Influencing Change: The Role of Radical Collaboration in Women’s Empowerment
Interview with Professor Linda Scott, DP World Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, on the power of collaboration in the fight for gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment.
[Editor’s Note: I first connected with Professor Scott through my online engagement and advocacy for women’s economic empowerment — recently inviting her to lend her own voice to the Global Girls Project and share her perspective on the important role collaboration plays in both women’s leadership and empowerment.
A leading author, authority and voice for gender equality, women’s economic empowerment, and entrepreneurship, Professor Scott’s innovative and collaborative approach has enabled her to forge key partnerships that have resulted in meaningful and impactful change — addressing key development issues ranging from access to sanitary care to mobile technology, while advancing economic opportunities for women worldwide.]
(Sharon): In a panel discussion you participated in earlier this year, you spoke of ‘radical collaboration’ as a route to empowerment of women worldwide. What does collaboration mean to you and why is it important to women’s empowerment?
(Professor Scott): The subordination of females is a global problem. Disempowering gender norms are enforced and perpetuated by every social institution — business, government, education, church, family, in a community — and so must be confronted in a multi-fronted, but concerted, effort. To get both the scale and complexity needed, it is usually best to enlist partners with complementary abilities. For me, a collaborative approach has allowed me to have more impact; to “be” more places at once.
(Sharon): You also talked about identifying potential collaborators not only for similarities, but for complementary strengths, too. Can you expand on this?
(Professor Scott): I often work with teams that include a global NGO and a multinational corporation. The NGO usually brings the ability to be present and active on the ground, along with local knowledge and credibility. Importantly, the NGO is also usually able to speak, through their own global level team, to the other collaborators. Being able to move back and forth from a global and local perspective is usually needed. The multinationals may bring any number of other strengths. They may provide technological support, material supplies, logistical capability, funds or fund-raising ability, media savvy or reach, and even products or services to sell. My team brings the knowledge and experience to execute the information collection that allows diagnosis of problems or systemic improvements — or simply assessment of impact. As a practical matter, we are sometimes also the ones helping to set up an intervention. Normally, the way this all works is that the collaborators are selected according to the needs identified by the project, which usually means each partner will bring something unique. The “similarity” required is that everyone must be committed to the ultimate goal of the project. I also have learned that the individuals in a project bring their own resources, skills, and networks to bear on the work — these contributions are often unexpected and invaluable.
(Sharon): When it comes to global collaboration, how can women bridge cultural differences to work effectively together?
(Professor Scott): Honestly, I have not had problems dealing with other women that I would attribute to cultural barriers. Women often bond over shared gender experiences, even when they come from different parts of the world. I have come to count on that. For instance, I remember when we first went into Ghana to do the work on sanitary pads, we were warned often that we would be stepping on toes because the topic was taboo in that culture. Well, of course, menstruation is a taboo topic everywhere on the planet. But it is also something women everywhere share. So, what we actually found was that if we got the women in a village together in a private space and broached the subject, a few minutes of embarrassment would quickly turn turn into a wry and raucous sharing of complaints and embarrassing moments. Every woman had a funnier story to tell than the last. This ritual often forged a bond with the research team, not only because we had our own funny stories, but because we would all then turn passionately to the objective: helping the next generation to have a better experience. We never had any trouble getting other women to pitch in.
(Sharon): In your own career and through your role at the Saïd School at Oxford, you’ve collaborated with hundreds of individuals and organizations to advance social change across the world, including your collaboration with Vodafone and Accenture to explore how mobile technology can support women’s economic and social empowerment. In your experience, what are the key elements for successful collaboration?
(Professor Scott): Without question, the most important ingredient is shared commitment to the objective. The second most important is patience. The most remarkable collaboration I ever observed was the joint effort between Procter & Gamble’s Pampers team and UNICEF to combat maternal/neonatal tetanus. These two institutions are not only vastly different in primary purpose, but are also organized very differently, with one highly centralized and the other comprised of a loose federation of local offices. It was hard to align these structures. Both organizations also have the reputation, within their own respective domains, of being difficult to work with. Each has their own way and neither is known for compromise. So the first year or two of this partnership was extremely difficult for all involved. The key to the ultimate success of the effort was the personal commitment on the part of the individuals on both sides to make it work. Each was dedicated to beating the threat posed by tetanus in childbirth — a problem that haunts the world’s most disadvantaged populations. Every time an obstacle appeared, these folks took a breath, leaned in, and got it done. It was very impressive.
(Sharon): While collaborating with others enables us to leverage strengths and more efficiently scale a project for impact, there is a certain degree of vulnerability that comes with reaching out and entrusting our ideas to others. For women struggling to empower themselves, giving up a sense of autonomy and ‘control’ by collaborating with others can be particularly tricky. How have you navigated the risks associated with collaboration in your own career?
(Professor Scott): I only work with people I feel good about. I literally insist on meeting potential collaborators face-to-face, something that is sometimes seen as unnecessary these days, in order to get a sense for what they are like as people. I also listen to my intuition when I meet someone and, if I feel good about them, I mentally note to remember to bring them into a project later. There has been at least one situation in which I met someone and felt such a strong positive “vibe” from them that I really took a big risk on an immediate project—it was a tall test of my reliance on this “gut” feeling. I was a bit scared, but it worked out brilliantly; one of the best collaborations I have ever had. So I rely on my sense of who a person is, whether I think they are intelligent and trustworthy. This is not a scientific way to do it, nor always politically acceptable to other colleagues. But I feel that it has allowed me to surround myself with people who are good to work with, and with whom I generally enjoy spending time, which is important. I hesitate to suggest this approach to others, not because I think I have some special skill, but because it seems risky. In any case, that is how I do it.
(Sharon): What steps can women take to build trust and respect with others – both of which are essential to productive collaborations?
(Professor Scott): It’s important to speak your truth, perhaps softy, but clearly and consistently. Integrity — which is, essentially, being true to yourself — is what wins respect. I think women are too often inclined to go along with others, to subvert their true beliefs to the interests of people they think are more powerful. I think that can end up in situations where you are not committed to what you are doing and are behaving in an inauthentic way. This is what loses respect.
(Sharon): In a recent Global Girls Project interview with George Ingram at Brookings Institution, I asked him if he felt we have made substantial progress in the fight for gender equality and women’s empowerment, or if we are in fact, further behind and moving backwards, as some have suggested. Where do you stand on this issue?
(Professor Scott): I agree that we are NOT moving backwards. We are not making the strides we would like to make in the developed world and that stasis needs to be dealt with. But, especially from a global perspective, we are standing on top of the most important shift in women’s power ever in history. And it is only beginning. I really believe that. There will be history written about this moment, just as there were histories written about the First and Second Waves.
(Sharon): What advice would you give to other women and girls who are learning to come into their own voice and leadership?
(Professor Scott): Again, the most important thing is to speak your truth and to commit only to projects that are in your own authentic path. It is not easy to do, especially when you have not yet established yourself, but in the long run I think it is the only way to realize your best self, and is absolutely the only way to lead. That said, when you are leading others, you must be sure to make it possible for them to speak their truth and to take care of their best interests and well-being. True leadership is not taken, but won. The reciprocity of the arrangement is that you look after those who have given you permission to lead them.