Emma Gleeson examines the potential of a non-patriarchal workplace…
Ireland’s first Public Bank Holiday celebrating a woman will occur on St. Brigit’s day next year. Herstory.ie and others have campaigned for years for this to happen, for Brigit to be honoured fully as the co-Patron Saint of Ireland, along with St Patrick and St Columcille (who knew we had three?!).
The final push may have been prompted by the need for a pandemic reward and the decision makers may not exactly have had feminism at the forefront of their minds but it’s still a great opportunity to do some rebalancing of the masculine and feminine energies on our island. As many of us are stretched to the point of breaking under our current modes of working, could this rebalancing be extended to how we do business? In an ideal world, yes, but within the claws of our relentlessly masculine work culture this is far easier said than done.
Before we go any further, we need to talk about language. The words masculine and feminine do not mean “men and women”. It is not about pitting us against each other. In fact it’s about way more than gender. It is about recognising that masculine and feminine energies exist in all of us, and for the full health of ourselves and our societies they need to coexist in harmony. Patriarchy, another loaded term, has meant that feminine impulses such as intuitive thinking, reflective thinking, collaborative work, care-giving and rest are valued differently to more masculine ways of operating.
For most of recorded human history the masculine impulses to exert dominance with strict hierarchies, impulsive action and purely rational thinking have been held up as the most valuable ways to run our societies. Building a more liveable world free from artificial masculine dominance is more than large practical achievements like equal pay and getting more women in seats of power; It is about subtler and possibly harder changes in how we view ourselves, how we think about gender and how we organise society.
The Matriarchal Business founder Clarinda Braun uses the feminine sensibilities of her Samoan and Fijjian families to coach others in how to build businesses that are not hierarchical or reliant on restrictive power dynamics and that are connected to the communities in which they exist. It’s surely sad proof of how internalised masculine structures are within me that I find it hard to even imagine what Braun actually means by this.
It seems that many are struggling to imagine what a non-patriarchal way of doing business might actually be. I have a background in theatre and many companies in that space are non-hierarchical and deeply collaborative but I struggled to find examples for this piece of other types of businesses operating non-hierarchically. Some attempts have been made to develop “matriarchal” modes of working but I fear they miss the mark and simply use a buzzword to mask the more complex work that is needed to create change. For example, take a recent New Yorker profile of fashion brand Eileen Fisher and their “woman-friendly” ethos. Fluffy words like happiness, wellbeing, feminine energy, collaboration, and care are bandied about by executives interviewed for the piece but it’s never clear how this supposed utopia of feminine energy is cultivated apart from sitting in a circle at meetings. Human design expert Elisa Canali claims to run a successful company while “napping like a cat” in the afternoons by adequately identifying and balancing her masculine and feminine energies but I imagine that idea will make anyone who is a parent want to spit fire. She also says “remember, chilling out is a business strategy”, which, again, may induce rage in those of us constantly stretched beyond our limits with no end in sight.
The best example I can find is activist and writer Rachel Cargle who emphasises rest as an essential part of her business and gives her team extended winter breaks. She follows legendary writer Audre Lorde who believed that self care was essential for those engaged in activism and particularly for people of colour.
What do we actually want? More flexible working hours, more genuine soundness to parents instead of grudging accommodations, genuinely looking after each person’s well-being beyond a few lunchtime yoga classes, and actually looking at workload. Basically, being a bit more human. But we also have to keep the show on the road and that’s where the assertiveness and action of the masculine comes in.
What is needed is not a Matriarchal society which places feminine impulses above the masculine – and from my research I found that most so-called “matriarchal” societies across the world should in fact be more accurately described as matrilineal, which means that kinship is traced through the female line. These societies still largely place men in the positions of ultimate power. The most radical change would come from allowing both masculine and feminine energies to be equally valuable, as they are for many indigenous communities.
In ancient Ireland, Brigit was not a kindly Christian nun with a magic cloak but a powerful Goddess, as respected and honoured as any of her male counterparts.
As we celebrate her next February it might be time to celebrate our intuition, our caregiving, our ability to collaborate and build community, and our right to rest. A festival a rest to celebrate and uplift the feminine? I’ll see you there.