Elizabeth Racine joined ITF in January 2021 as part of her Masters in Disaster, Adaptation and Development at King’s College London. Elizabeth worked with ITF staff to study the impact of gender on leadership for her dissertation and has kindly summarized her findings for us.
As a graduate student at King’s College, I was intrigued by how forest communities utilize trees for their livelihoods while also preserving the vital ecosystem around them. ITF provided me with the opportunity to study gender and forest community research through my dissertation study, Impact of gender on leadership styles, goals and priorities in rural communities of the Irangi Forest, Kenya.
Gender is a hot debate across the world these days. In rural communities, there is a lot to learn on how women and men work differently, including how they manage resources, prioritize goals for the community, and preserve the environment. My work focused on learning more about these topics in terms of the Irangi Forest community in Kenya.
Members of this community depend heavily on forest resources for their livelihoods, and community groups see high levels of participation from both men and women. With the help of ITF’s Teresa Gitonga and Korir Moses, we studied how gender influences leadership styles, goals and priorities.
Interviews were conducted with men and women who had previously completed ITF’s gender-integration workshop. During these interviews, we discussed topics such as individual goals for the community, strengths and weaknesses of men and women leaders, and life changes that influence leadership styles such as parenthood.
This study found that men and women have different priorities as leaders. Specifically, women focus more on empowering members of the community and helping individuals while men focus more on the logistics of group goals, such as tree growth, and monetary gain for the group. Women showed more prioritization on how the environment can help individuals while men looked at more large-scale environmental goals. This finding emphasizes the value of women’s participation in community groups and leadership roles. By placing women in leadership roles, the entire group will benefit from her focus on encouraging others, improving individual livelihoods and preserving the environment on an individual level.
“By placing women in leadership roles, the entire group will benefit.“
Despite these different goals, the study also found that men and women are more similar than different as leaders, suggesting that gender has little impact on leadership styles of those involved in forest communities. Men and women both prioritize traits such as honesty, trust and teamwork when leading or looking up to a leader. There are many possible factors that could be influencing this similarity.
First, men and women interviewed expressed a feeling of confidence in their ability to socialize with the opposite gender, suggesting that mixed-gender socialization causes gender to be less relevant at a leadership level over time. Second, the study found that becoming a parent influenced leadership styles of men and women. Participants said having children made them more patient and nurturing in and outside of the community group settings. Third, it is possible that women in the forest groups modelled their leadership styles after men therefore bridging the divide between genders. However, more research is needed in this area.
This finding suggests that women are less impacted by traditionally masculine environments, such as community leadership groups, and shows a positive change in women’s confidence going into leadership roles.
Lastly, this study looked at the influence men have on women’s leadership style and found that men have little influence over how women carry themselves as leaders. All women participants felt respected by members in the group and other leaders, and the majority of women did not feel the need to behave differently around men. This finding surprised me as it contradicts many studies that emphasize the influence of a patriarchal society silencing women’s voices.
The importance of empowering rural women
Results from this study show the importance of empowering rural women in leadership roles and throughout the community. By promoting women’s participation, individuals will benefit from their focus on encouraging others and utilizing the environment to improve livelihoods. Additionally, women’s confidence in their leadership roles will positively impact the future of other women looking to lead. They will see it as attainable and enjoyable, thus contributing to a trend of women leaders.
Further work should prioritize empowering women at a community level with the help of both genders, as men play a key role in removing obstacles from women’s participation. This structure can be seen in ITF’s programs across Kenya.
Carrying out this study with ITF revealed the positive influence ITF’s team is having throughout forest communities. The community-participation framework they use empowers men and women in leadership positions and provides opportunities to contribute to the overall preservation of the environment. Additionally, findings of this study show the positive impact ITF is having in communities going through gender training. Women and men working with ITF are more aware of the challenges facing each other and better prepared to work together to help their communities.