Feminist leaders are forging sustainable places and economies

In February 2020, Sir Michael Marmot launched his review on Inequalities and Health saying that ten years of austerity in the UK had taken its toll on children and that women’s life expectancy had fallen for the first time in a century. Child poverty is at 17.5 per cent in the UK, worse than in Poland or Ireland. Teenagers are depressed because of political denial about climate change and suffering because the NHS has no money for mental health services. Young activists, including Greta Thunberg, are frustrated by international leaders who ignore the fact that the forests and planet are burning.  

Naomi Klein[1] has eloquently drawn attention to the connection between the global climate crisis, exploitative economic growth and inequalities, and that global corporate extraction and carbon emissions are melting the ice caps, warming the seas and causing fires, floods and extreme weather. This is a critical time for societies and the planet. Feminist economists have long criticized neoliberal economics and global companies for ignoring their impact on inequalities and poverty. Global companies such as BP, Google, Amazon etc. not only influence people’s preferences, political elections and steal personal data, they also avoid paying taxes.   

Women’s leadership has never been more significant. Gender equality matters because women feel the pain of poverty and it is their political and economic leadership which is critical to forging new pathways to sustainable economics. The Women’s Budget Group (WBG), an independent think-tank, is part of a global network of feminist economists growing in influence. Professor Diane Elson, chair of WBG’s commission on a gender-equal economy says that “Women are disproportionately affected … as a result of structural inequalities which means they earn less but also have more responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work…It doesn’t have to be like this. Our more positive vision for an alternative economy puts care and wellbeing of people and planet front and centre.”  

Economics is a men’s game and it has taken some years to deconstruct concepts such as GDP says Professor Diane CoyleWe cannot continue to base economic success on exploitative growth which is damaging communities and whole countries. Surprisingly, most economists now agree that measures such as GDP are too narrow and incapable of registering the social and environmental impact of the growth model. 

Populist leaders endorse growth and silence women leaders.

Unfortunately, in larger countries there is a crisis in political leadership and a complacency about the planet amongst populist leaders in the UK, USA, Russia, Australia, and India. These men view the world through a narcissistic lens and seem to have formed a dangerous club of authoritarian leaders. They dislike the educated and anyone with the negotiation skills they lack. They are at war with progressive women – who Johnson calls ‘girly swots’. He, like many in Westminster, values words rather than deeds and delights in ridiculing women. The UK, which once led in gender equality, is now run by politicians totally ignorant of the connections between gender equality, capabilities and the economy. 

Women and men do bring different perspectives to politics, innovation and business – even male journalists are commenting on the negative impact of male cultures in business and in politics. Few deny that all-male boards are undesirable because they are too comfortable checking figures rather than looking at consequences and scrutinizing plans. All male teams also lead to narrow solutions. It is in technologies where clever young men with little experience determine what is ‘innovation’. The lack of women in AI, robotics and innovation is leading to inappropriate solutions to, for instance, ‘social care’ which calls for social innovation, not geeks who view humans as robots and spend time working out how to humanize robots. The civil service may need outsiders to kick-start innovation in Whitehall, but Dominic Cummings is hardly tackling male dominance in innovation. 

Scale matters: small country leadership 

By contrast, a few progressive political leaders, mostly women and feminists, are challenging the growth model and reasserting the fact that economic success is dependent on developing people, wellbeing and the environment. It is in small countries such as in New Zealand, Finland and Iceland where the public have voted for feminist and transformative politicians. Jacinda Ardern, NZ PM, introduced a ‘wellbeing budget’. Billed as the first in the world, it allocated millions to child poverty and narrowing the inequality gap. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the New Zealand economy will grow by 2.9 per cent next year because of this. Finland also has a new woman PM who is focused on free childcare and children’s welfare to benefit men and women. Iceland is an interesting country which has had many women leaders and is the size of a UK city. As a country, every person matters because the population is so small, but it also demonstrates that socially inclusive economic strategies are possible when led by leaders who are creative and broker connections between energy strategies and investment in social infrastructure. 

City leadership and transformation

National politicians may believe that they hold the levers to change, but it is community and city leaders who are re-energizing local democracy. Increasingly, many radical local leaders are feminists, elected as mayors because of their commitment to local democracy and transforming local administrations. It is in the cities where inspiring women such as Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, are forging new settlements between citizens and the state.  

Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona since 2015. Credit: Pressenza

There is also a confidence in social and economic alternatives in smaller cities in the UK as well as in core cities like Manchester and Birmingham, all of which are developing new models for the local economy and embracing the social economy. For instance:

  • Preston Council (Labour) – inspired by Spanish cooperative networks – are collaborating with CLES (Centre for Local Economic Strategies) for more systemic change in procurement to move wealth around the larger area of Preston.   
  • Leader and former Chief Executive of Wigan Council (Labour), Donna Hall faced a £16 million funding gap, instead of making cuts they brokered a New Deal with the community and transformed care. Within three years the costs of looked-after children in Wigan had reduced by 13 per cent[2]
  • Plymouth Council (Labour) leader Tudor Evans declared Plymouth a Social Enterprise City, in 2018. 150 social enterprises employ 7000 workers generating an income of £500 million (2018) in Plymouth. 

Mayors and local leaders are increasingly valuing the social economy because of its role in local resilience, wellbeing and, importantly, its reach into poorer areas. 

A Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) report The Cities, social economy and Inclusive Growth finds that the social economy:

  • Promotes inclusive growth by creating jobs, strengthening skills and employability; diversifying local economies, contributing to the wider economy and institutional transformation.
  • Requires an enabling context or ‘ecosystem’ that supports collaboration. 
  • In cities, the sector employed 800K people (2005)[3].  

What tends to be ignored, even by the JRF, is the role that women place in the social economy:

  • 66 per cent of staff and volunteers are women[4]
  • Across the country many women lead social enterprise infrastructure models such as RIO (Real Ideas Organisation) in Plymouth or TAWS (The Active Wellbeing Society) in Birmingham.
  • Analysis of the social economy is weak so women’s leadership in the sector is hidden.

Women have been leading public service transformation in the UK for some years and many have been appointed to deal with crises that male colleagues sought to avoid[5]. Women such as Jo Miller in Doncaster, Carole Hassan in Trafford, Irene Lucas in Sunderland all led radical public service transformation. Previously, local councils, when in crises, tended to appoint women chief officers to solve the crises. Karyn McCluskey supported by the Chief Constable, reduced knife crime in Glasgow by bravely leading peace negotiations between victims, gangs, professional services and the police. 


Feminist economists are challenging the growth model and the free market, devising an economics which supports social, environmental and economic resilience. Feminists working across boundaries to develop measures that capture social connectivity, social resilience and wellbeing are also providing the first steps to a socialized economy.   

Scale matters, where politicians are close to communities, they can see the connections between social networks and the economy. Devolved governments and decision-making makes sense when local leaders work across sectors to devise locally appropriate industrial and economic strategies. 

Importantly, economics and political reform is not only a matter of theory: economic reform is being set in train by women leaders transforming public administrations as the Mayors of Barcelona and Madrid are doing. In the UK, city and town leaders are forging new ways of involving local people in new settlements and socialised models of enterprise. Any progressive future for places and economies will be shaped by women and the politics of feminism.  

Su Maddock is Visiting Professor in Knowledge Exchange and Public Leadership, UWE, Bristol, Hon Fellow, Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, The University of Manchester, and Chair of Buckfastleigh Wellbeing Hub and Ashburton Arts Centre. 

[1]  See Klein, N, (2014), This changes Everything, Penguin, and Klein, N, (2019), On Fire: The burning cade for a green new deal, Random House Penguin

[2] Centre for Local Economic Strategies, (2017), New Start Magazine

[3] Annual Survey of Small Business UK, 2005-2007

[4] Fotheringham, S and Saunders, C, (2014) ‘Social enterprise as poverty reducing strategy for women’ in Social Enterprise Journal, Vol. 10 Iss:3, pp.176 – 199

[5] Maddock, S, (2009), ‘Gender still matters and impacts on public value, innovation and the public reform process’ in Public Policy and Admin 24(2) pp 137-148 and Maddock, S, (1999), Challenging Women; gender, innovation and change, Sage:London

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