Do you need to stand on a podium to bring about change?

At Oxfam we say that women’s rights are at the heart of all we do, but what does this mean for someone stuck behind a computer screen? Catherine Meredith explains how the gender leadership programme is helping Oxfam staff to promote gender justice at home and abroad.


A couple of years ago our office in Asia realised that staff needed to boost their understanding of gender justice and leadership, in order to promote women’s rights with confidence and authority – not just within Oxfam but externally too. 

Taking the part of a young woman who was illiterate and also a second wife I stayed at the back of the roomAnd so the gender leadership programme was born, a course which enabled staff to gain confidence in addressing gender issues in the workplace and with their managers. As Sarah Ireland explains: “Many have spoken at forums and meetings and inspired others, some have seen dynamics and relationships change within their families and some have gone on to get jobs outside Oxfam – a measure of leadership
success.”

Building on this achievement Oxfam set up a similar scheme in the UK, and I had the privilege to attend. The two-day course covered stereotypes in our society, as well as global gender inequalities and Oxfam’s work on women’s rights

I learnt about the concept of intersectionality, by which multiple factors impact on an individual’s identity. This included an insightful ‘power walk’ exercise where participants stood in a line and each person was given a character to play. We then responded to a series of statements about our personal freedom by stepping forward if we could do something or standing still if we couldn’t. Gender and other factors including marital status, health,
age and wealth
all contributed to the degree of independence each person had, such as being able to leave the house alone, accessing education and being financially independent. Taking the part of a young woman who was illiterate and also a second wife I stayed at the back of the room, while a young man with only a basic education was much further ahead.

Challenging and disturbing the status quo

The feminist activist and researcher Srilatha Batliwa said “For every great feminist leader we can think of from anywhere in the world, past and present has one thing in common: she led by challenging and disturbing the status quo.” Anyone has it in them to lead change.  

During the second half of the programme we discussed individual projects to develop our personal gender leadership. These included challenging a local youth group to consider why only boys were attending, speaking to Oxfam campaigns groups about gender equality, and a Christian colleague speaking to her Church youth group about biblical equality.

One participant challenged her grandparents to reconsider their understanding of feminism, asking why they are suspicious of the term feminist if they are supportive of equal opportunities for their granddaughter. Others were empowered to speak to their colleagues about inappropriate ‘banter’ in the work place, yet another went on to replicate the ‘power walk’ exercise among logistical staff in our Bicester warehouse. Some women decided to collaborate on gender training presentations for their teams, demonstrating what they described as a more
female style of leadership.

It was inspiring to realise that I can bring about change without needing to stand on a podium.

Although I believe in gender equality and bringing an end to injustice I had never felt that I could personally make much of a difference. It was inspiring to realise that I can bring about change without needing to stand on a podium. Since attending the programme I’ve found myself talking about it with friends I never would have thought would be interested, and being more vocal about inequality. For example, why do women still bear the brunt of the caring responsibilities in the UK often to the detriment of their careers? And why is only 1 out of 5 Members of
Parliament a woman?

According to UN Women, women perform 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of the food, yet they only earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the property. 

As part of the course, participants deepened their understanding of Oxfam’s approach to gender justice. This involves gender mainstreaming to ensure that all our work incorporates the promotion of gender equality, and innovative global programmes which have women’s empowerment as their main aim. Our Raising Her Voice programme helped enable poor women activists in 17 countries to network, campaign, and change laws, while our Innovations in Care research aims to find solutions to the challenge of providing effective household care whilst also ensuring women’s rights and enabling their economic empowerment.

Oxfam can’t begin to make head way as part of the global movement for gender justice unless all our staff are fully on board with the message. We all need to stand for equality both in work and out This is why staff awareness raising through schemes like the gender leadership programme is so important, for Oxfam and for any agency committed to women’s rights.  In fact it’s important for anyone who believes in a world in which men and women can fulfil their potential. 

So what about you, could you also be a leader for gender justice?

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Author: Catherine Meredith
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.