Launched in July by Surabhi Jain and Saralyn Hodgkin, Women in Power is an “allyship leadership practice” that urges racialized and white women to turn away from polarization, turn toward discourse, and “stand in our power together” by sharing their lived experiences in the workplace.
When Surabhi Jain accepted a job offer as the executive director at a non-profit organization in Toronto, she was looking forward to the move. The city had a reputation for being “immigrant-focused,” she says, and initial visits didn’t disappoint. “One of the biggest reasons my husband and I chose to move here from the U.S. was because we loved hearing different accents on the street, and we didn’t have to say our name 10 times before people would get it.” More importantly, she says, “You could be who you wanted, and nobody was going to bat an eyelid.”
Jain assumed this would extend to the workplace. But after hearing story after story from racialized women about the challenges they faced, mostly in the form of microaggressions, Toronto’s sparkle began to fade. (Microaggressions are defined by the Micropedia of Microaggressions – a new tool developed by Zulu Alpha Kilo and a number of diversity and inclusion groups – as the “everyday snubs and insults that marginalized groups face.”)
Jain, who emigrated from India to the United States at the age of 19, decided to act. After nearly 15 years of experience in leadership positions at UnidosUS – a Latino-led and -serving civil rights and advocacy organization – she knew what the empowerment of racialized women unimpeded by racism could look like. Women in Power – a women-only “allyship leadership practice” Jain launched in July with leadership and executive coach Saralyn Hodgkin – invites women “to stand in our power together” through sharing the lived experiences of both racialized and white women. “Let’s talk about patriarchy, race, and gender in the workplace,” their website beckons. “Let’s do it in a way where we as women sit together with what’s uncomfortable. Where we turn away from polarization and turn towards discourse.”
Barriers to leadership multiply for women who face intersecting forms of discrimination, such as racism, colonialism, ableism, and homophobia.Canadian Women’s Foundation
If we could create a word cloud from the discourse taking place at the intersection of patriarchy, race, and gender in Canada’s non-profit-sector workplace these days, the results would be alarming: diversity deficit, gender wage gap, systemic anti-Blackness. Alarm bells ring loudest in the sector’s disproportionately male and white uppermost echelons – a paradox in a predominantly female workplace (nearly 80%) in a country where one in five people identify as racialized minorities (and more than half in Toronto). In a dearth of hard data, a 2021 Statistics Canada crowdsourcing initiative provides a glimpse of what’s out there: of the 6,170 board members who responded, only 11% identified as a visible minority.
When marking International Women’s Day this year, the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) reflected on its five-year sector-wide push for Decent Work for Women, noting progress has occurred “symbolically but not systemically.” The Canadian Women’s Foundation’s report Resetting Normal: Gender, Intersectionality and Leadership doesn’t mince words as to why this might be the case: “Common perceptions of leadership in Canada are rooted in colonial – that is white supremist, capitalist, and patriarchal – notions of power.” Furthermore, they note on their website, “Barriers to leadership multiply for women who face intersecting forms of discrimination, such as racism, colonialism, ableism, and homophobia.” From op-eds to reports to an infographic, evidence that a centuries-old system steeped in “isms” pervades the non-profit sector mounts.
This is the harsh reality of the ecosystem we’re operating in, and the price for operating in such a system can be steep: imposter syndrome, self-doubt, loss of confidence.Surabhi Jain, Women in Power
For Jain, a leadership program for women cannot begin without honest discussions rooted in this basic premise. This is the “harsh reality of the ecosystem we’re operating in,” she says. The price for operating in such a system can be steep: imposter syndrome, self-doubt, loss of confidence. Some find the stress so debilitating they take a health leave. Polarization isn’t helping matters. In a webinar introducing Women in Power, Hodgkin says that going off in separate camps to have safe conversations isn’t always useful. “I wanted a context where women weren’t holding shame all alone, and instead they were coming together to hear each other’s stories.” Systemic failings, she says, shouldn’t be viewed as personal failings.
When we shift our focus from anger to making sense of the systems causing that anger, transformation can begin, Jain says. “I finally let go of my dual identity – a white person in a brown body – and fully gave in to my brown person in a brown body with pepperings of white thinking,” she writes on a website where she shares her lived experiences. Giving in meant seeking allies on a similar path. What Jain found surprised her: leadership programs for women using “irksome” language, such as a Harvard Women in Leadership program that included “Communicating as a Woman” (body language, persuasive methods) in its curriculum. She found programs to teach white women how to check their bias and women of colour how to become stronger leaders (a.k.a., how to lead like a white person, she says). She found white women who wanted to provide support but didn’t know how and racialized women who saw white women as saboteurs and gatekeepers to upward mobility. Jain had a lightbulb moment: these women had more in common than they thought.
I wanted a context where women weren’t holding shame all alone, and instead they were coming together to hear each other’s stories. Systemic failings shouldn’t be viewed as personal failings.Saralyn Hodgkin, Women in Power
After conducting thousands of surveys and dozens of interviews, a U.S.-based Race to Lead report to “explore the racial leadership gap in the nonprofit sector” reached a similar conclusion. Women (all women) they conclude, face two barriers: less pay and less of a chance to hold an executive position, although, they add, “the sector places particular burdens on women of color.” An inability for women to rise as high as they should has little to do with “lack of will or skill,” they note. Even with master’s degrees or higher, racialized women are nearly 20% less likely to hold executive positions than equally educated racialized men.
What Women in Power proposes is simple: women need to talk. Sit down in this safe space and tell me your story. Tell me where you grew up and what you ate for dinner. Tell me your biases. Let us rise together against the real problem: “We’re fighting patriarchy,” Jain says, “and we’re fighting it alone.”
This kind of talk might bring out the bra-burning spirit in some of us, but Jain remains cool-headed. “I’m not sure this is a ‘revolutionary’ step,” she says, “but I do think it’s a step in the right direction.”
It is clear to me, more than ever, that we need another model of leadership.Sima Bahous, UN Women
Any step toward empowering women is a step in the right direction. Of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals – “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere” – achieving gender equity “would have a catalytic effect on achieving all other goals,” according to UN Women. In 2018, Canada’s Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development noted, “Despite progress over several decades, women in Canada remain under-represented in politics and leadership roles, earn less than men and experience high rates of harassment and gender-based violence.”
According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, things are only getting worse, with the “distance to parity” growing from 99.5 years in 2020 to 135.6 years in 2021. Recently, as she reflected on “years of progress erased” due to crises such as COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, Sima Bahous, executive director of UN Women, told the United Nations Security Council, “It is clear to me, more than ever, that we need another model of leadership.”
As we sit staring at each other on screens thousands of kilometres apart, one white woman and one brown, Jain gives me a taste of how new models of leadership might begin: “Let me tell you a story,” she says. Jain has lots of stories to tell. They begin several decades ago, in India, when she was nine years old and living on a cargo ship with her family. Her stories span the ports of the world – from Iran to Indonesia to Panama. She talks of pirates in Singapore, of pastries in Japan.
The more stories you can tell and hear makes you richer. And as you change your narrative, you become a better and stronger leader.Surabhi Jain
Jain was 19 when she moved from New Delhi to attend university in West Lafayette, Indiana, with a head full of the narratives she’d created. One was that “all white people were rich,” she says. “You never think of white people as being poor when you’re growing up in a place like India. You only think of America as a place of abundance.” When she began work as an intern at Economic Mobility Pathways in Boston and her supervisor shared her experiences of growing up with food stamps and a mother working multiple jobs to survive, Jain was shocked. Her story “really shaped my thinking,” she says. Jain understood that when working in a sector meant to help others, a generic story just won’t do the trick. “You cannot have tunnel vision,” she says. “The more stories you can tell and hear makes you richer. And as you change your narrative, you become a better and stronger leader.”
Thus began Jain’s journey of unlearning and relearning, of seeing story as a tool for decolonizing, for promoting equity and belonging. When she began working for UnidosUS, stories showed her parallels between the Latino and Indian communities. Story became a kind of gateway drug into community building and “uplifting each other,” she says. “Collective growth wasn’t just about an individual growing – it was really about everyone growing together.”
In this way, story fuels the power of the collective. Jain holds up The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America, a book riddled with sticky notes. She quotes author Deepa Purushothaman: “Creating more ways and places to share stories can change structures. By telling stories, we start to develop new frameworks. Sharing stories helps us see through the rules we have been taught and provides the awareness and foundation to change them.” Ultimately, this is the goal of Women in Power, she says: to create a community of “hyper awareness” to shift narratives, with allyship at its core.
Allyship means really understanding each other’s lived experiences and addressing your bias through that lived experience.Surabhi Jain
Allyship is having a moment, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. “At this tipping point in history, those of us who possess power and privilege are being called upon to act,” notes the Pillar Nonprofit Network on a full-page spread of tips and resources. The Anti-Oppression Network warns of well-meaning allies who might “recreate the same oppressions or perpetuate new ones” rather than “challenging larger oppressive power structures.”
For Jain, allyship means “really understanding each other’s lived experiences and addressing your bias through that lived experience.” Allyship also means doing your homework: “Do some inner work ahead of time,” she says. And this goes for everyone. If women of colour complain that white women are “gatekeepers,” she says, “then you need to understand their perspective as to why they’re a gatekeeper. You can’t see allyship as a one-way street.”
You can’t see Women in Power as a one-way street, either. “I don’t think I have all the answers to what I’m planning to do,” Jain says. She’s creating a platform, a practice, she says, not a program to teach people how to become allies. “My job is to create awareness. My job is not to make you change as a result of awareness. That is your job.”
There’s an opportunity here for the cohort to learn together and build relationships and build connections that might outlast the program.Kelli Stevens, Suncor Energy Foundation
For funders such as Suncor Energy Foundation, Women in Power could ultimately mean power for all, harbouring the potential for sector-wide application. “If you can fund groups to collaborate together, you’re hopefully giving the sector more power,” says Kelli Stevens, manager of community, investment, and social innovation. Not only does this align with the foundation’s strategy to support sector capacity, but Stevens also sees the bigger picture. There’s an opportunity here, she says, “for the cohort to learn together and build relationships and build connections that might outlast the program.”
In that sense, Women in Power may become the gift that won’t stop giving. “We don’t want to be extractive about it,” Stevens says, “but whatever learning we’re able to have gifted to us – it’s just as much, or more, of a gift back than a donation from us to them.”