What I learned about management working for a feminist NGO
Updated: Mar 17
Landing a job as a data analyst in the violence against women sector was an absolute dream come true for me. I started volunteering at the National Violence Against Women Helpline when I went to uni and knew right away that working towards ending violence against women was what I wanted to do with my life. Starting a job that meant I could combine this passion with my nerdy statistics skills in London, the city of my dreams, was almost too good to be true.
Working there I met some of my closest friends, I learned how a feminist organisation is run and I took so much inspiration from the brilliant women I worked with, which guide a lot of my decisions today.
So for this blog, I thought I start a little series called "What I learned about ... working for a feminist NGO" and today it starts with *management*.
Just to burst the bubble right away, working in a feminist NGO doesn't automatically mean that every management style is about empowering and supporting other women.
Unfortunately, the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector in the UK suffers immensely from competitive tendering, which means that the government is pitting service providers against each other in an effort to reduce the costs of funding. That means that services are stretched to their limits, trying to manage insane work loads with minimal staff. Such competitive tendering can sometimes lead to feminist organisations being run in a corporate way instead of based on the feminist values they were founded on.
But while working in the VAWG sector often means a lot of work, pressure and high expectations for little money in return, it also means that the women, you'll find there are extremely passionate about their work. They are in this sector because they want to end all forms of violence against women. For them it's never just a job.
Having said that, management in a feminist organisation - like every other organisation or company - is always influenced by a diverse set of our previous experiences, intersecting characteristics and expectations. It's never "just" about feminist values, often times it's not even about that at all. Or it is about white feminist values, that block out any feminist perspectives that differ from white women's experiences.
I had different managers during my two years in the organisation and there is one, who I admire as a friend, as a researcher, as a feminist and as a manager. She is who I'm going to be talking about today because everything I know about feminist management is what I learned from how she managed me.
Feminist management is about...
Listening. What made this management relationship so special was that she always listened to my needs, my ideas and my concerns. I felt like I could come to her with any kind of problem, which means that nothing ever became unbearable. Even in the most stressful of situations, she always had an open ear and a great new perspective on things. Being able to talk about any concerns during a weekly check in or ranting over a pint after work in the pub, to me is actually the core of feminist management because it centered us as people and not work machines, who need to deliver output at any cost.
Empowering. A feminist manager knows the strengths and weaknesses of the women they manage. My manager knew exactly what I was good at and would give me tasks that played into that. She also knew what I was terrible at (public speaking) and created lots of opportunities for me to work on that. In the end I was able to speak at conferences and lead workshops. And even though I still sweat through all layers of clothing and have to wee 98 times in the 30 minutes before my speech I always end up proud with the result and I know I can thank her for that. No other manager ever took the time to find out what my specific skill set looks like. Not only is that not the feminist way, it is also a massive disadvantage to a team, which would benefit from everyone's diverse skills being nurtured and able to contribute to the collective goal.
Teaching. My manager taught me not only about the ins and outs of research but also about feminist history and how the VAWG sector in the UK works. She always put our work within the context of the sector, which means taking into account that what would seem most important to us from an evaluation perspective, is not actually that important for someone running a VAWG service and dealing with crisis situations. Her approach to seeing the bigger picture and putting yourself into other women's shoes is another important aspect of feminist management. A lot of this she taught me by leading with example, so watching her work was a big source of inspiration for me.
All in all, feminist management is about enabling your co-worker to show up as a whole person, not just a member of staff, who is there to deliver work at all costs. It's what makes an organisation or business sustainable because work shouldn't drain the life out of you.