The crisis of 2020 was about far more than a virus. It was a change in how we lived and how we perceived the world around us. We became scared of something we couldn't see, and this fear left us feeling powerless. Many of us suddenly had to work from home, meet via Zoom and stay away from loved ones.
And this uncertainty is lingering, as recently demonstrated by the outbreak in NSW. There is no end in sight until our vaccination rate is high enough, and the shifting timeframes for that make it difficult to retain hope for even the most optimistic of us.
This uncertainty and lack of control over our lives contributed to higher rates of mental health distress in 2020, and led to one of the worst years for domestic violence on Australian record, given domestic violence is an expression of control of one person over another.
As we moved out of the immediate crisis phase, we all heard talk of the "new normal". But so far much of that has focused on superficial aspects of our society. Something that needs to be part of this social redefinition is a new concept of what power is. And that is something we can control.
Our society's current model of power, whether in the workplace or at home, is heavily based on individual success and goal attainment. At work we're encouraged to compete to climb the hierarchy to achieve power; at home, traditional gender roles, earning capacity and age often determine who has power and who doesn't.
To make it worse, our culture frames power as something to have over people, not something to be used to bring others up with us. It tells us that to have power we must be more assertive, seek authority over others and hide any vulnerabilities. We must push others down so we can succeed. The less in control we feel, and the more control we want, the worse the impact on those "below" us.
This patriarchal power structure fails not only women and non-binary people, but also most men and people of minority groups - basically anyone not considered the "norm".
Feminists have long been fighting for a different model of leadership and power, favouring approaches that are more focused on sharing, consensus and flexibility, to harness a range of skills and create a positive outcome for the collective. These approaches frame power and leadership around our values and relationships, not a hierarchy with subordinates.
Contrast this with the more traditional and patriarchal example of Donald Trump, who was more concerned about retaining his position of power than caring for his constituents. Not only did nearly half a million US citizens die of COVID-19 in the final year of Trump's presidency, but the country became more divided on the lines of political beliefs, race, religion and gender, as he chose to lay blame instead of use the opportunity to harness the best of the US for the benefit of the whole country.
At YWCA Canberra, we challenge Western society's traditional concept of what power is. Instead, we see power - whether at work, in the community or at home - as the capacity to transform and empower oneself and others.
Power isn't a one-size-fits all situation. We can each define our individual power based on what is meaningful to us, and contribute based on our own skills and values.
Although reimagining something so ingrained in our society as power structures isn't easy, we are at a point in our history where we have an opportunity to change the frame. To acknowledge that we all have capacity for leadership and power, and we can use that power together to accomplish great things.
We are exploring this concept further in our upcoming She Leads Conference, with the theme "Power: have it, own it, challenge it". We believe these are each important parts of our leadership journeys, whether they be in the home, the community or the workplace.
By changing the power dynamics to a more inclusive model, we will not only create a better world for women, but provide spaces for all marginalised peoples to stand up and thrive within our community.
- Frances Crimmins is chief executive of YWCA Canberra.