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Women’s Peer Support and Leadership

Why leadership is important for women

Women’s leadership is a unique property of women-only spaces and an important component in women’s groups, women’s services and women’s programmes. Women are traditionally under-represented in leadership roles, especially those with status and power. Women make up just 32% of Members of Parliament, with only 4 of these being Black women. In 2018 it was noted that just 29% of boards of FTSE 100 companies included women. Recognising and nurturing women’s leadership capabilities and skills is a key feature of women-only spaces and and a crucial aspect of the creative resistance to patriarchal authority structures.

Women are often held to a gendered double standard with regard their leadership – they are expected to be caring, nurturing leaders while male leaders are supposed to be task-oriented, assertive and driven by competition and finances. Creating a space where women can find leadership positions outside of these gender norms and binaries plays an important role in nurturing women’s leadership and is a vital part of empowering women.

In society, when women transgress the rules about women’s leadership roles, there is sharp backlash. Spaces where women can try out different styles of leadership and receive informal and formal feedback from their peers in a safe environment are essential for their developing confidence in their own abilities.

Women tell us that that they feel instinctively safer in spaces led by women, where women are visible in the leadership and decision-making. Providing spaces for women’s leadership to grow in status promotes long-term healing and achievement alongside immediate trust and safety outcomes.

Because of the importance of women’s leadership, this was a key outcome in the Women Side by Side programme. Peer support has the potential to develop leadership skills within the peer supporters in a supportive and non-threatening way. Using trauma-informed empowerment techniques, the groups can encourage the women participating to take on leadership roles in a way that is appropriate to them and their lived experience.

Moreover, women are leading all the time – in families, in book groups, in churches and community settings. Seeing their skills replicated and roles modelled by other women in a more professional setting can be inspiring and encourage women to take on leadership positions in spaces that they might not otherwise have had the confidence to do so. However, there are many barriers and different perceptions of what leadership is, and often women do not recognise the qualities they have within themselves.

Women see other women negatively impacted by their leadership roles. In the media, especially social media, it is common for a woman to receive abuse and derision because of her sex and gender identity. This reinforces women’s own internal thoughts and doubts about seeing themselves as ‘in charge’. Ensuring that there is space to understand and challenge these negative associations about women’s leadership can help women to understand that they are already leaders with responsibilities who are day-to-day role models for others in their networks.

During the Women Side by Side programme, many projects created safe spaces for women to develop their leadership skills at a pace and in a style appropriate to them, meaning that over 1100 women were able to take up leadership opportunities during the lifetime of the programme.

How to nurture women’s leadership skills

When women first attended the Women Side by Side projects, many felt vulnerable due to poor mental health or issues such as domestic abuse or homelessness. This meant that they needed time and space to develop their confidence and to feel safe in the group. Peer support groups encouraged these women to identify times in their lives when they supported others. The programme found that there are three main fears or narratives that prevent women from developing this awareness of their innate qualities of leadership: 

  • “I’m not safe.”
  • “I’m alone.”
  • “I’m invisible.”

 Women who experience these feelings will need more time to develop their leadership skills because they need to build relationship and trust with group leaders as well as their peers. As the leader of one Women Side by Side project explained:

“In the 10 months since we opened, we’ve been delighted by the response and engagement that we’re building with this highly vulnerable group. Women tell us they have gained more structure, met new people, gained confidence, improved their wellbeing, and stopped feeling isolated.”

These are essential foundations that need to be established before building leadership capacities of women can take place. Given that the Women Side by Side programme funded projects for 12 months, developing leadership also takes time and can only occur when women feel safe, feel connected and have established trusting relationships in their groups. Once this has happened, leadership skills can be harnessed for the benefit of the women as well as the organisations of which they are part.

This happened to many women who took part in Women Side by Side, as explained by one project leader:

“In terms of leadership roles, a member was involved with
the recruitment of sessional staff for the project and took part in a local radio interview. Another member is taking the lead on the planning and implementation of gardening activities that members told us they would like to do. 9 members have contributed to the steering group so far in terms of promoting shared decision-making about the development of the project.”

Starting a conversation with women about leadership

As explained in the previous section, many marginalised women who attend a peer support group may have no idea about their own leadership skills. Only when women feel connected, develop trusting relationships with their peers, and feel safe in the group can the discussion around leadership begin. The first step is to recognise that some women will take longer than others to tackle this topic, depending on their history and individual circumstances.

When the group is ready to discuss leadership, it is important that the emphasis is on lived experience and not just on group facilitation or management. We should aim to reframe ideas around leadership, challenge any negative stereotypes and give the women the opportunity to redefine leadership themselves. It can be useful to begin by sharing our own experiences of different types of leadership, reflecting on our own role models or women who have had a positive influence on our lives. Exploring ideas about leadership in a non-judgemental, inclusive way allows us to see that we are all leaders of our own lives.

Group Exercise: Leadership Questions to Discuss

  1. What women have inspired you and why?
  2. What qualities do they have? Do you see them as leaders?
  3. What does leadership mean to you?
  4. When have you been in a position of leadership?

This exercise can be done with a whiteboard and stickies/post-it notes, and as either a whole group exercise or smaller group activity for deeper discussions. It can also be useful to ask women to share their favourite quotes about leadership or show videos of women giving talks about leadership.

How to help your peer support group recognise leadership qualities

It is important that leadership discussions are built into peer support sessions rather than being a ’one off’ or standalone activity. By sharing examples and hearing women’s life experiences, we can facilitate opportunities for them to try out what they have learned, reflect, and then feedback at future sessions. In this way, women develop their own learning and leadership skills in all areas of their lives. Another way to encourage this is to facilitate an activity for the group, so that women have a practical, ‘hands on’ experience which is then followed up in discussion.

Women Side by Side projects developed various group activities to support leadership development. Three of the most popular were as follows:

Exercise 1:  Building the highest tower you can as a group using only marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti.

Exercise 2: Moving a pile of objects from one end of the room to the other in as few trips as possible.

Exercise 3: Passing a balloon from one end of the room to the other without using your hands. (This can easily be adapted to any setting, using a variety of equipment, depending on what you have available.)

Lyndsey from the Alpha Mare project writes about her experience carrying out a group activity

In the Alpha Mare project, we used an experiential learning activity with horses to help women identify their leaderships skills and qualities. As a preface to the activity, we learned about the different roles that horses play in a herd. For example, the stallion is usually the protector, the mares nurture their young, the Alpha Mare is the navigator who leads them to food and water, etc. This gave them some vocabulary to describe the different and equally valid roles that people might play in a group.

They were given an objective: work as a group to get a horse to walk over one pole on the ground. They were also given boundaries: the only rules are that you must keep yourself safe at all times and you cannot touch the horse. Working through the experiential learning cycle, we gave the women time to plan, discuss, try out and evaluate various approaches. These included some successful behaviours such as delegation, collaboration, use of assertive body language and clear vocal commands, as well as some less successful behaviours like begging, pleading, complaining, temporarily giving up and even attempting to bribe the horse with food.

At strategic points, the facilitators called a time out to process the experience with the group.

Avoiding judgement, they asked questions such as:

  • What happened?
  • What worked/didn’t work?
  • Who played which role in the group?
  • How did you communicate effectively?
  • What skills or qualities have you noticed in other people?
  • Was there one leader or more than one? Did the leader change as the activity unfolded?
  • How did you support one another?
  • What have you noticed about yourself that has surprised you?
  • What will you try next time?
  • What have you learned today that you can take away and use elsewhere?

Why reflection matters in the context of leadership

Opportunities to reflect are an essential ingredient of high quality peer support. These opportunities should incorporate putting our thoughts and reflections into practice to enact lasting change, and they can be built into experiential - or ‘hands on’ - learning activities.

One way of looking at this process of reflection, review, and improvement is described in a model by American education theorist David Kolb and his colleague Ron Fry, called the Experiential Learning Model (ELM). This is often referred to as ‘Kolb’s learning cycle’.

The knowledge retention rate for traditional learning is only 5%, whereas the retention rate from experiential learning can be as much as 90%. Experiential learning has the power to change behaviour, engage people and impact organisations for the long-term.

This learning happens after we reflect on what we did before, how that worked out and what we will do next. Learning occurs in a continuous loop of reflection. Reflection is like looking in a mirror but, instead of trying to see your face, what you try to see is your experience in order to identify what to do in the future. Sometimes it is best if you can do it with others so you can ask for feedback. Sometimes outsiders can see more clearly than you do.

Begin with concrete questions that ask people to describe what happened and how do they feel so that they can evaluate the positives. They may want to repeat the positives as well as the negatives which they would try to avoid to improve the next time.

You can use the experiential learning cycle in fun activities within your group to help members to develop transferable problem-solving skills and self-awareness that will benefit all areas of their lives. You might suggest following these steps:

  • Describe what happened
  • Explain how you feel
  • Evaluate the positive and negatives
  • Analyse the reasons
  • Conclude what you learned from the experience
  • Plan what you will do next time

Prompts and questions can help us to focus our thinking and direct our attention to those areas where reflection can pay the highest dividends.

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