My personal and professional journey as a feminist

Woman washes her hands at a handwashing station
Shukri, a mother and small business owner, washes her hands at a handwashing station at Wajaale Market on the border between Ethiopia and Somaliland. The station was provided by ActionAid Somaliland. (Credit: ActionAid, Natasha Mulder)

Editor’s Note: This blog is part of our “Equity in Disasters” series. The series, which focuses primarily on racial equity and justice issues, also explores how these intersect with other kinds of marginalization and the ways that historical and systemic discrimination create an uneven playing field for recovery.

I want to share something that not many people know about me. It’s not exactly a secret, and those close to me probably already know, but many might be surprised when I tell them. Especially if they read about it online first.

But I figured I would use the month of March to come out of the closet and tell everyone, officially. I don’t know what my parents will say. My mum will probably smile and say something like “That’s good, son, I always knew” and give me a hug showing her unconditional love. Mothers always know. It’s not a big deal nowadays, and many people self-identify as such so I’m just going to come out and say it: I am a feminist!

My journey to feminism

I guess I’ve always been a feminist. I just didn’t always know what I was feeling and thinking, but the signs were always there. Now, I know that many of you will be asking, “What does he mean when he says he is a feminist?”

I know there are a lot of different types of feminism: mainstream, liberal, radical, cultural, Marxist/socialist, post-modern, etc. I will share what feminism means to me, and why I self-identify as a feminist.

I had my first big moment in high school history class one Friday afternoon. We learned the stunning fact that women in the U.K. did not attain their right to vote until 1918! It was 1995, and I was 15 years old, but this discovery figuratively blew my mind and sent my head spinning. I couldn’t stop thinking: “So, in this century, less than 100 years ago, women and men had different rights?”

Until that point, my experiences led me to believe that we were all to be treated equally, respected equally, listened to equally, loved equally and feared equally.

As if that wasn’t enough, I subsequently learned that at the turn of the 20th century, women were generally considered mad for speaking out in public. They were frequently ridiculed, silenced, even handcuffed and taken away by police to a lunatic asylum or jail. I was outraged! My disbelief and outrage at our recent past led me to choose history as one of the subjects I’d specialize in, primarily so I could research more thoroughly and write a dissertation on the women’s suffrage movement in the U.K. I was the first and only boy in 100 years of my school’s history to write about women’s suffrage, and, eventually, universal suffrage and equality.

I think this was when I first became a feminist, even though I didn’t consider myself one. To me, feminists were political, radical changemakers burning bras and chaining themselves to railings outside Parliament to bring attention to the women’s suffrage movement. I wish I knew that what I was doing at 16 was also considered feminism, and quite daring and controversial as a 16-year-old boy in a traditional Catholic school in the West of Scotland.

I saw my mother raise two kids on her own; her strength, resilience and capacity for unconditional love during those years and ever since have also contributed to me being a feminist.

Fast forward to university. During my final year as an accounting major, I took “Developments in Financial Accounting” class taught by a very well-known academic who wrote many papers that applied feminist philosophies to the world as we understand (or account for) it.

I learned about different feminist philosophers and philosophies: radical, liberal, socialist, post-modern. We critiqued the patriarchal world we live in by applying these various feminist lenses, and it opened my eyes to the world. In studying Marxist or socialist feminism, we considered how capitalism by nature creates winners and losers, and men often set themselves up to be the winners in the equation by suppressing women.

I wrote an essay that explored how men were lawyers and doctors while women were clerks and nurses. The male-dominated accounting profession took the cue: They split their work and created a new position, bookkeeper, which involved the less skilled aspects of the job. They gave these jobs to women, thus creating a power imbalance and elevating men and the accounting profession at the expense of women.

We learned about the “triple bottom line,” which was all the hype at the time. In the U.K., companies only had to legally report profit and loss and balance sheets (economic bottom line), which was how an organization’s performance and impact were measured – in money and numbers.

But what about the social and environmental impacts (the other two bottom lines)? Those were considered less important – the kind of “soft” things women would be concerned about. And even if we did care, how do we measure these social and environmental impacts? Numbers – the existing, patriarchal way that society always had to attach value to something.

After a big controversial oil spill, a bunch of developmental accountants went out to a coastal low-middle-income country. They spoke to the fishermen and women who lost their livelihoods and the older adults who got sick. They documented stories from the individual and community perspectives, including the spill’s impacts on the environment and wildlife and the importance of respecting and maintaining the Indigenous lands with which the community had co-existed for millennia.

But the media didn’t cover these stories and accounts. Mainstream news focused on how many barrels of oil were spilled, the loss of revenue and profit to the oil company and the settlement figure agreed to as “adequate” compensation with the governments of those countries affected.

How feminism informs my work today

Fast forward to today. How do my feminist values show up in my life today?

First, I believe whole-heartedly in human rights, primarily that all human beings are born free and equal and should be treated the same way. I don’t know if this was ever taught to me. I was the only five-year-old who said he wanted to be a lawyer when asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” What my younger self meant was I wanted to fight against injustice. From my first thoughts on these issues till now, the basic, fundamental values that drive me, impassion me, define me, and that sit at the very core of my being, are “equality” and “justice.”

I consider myself a feminist because I strongly believe in equal rights for all genders and gender justice (including non-binary). But more than that, I consider myself a feminist in that I believe in equality and justice for all humans, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, age, nationality, immigration, socioeconomic status and other identity someone may consider themselves to be. So, if you believe in human rights, you are also (like me) a feminist.

Systems and institutions perpetuate inequities and marginalization for specific populations. For most of my career in the humanitarian field, I have witnessed the sad reality that disasters exacerbate these inequities and affect people disproportionately, including women and girls. Women and girls also experience various other forms of inequities, which often operate together and exacerbate each other, with each additional element increasing levels of vulnerability and risk. This is also known as intersectional inequity.

I consider myself fortunate: I get to go to work every day for an organization with amazingly talented people who are so driven by the principles of racial and intersectional equity, that it touches everything we do and how we do it. You should check out our Equity in Disasters series for more information.

In my role, I analyze and search for where those inequities exist, before, during and after disasters. I find and partner with the organizations working directly with disproportionately affected populations to support community-driven solutions to address those impacts.

One such group is the Feminist Humanitarian Network, a diverse range of grassroots, local and national women’s rights organizations committed to redressing the power inequalities within the humanitarian system. We have supported the great work that their members do worldwide, and we took the opportunity on International Women’s Day to continue this partnership by issuing another grant to women’s rights organizations on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response in the Global South, particularly in complex humanitarian emergency context countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Venezuela.

We know that measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic have further aggravated the pre-existing inequities faced by women, eroding their economic gains and opportunities and limiting their access to health care. The funding will enable and empower them to make the most contextually appropriate decisions on how best to respond to the impacts on public health and livelihoods of women and other systemically marginalized groups in their communities.

The findings from their projects will be used by the network to strengthen the agency and amplify the voices of women in emergencies. Feminist and women’s rights organizations know their contexts and constituencies. They are best placed to support programs and advocacy that address the root causes of gender inequality, particularly the stubborn and deep-seeded discriminatory social norms that value men over women and people of diverse sexual orientations, expressions and identities.

Feminist agency includes principles of autonomy, choice, empowerment and meaningful engagement. I’ve always believed in these principles and applied them to my work, not simply because they are the right thing to do, but because these principles ensure that decision-making power is in the hands of those closest to the issue. They are best informed to make the decisions, so the best decisions are more likely to be made. It has always seemed obvious to me.

I have always believed in these principles simply because they result in greater efficiency and effectiveness, and better outcomes than a traditional top-down management structure and approach.

I was also an early adopter and active global advocate on increasing the use of cash in emergencies. Cash, instead of goods and services, gives affected populations agency and offers them the flexibility and dignity to make decisions for themselves and choose how to cover their needs. Here was my feminism in action, yet again, without me realizing it.

When applying a feminist lens to the analysis of power in the humanitarian system, we shine the light on patriarchy, which is a system of power that maintains the unequal division of power (and privilege) between men and women, white and people of color, Global North and Global South, east and west, colonizers and those (historically) colonized, across the globe.

This, along with various other factors, has resulted in calls for reform of the largely top-down humanitarian system, localization and, more recently, the decolonization of aid. The idea of decolonizing aid can take many forms in action. Fundamentally, decolonization means decision-making and resources are in the hands of the people directly affected by aid and development programs. This can be considered a feminist approach to the structure and flow of aid, and to me it’s also the most sensible, I have always been a massive supporter of investing in local humanitarian leadership. I have prioritized resources for, designed and run workshops and simulations at country levels worldwide, partnering with local leaders in their leadership development. I have been on the faculty of the Humanitarian Leadership Program, which supports and promotes this work globally, for seven years.

It’s the end of Women’s History Month. I wrote this blog to pause and reflect on what this month means to me. I consider gender in my work almost automatically and by default these days. Since the day I learned about the existence of gender inequality in high school, there has been some but limited progress, and women’s rights around the world are still largely unmet. Furthermore, while funding for gender equality has been rising over the last decade, only one percent of that funding has reached women’s organizations. So I invite all funders to join me and, whether you choose to self-identify as one or not, be a feminist by making three simple commitments:

  1. Support women-led and women-serving organizations with long-term flexible funding.
  2. Partner with organizations that consider gender dynamics and apply a gender lens or analysis in their programs.
  3. Support local grassroots organizations and local humanitarian leadership, where possible. Partner only with national and international organizations that prioritize local actors, local leaders and local solutions.
Alex Gray

Alex Gray

Director, International Funds