Holding new power – Reflections as a new Chief Executive

People who have worked closely with me over the past 10 years know about my slight… obsession… with power: how we hold it, how we challenge it, how it manifests and most importantly how we shift it. Since I took on the Chief Executive role with Women in Prison in July, this has been very much at the forefront of my mind.

Taking a role as Chief Executive is taking a hugely responsible, important, position of power. Part of my drive to take this position was to try to help me to understand, and model, what holding positional power looks, feels and acts like from a feminist leadership perspective.

Three months into the role, I don’t have all the answers, but what I do have is a lot of learning, reflections and a million questions. I had the huge privilege of talking to a group of feminist leaders about this (thank you to We Are Feminist Leaders), which helped me to reflect further about what this could mean for me in this new role.

I thought it would be useful to share some of my thoughts, reflections and learning, which centre around women in contact with the criminal justice system; frontline staff; organisational power; systems change and collective action.

Women in contact with the criminal justice system

Women in Prison’s driving force is to prevent the harm of prisons for women, their families and communities, and to promote and model alternative models of justice. So many women caught up in the system are there because of the impact of structural inequality and social injustice such as poverty. A wonderful woman who accesses our services told me that if she had had the mental health support she had been crying out for in her community, she believed she would not have ended up in prison.

This is not a new narrative, nor just one woman’s experience. The women we work with hold less power in society, continue to be marginalised and excluded from the systems that are meant to serve us, and are criminalised because we have let them down as a society – it is morally unjust. The question I am asking myself with the positional power I have is: how do we shift power to women so that their voices are heard, their demands are met and they can influence the systems that oppress so many of us?

Frontline staff

Being new to both the criminal justice sector and the women’s rights sector in the UK, I am overwhelmed with awe at the role of frontline staff. The trauma they might have experienced in their own lives being played back to them and magnified by the women who they are meeting every day. The compassion, kindness, persistence, and empathy required to do frontline roles is extraordinary. Women in Prison’s frontline staff do an incredible job under extremely tough circumstances.

As professional spaces and organisations we have a duty to support our frontline staff and to enable them to thrive. And while those of us with more positional power are trying to fight the good fight in formal meetings with terribly important people, what does this and should this mean for our frontline workers? They hold incredible knowledge of the ways in which our systems are broken, and are confronted with this every day. How do we share power in organisations and in our ways of working so that their expertise and knowledge is valued, heard, and supported?

Organisational power

Learning about how to be a CEO has been a fascinating learning curve. I have so much to learn, some things I intellectually anticipated but had no idea of what the reality would look and feel like, and some things have struck me full force. For example, having a Trustee Board and not a boss - hierarchy already feels different. Some of the questions I have been asking myself are:

  • What does a feminist board feel and look like, and should we be having different types of conversations about what a feminist board means to us?
  • What does that mean when we have systems of governance that we must adhere to and comply with?
  • How do we hold our power in that space to encourage inclusivity, accountability, and feminist principles?

I definitely still have all the questions and not many of the answers 3 months in, but I hope that I can reflect back on those questions in 3 years and be able to share some answers!

Despite being a women’s organisation, patriarchy is still in our bones because society is within us all. It is too easy to fall into heroic leadership models, having the answers, giving the answers, making all the decisions – especially being new to post. I constantly question myself about whether the oft quoted need for ‘quick wins’ in a new CEO position fits with a feminist leadership approach and if I have taken enough time to listen.

Systems Change

One of the things I most love about Women in Prison is that systems change is what we are all about. We have these wonderful opportunities of frontline work, working directly with women for whom the system must change, the access to some of the decision makers to challenge the system and the partners, allies and collaborators to develop and share messaging. Here I refer to the wisdom of many of my peers I have been so fortunate to meet in my first months here. In different words the advice has been ‘take it slowly, things haven’t changed that much, it will take time, don’t get frustrated but keep challenging the system’.

It’s so clear to so many of us what the problems are with the system and what needs to change, but we also know that change takes time, political will, public will, and collective action.

Collective Action

It’s perhaps an obvious point as it’s a given in feminist action. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. I’ve been so welcomed by other organisations, by alliances, by collectives, by coalitions – all, at their heart, trying to achieve similar change with different approaches, nuances and focus. I’m too early into my role to have any real insights on what all this means – only that I am glad that they are there and that they exist. My main question is how to ensure inclusivity of women with lived experience and our frontline staff in collective action?

As I reflect on my first three months in post and think about what is next, a question that I keep coming back to is how do we, as an organisation and….I say more hesitantly as there will be organisations doing this really well…as a sector, genuinely promote the voices of women with lived experience of the criminal justice system and responsibly use our power to shift it and seamlessly link the work we do to the influence that we want to have and the change that we want to see.