by this.
Why does this matter?
To take a current example, environmental protest movement Extinction Rebellion has been hugely successful at putting climate change and biodiversity loss into the front pages and raising it up the political agenda. It has also been criticised for being overwhelmingly white and middle class.
This lack of diversity has led to some tone deaf messaging and actions, such as one activist sending flowers and a thank you letter for their kind treatment by staff at a Brixton police station where Wayne Douglas, Ricky Bishop and Sean Rigg, all young black men, have died in custody. It has also been slow to engage in meaningful discussion with environmental justice organisations that have been campaigning on behalf of marginalised communities for a long time.
Also, through no fault of her own, the mainstream media has focused intensely on Greta Thunberg, the Swedish school girl activist who has reached near messianic status in the last year.
While Greta actively works alongside other school age activitists across the world, media coverage and enthusiastic social media attention from the general public on one white European singled out by the meida has served to overshadow the enormous role ‘the hidden figures of the climate movement.’ These hidden voices include working class people of colour and indigenous people who are at the front line of defending their communities from mining projects, oil pipelines and contamination of their water sources.
Indigenous people, while comprising just 5% of the world’s population, defend 80% of our wildlife and ecosystems.
The murder rate of environmental defenders — which includes many indigneous people —has doubled in the last 15 years to levels usually associated with war zones.
The people with the most to lose, who are literally being murdered for protecting their local environment are, at best, ignored and overshadowed by the majority of people working in the mainstream environmental movement. And this movement risks glossing over and leaving unchallenged the centuries of colonialist and capitalist oppression that underlie so many of our current environmental and social problems, in the interests of a swift transition to a low carbon economy.
My plea to existing leaders working in this industry, and indeed to all of us with power and privilege on account of our race, gender or class — make space. Give up your platform to people with people with diverse voices, to minority voices. It can be as simple as more carefully planning who you invite to a panel discussion, giving the person you manage a chance to chair a meeting, or ensuring quieter people’s opinions are heard.
Leaders need to make room for a new generation to rise up.
There are people out there with ideas that could become solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. But their voices are being drowned out. And that includes you, with all your imperfections and neuroses, your imposter syndrome, and your invaluable life experiences.
I’ll end with a quote which for me sums up the need for diverse leadership, by the great Audre Lorde.