Women’s role in decision-making: Lessons from Captain Marvel

Superhero movies attract increasing attention from viewers of all ages. Recent ones such as Black Panther triggered discussions on current societal challenges. The most recent example is that of Captain Marvel – the first movie of the Avengers series with a female protagonist. Although the female heroes are not entirely missing from other movies of the series, here, the movie’s focal character is Captain Marvel and how she discovers her power, her role in the war, and her new-found responsibility to save the world (as with any other superhero of course).

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But how are we doing in the real world when it comes to real-life Captain Marvels?

In the movie, Captain Marvel is abducted after an accident. Her unique powers were hidden from her and trapped to be used only for the benefit of her captors. The real-life Captain Marvels seem to be underutilized globally, firstly within the labour force, but even more so, as leaders in strategic positions; their true potential is locked too. A study published in 2018 by Catalyst looked at women in the C-suite (executive positions CEO, CFO, COO, etc.) in Standard and Poor 500 companies. It paints a dismal picture for Captain Marvels, or in other words female game-changers, globally. Women in these companies are just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs; not only an extremely low share but a decrease from 2017. Women hold only 10% of top management positions in 1500 S&P companies, and 19% of overall board seats. The potential of women is locked behind historical norms, perceptions and background.

Unleashing the power of the real-life Captain Marvels can provide new sources of powers and strengths in the global fight against the world’s problems. Unique and innovative solutions in these problems require multiple perspectives in decision making which can be sourced, among others, from gender inclusivity. An example of this is provided by Prof Catherine Mitchell from the University of Exeter, who discusses how low gender diversity in the past has made the energy industry less open to new ideas, and maybe even more reluctant move to lower-carbon energy systems, and even slowing down the energy transition. Captain Marvel is rebuked by her trainers and fellow soldiers for allowing her emotions to guide her decision-making process. She only realises her full potential when she understands that her approach to leadership is not wrong, it is just different.

Does this mean that the real-life Captain Marvels have to fight against everyone they meet? In the last battle, Yon-Rogg tempts her to fight against him but she refuses. Captain Marvel argues that she has nothing to prove to anyone. That is a message to real-life Captain Marvels, that even though the current leaders will prompt you to fight and lose your energy, you should be assertive about contribution and loyalty to the common goal of moving towards a better future – it is not about who is going to achieve it.

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Captain Marvel teaches us the value of a good team – a key concept in leadership. Are Captain Marvels completely independent? What assistance do real Captain Marvels have or what are the potential catalysts for change? One of the greatest challenges of the society is how to reach, inspire and prepare young, future Captain Marvels.

This can be done by promoting strong role models through mentoring and by speaking to something very important for young female professionals – their pride. We do not want to be chosen because we are women ONLY, but we do not want to be rejected because of that either. Initiatives, such as Future Africa, and the Africa Science Leadership Programme, that promote a polyphony in decision-making, nurtures a variety of approaches in leadership, and that enable gender inclusivity are necessary for future change.

And as Captain Marvel promises at the end of the movie, women in decision-making, have the potential to make a difference towards a sustainable future for the planet.

 

Bricked in by the walls of patriarchy

By Prof Srila Roy is an associate professor of sociology at Wits

The story of fighting sexual harassment in the university tends to be a story of failure. It is a story of trying to address complaints, giving voice to victims, changing the institutional culture — and of being met with walls and silences.

As feminist Sara Ahmed has repeatedly reminded us, walls come up from the moment a student or staff member tries to complain and stay up well after their complaint is registered. (In 2016 Ahmed resigned from Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest against the institution’s failure to address sexual harassment of students.)

Walls are at work, even in the rare cases of termination of employment on the grounds of sexual harassment, because confidentiality and non-disclosure clauses mean that perpetrators cannot be named.  They are, in fact, free to go and seek employment elsewhere, in what has been called the “pass the harasser” phenomenon.

What would it mean to tell a different story of tackling sexual harassment on campus? A story of institutional resources and commitment; of independent offices to deal with complaints alone, to counsel and care; and of feminist leadership?

A story where it would be obvious that intervention must mean the transformation of entire institutional cultures and not merely of individuals (through discipline and punishment)? Where, through measures such as advocacy, counselling, gender training and the creation of safe spaces, the silence of sexual violence could be made speakable? Where the effects of such speech would be concrete, material and transformative — formal dismissals, not just quiet resignations?

This could indeed be a story of feminist success. But feminist success is invariably its failure.

For, in the garnering of actual institutional capacity and power lies the undoing of feminist resistance and its promise of an alternative future.

We often hear of the threat of co-option, of feminist forces being co-opted by a range of structures, from the state to the market. Think, for instance, of how the slogan “Girl Power” adorns T-shirts made by underpaid precarious female workers — usually girls — of the Global South. Co-option has become so pervasive in our times that it becomes difficult to discern feminist from nonfeminist politics in the mainstream — everyone from a Hillary Clinton to a Beyoncé is, after all, now a feminist.

Universities, too, co-opt sexual harassment work for various agendas and ends.

Professor Alison Phipps of Sussex University describes how the neoliberal university uses campaigns run by students about sexual violence to draw in other students to enhance the university’s own attractiveness.

Unlike previous historical conjunctures, ours is one in which universities cannot ignore the “problem” of sexual harassment in their midst. They must learn to “manage” it through, for instance, what Phipps calls “institutional airbrushing”, in ways that ultimately serve to preserve the reputation of the institution at the cost of victims.

But when feminist sexual harassment work becomes too successful — when it doesn’t merely chip away at walls but begins to shake the foundations on which those walls rest — it is not simply co-opted, it is undone.

The same mechanisms of investigation that served to establish the university as a champion of sexual harassment work are now deemed as putting the university “at risk”; victims’ voices are replaced by those of perpetrators who speak, unchallenged, of injustice, wrongdoing, unfairness; new procedures emerge overnight whereas existing procedures are erased; external expertise is called upon when, throughout, internal expertise and voluntary labour has run successful institutional work; whisper networks emerge to instil uncertainty where there was once confidence, to undo the building of trust and to dismantle safe spaces.

Eventually, individuals are “redistributed”, or let go of. These are the feminist troublemakers; they are the killjoys of institutional life, who were originally brought in to chip at the walls of the institution but not to take it down. When they act in other ways — consistently in favour of victims — they become “rogue feminists”. Their detractors label them as “unprofessional”, as shooting from the hip, and not working within a rule-of-law framework. Complainants are left wondering why their words did not count for those making these kinds of assessments.

What, might you ask, transforms co-option into the active undoing of feminist work? The evidence comes from various quarters with the same implication: it is all right to challenge sexual harassment, bullying, even rape, when it occurs among students or between junior staff and students. Senior management, star professors, are another matter altogether — letting them go is too costly, too difficult when it comes to fragile egos and male entitlement, and too threatening for the boys’ club they are part of and whose interests they represent. When their position and privilege are challenged, it is as if the rogue feminists are taking over.

Another contributing factor is the expansion of the category of “sexual harassment” and the material effects of such expansion. In expanding to include, for instance, gender-based bullying, we move away from spectacular forms of violence against women — rape — to the everyday acts of sexism and aggression that constitute the bedrock of patriarchy.

As sexual harassment redressal work reaches deeper into the behaviours, cultures and psyches of the workings of patriarchal power, a panic ensues. In an act of undoing (not just co-option), the panic transforms victimology from being at the hands of sexual predators into the hands of rogue feminists.

It is the killjoys and rogue feminists that we are now warned against, not male perpetrators of injury and not institutionalised sexism or patriarchal power. It is no longer sexual harassment that places the institution at risk but the impulse of transformation and the effort to stop it.

The institution acts swiftly: it exiles the firebrand. Much like how it individualises the systemic nature of sexual violence, it shifts its own accountability on to a singular person, the feminist leader-turned-rogue. It appoints in her place someone whom it knows will work within walls, in the belief that such walls can be chipped away at, but not broken or rebuilt.

Now that the feminist rogue has gone, all procedural inconsistencies, all forms of “risk” and accountability (or lack thereof) can be attributed to her, and the project of co-option can resume. The university can be lauded for yet another successful measure in the fight against sexual harassment.

Such success is not just feminism’s failure, but its undoing.

This article was first published by the Mail & Guardian.