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).


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.


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.


On Gender Dimensions of Education, Communication and Ethical Leadership

By Dr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian, PhD

Over the last few years as a member of SAYAS and a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg I’ve had the opportunity to branch out and contribute as an Education for Justice Champion for the United Nations, where I am also a consultant faculty member of their Leadership, Women and the UN Program. Among my various responsibilities, I’ve been involved in creating partnerships between the United Nations and education/academia to explore how various communication paradigms can impact and enrich ethical leadership and in particular its gender dimensions. In the course of this, I have been helping develop, roll out and conduct the impact assessment study of a tertiary level curriculum called Education for Justice. What has stood out from my findings and what intrigues me particularly as a woman with a complex ethico-cultural background is that relational or what I like to call mutualistic paradigms of communication are best suited to help promote ethical leadership and governance, empower women and raise integrity in the sciences and in many other fields and institutions.

My point of departure for this is the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda, in light of which equality, ethics and integrity are thought to require a foundational outlook that is world-embracing. The assumption is that we cannot foster these values nor the institutions that support them, if, as individuals, communities and societies we are focused only on our own interests or the interests of our closest group of peers. Sustainable, ethical governance that is inclusive and diverse requires looking towards the good of other individuals, communities and societies. It requires a broader outlook and other-regard. Through programs such as Education for Justice, we are able to widen the sense of responsibility and identification participants have towards others. Our pre- and post-survey data evidences an expanded sense of relationality that goes from smaller, more insular understandings to ever-expanding notions of solidarity with the human family at large. In providing content that exposes participants to meaningful explorations around values and lawfulness, we can see foundation-building for peace, justice and strong institutions and a nuanced and richly-textured global identity that empowers women and fosters equality.

But it is not just through the content of curricula that we can achieve the above. My research shows that deliberative, collaborative approaches to communication are key. Through the participatory methodology, we find in programs such as Education for Justice, participants can actively engage in co-studying and co-shaping curricula together with lecturers and scientists who act as facilitators. This paradigm draws from feminism, from theories of the global South – particularly Ubuntu – and from the Baha’i notion of consultation. It empowers individuals and in particularly women/girls as well as those, whose voices are routinely marginalized, and it does so by democratising communication and leadership. By democratization, I do not mean established Western liberal notions of competition that pit ideas and interests against each other in mutually exclusive ways. Contrarily, those approaches demean, exclude and amplify those who are already privileged by the established discourse. It is another, gentler and more inclusive form of democracy that is created through relational communication strategies. This transcends partisan approaches and allows lesser-heard perspectives to enter the discourse, to complement and enrich others in a process that is mutually reinforcing and empowering.

Beyond the content and methodology we pursue in delivering curricula, what is also important is our intention and emphasis. From my personal observations as both a facilitator of the Education for Justice program and someone who regularly accompanies others in facilitating these modules, it has become clear that we can only create spaces for equality and ethical leadership when we cultivate possibility and optimism. In other words, while it is important to outline, understand and unpack issues such as inequality or corruption, it is even more important to spend time on providing possible solutions for promoting equality, ethics, integrity and good governance. The emphasis must be on equality and good governance, with anti-discrimination or anti-corruption as sub-goals. In particular, it is also helpful and empowering to offer or explore tangible actions and steps that can be taken for both women and men to tackle the various challenges that exist in achieving equality and ethical governance. This helps activate hope and mobilize action among all.

Going forward there are many opportunities for partnerships that could enhance the above endeavours. I’m thinking particularly of grassroots community projects that are gaining momentum all over the world, both in rural and urban contexts. In these settings, youth and junior youth engage in community-building and development that is self-driven. There are examples of groups all over South Africa, for example, but also in Europe, where I currently consult. In Vienna, for instance, there is a group that has formed around a district with a great number of refugees. Youth from various ethnic and religious backgrounds get together to create bonds of friendship, engage in sports, arts and the study of meaningful, empowering texts. They also introduce a spiritual dimension, which is powerful and empowering as it transcends sectarian and gender divides and focuses on what people have in common, namely the desire to lead good lives and to serve their fellow humans. I think these sites of experimentation are rife with opportunity and should be exploited together with the more formal work that is done in academia and through the United Nations.



LeylaDr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian is a senior research fellow at the University of Johannesburg and a consultant for UNSSC, where she is a faculty member of the Leadership, Women and the UN program. Her areas of expertise include media, communication, leadership, ethics, education, development and governance. Leyla regularly lectures and keynotes at international fora such as TEDx, The US State Department, NATO Building Integrity and the UNSSC/University of Stellenbosch Business School MBA program in Managing International Organizations and continues to produce television content for Persian Baha’i media services. She serves on the editorial board of an international communication journal and is a member of the South African Communication Association as well as the Young Academy of Science. Leyla is also a South African Women in Science Awards nominee.  Social Media handles: @/lavidaleyla