Categories
Activism & Action

Time to Power Up

Arezoo Najibzadeh, Co-founder, Young Women’s Leadership Network. Photo by Natalie Dolan

Arezoo Najibzadeh was only 23 when she was asked to share her insights before a Status of Women Committee investigating why women continue to be under-represented at all levels of government, despite increased participation. Even at that young age, the co-founder of the Young Women’s Leadership Network (YWLN) had been involved in politics for nearly a decade, and she kept hearing the same question, “Why aren’t women getting involved in politics?” But during that meeting, she realized the question should be, “Why aren’t women staying in politics?”

The committee’s final report offered a few answers: bullying, harassment, discrimination, biased media treatment, and lower rates of campaign funding.

“I’ve always been one to stand up and ask a question that makes everybody gasp,” says Najibzadeh, who says she experienced everything from sexist comments to sexual assault while working with various political parties. Now 24, she says YWLN offers the kind of help she wished she had then. “It would’ve made a huge impact on my life if I had it when I was 18 or 19, what I’m now providing for other people.”

The non-profit helps women and non-binary folks learn how to effectively engage as civic leaders in their communities and develop the political skills and support they need to compete—as well as reverse these grim statistics: The 2019 Canadian federal election saw more women elected to Parliament than ever before (98 in total), yet women still make up only 29 percent of federal members of Parliament. There are no women premiers in Canada and only one-fifth of Canadian mayors are women.

Ultimately, YWLN tries to help find answers to this question: what does it really take for us to put our names forward on a ballot or lead within our community? Its approach to doing so is anti-oppressive, intersectional, trans-inclusive, and feminist. Programs are free and open to everyone, while facilitators and speakers are paid for their time.

Young Women Leadership Network (YWLN) group photo by Ricky Pang

YWLN’s programming includes Framing Our Future workshops and events, which have included high-profile speakers such as former MPs Olivia Chow and Celina Caesar-Chavannes; and Chai Chats, which are more intimate conversations designed to provide community care for Black, Indigenous, and racialized women, and non-binary leaders.

In one Chai Chat session, climate-justice activist and community organizer Diana Yoon, who is Korean, queer, and a renter in Toronto, addressed questions like this: What does it look like when folks have to make difficult choices like quitting your job or taking unpaid leave to run for office when you don’t have a financial safety net? How do these different aspects of identity influence how you are treated when you become a candidate?

Riham Abu Affan discovered YWLN when she wanted to learn about policy-making and the Canadian political system but in a community group she could relate to. After seeing photos of YWLN’s events and reading the mission statement, Abu Affan says it felt like a space for her. In other professional and social settings, she says she unconsciously “dilutes” aspects of her identity—she is Sudanese and Moroccan, grew up in the United Arab Emirates before immigrating to Canada—but YWLN workshops and events became places she could go “as I am and still be able to follow a mission and work toward the cause.”

The first event Abu Affan attended didn’t have an immediately obvious connection to the political system—digital security—but it’s a pressing concern for women in leadership. Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne faced virulent sexist and homophobic online comments while former Alberta premier Rachel Notley was the target of insulting tweets and even death threats. Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said in the Status of Women Report, “Any woman who has political aspirations that spends 10 minutes on Twitter following their female mentors may be simply afraid to run.”

YWLN wanted to address that fear by arming participants with the tools they need to protect themselves online. At the Digital Security 101 workshop, Digital Justice Lab director, Nasma Ahmed, taught Abu Affan how to protect her IP address while using a proxy server, how to turn off location settings, and how to keep passwords secure. “It’s nice to have an organization that caters to the things that we’re shy of saying we need,” says Abu Affan who, a year after joining, at the age of 22, found herself leading marketing and social media for a digital health startup in Toronto. She says YWLN played a significant role in helping her develop the confidence and leadership skills to take on that role.

To support intersectional women and non-binary individuals, YWLN developed an advisory council comprised of 11 active members who bring insight from diverse identities, experiences, and communities that YWLN is trying to engage in its work. Najibzadeh says it also enables different communities to “share ownership of the organization.”

At YWLN events, Abu Affan says she meets and hears perspectives from people of different backgrounds and gender orientations, a degree of diversity she hasn’t experienced in her other professional and academic spaces. “When we see the impact we [young women leaders] can make when we show up as we are, a ‘default mode’ I guess, you feel unstoppable,” says Abu Affan.

Through this group, Najibzadeh discovered the importance of developing relationships and trust with existing community leaders. “It’s a lot of learning and unlearning as we move forward,” she says.

Research is also a critical component of YWLN’s work. One study in 2018—“It’s Time: Addressing Sexual Violence in Civic Institutions”—surveyed 60 women politicians in Ontario and found that 80 percent of them either decreased their involvement or left politics altogether because of sexual violence they experienced.

YWLN provides a “direct line” survivors can call to speak to someone who understands the political spaces individuals need to navigate, whether as a campaign volunteer, staffer, or politician. To date, YWLN has offered around 120 survivors more than 250 hours of active listening and support. Najibzadeh says when she speaks to these women, sometimes their situation is so familiar that she’s able to complete their sentences.

It’s the importance of that work that keeps Najibzadeh going. She co-founded YWLN in 2017 (with Yasmin Rajabi who has since left the organization) and, after leaving Ryerson University in 2018, moved in with her parents so she could work on it full-time without pay. “It’s hard,” she says, but, “This is my livelihood, it’s something that is crucial.”

Initially, YWLN was funded by a two-year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and, in 2018, received additional support from the Laidlaw Foundation, as well as in-kind resources from other organizations. With that funding now ending, YWLN, which is based out of Toronto’s Make Lemonade women’s co-working space, is looking for funding to support current programming as well as new programming with a greater focus on promoting community and supporting BIPOC leaders through Chai Chats in Toronto and Ottawa as well as addressing other under-reported barriers to political inclusion. Figuring out how to make the organization financially sustainable is key. “It’s hard to find people that want to put their money behind missions or movements that are challenging the status quo in a very big and very daring way,” says Abu Affan.

But Najibzadeh says it’s that work that makes them press on. “When you know you’re in the right, and you know you’re asking the right questions, there is no doubt that you should continue doing the work,” she says. “No one can stop you.”


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Categories
Activism & Action Allied Arts & Media

The New Measure of a Womxn: Wielding Power

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

 

Yesterday, while at a local theatre, I waited in line for the gender-segregated washrooms. As usual, the queue for the women’s went straight out the door and halfway down the hallway, while the men’s looked almost empty.

Most of us have grumbled about this poor architectural planning, but after spending this past week with Lauren McKeon’s No More Nice Girls: Gender, Power, And Why It’s Time to Stop Playing by the Rules, I labelled the problem differently: this is yet another example of how the world is designed for cis men.

No More Nice Girls, Lauren McKeon. Released March 2020 by Anansi Press

No More Nice Girls is a well-researched and infuriating (in all the right ways) book about power and how women’s and non-binary people’s power is routinely undermined. It’s packed with statistics on how marginalized people are taught to shoehorn themselves into a system intentionally designed not to fit. With an intersectional lens, the author lays out the way power inequities play out in politics, the economy, law, media, science, technology, city planning, and other areas.

McKeon challenges the myth that more women need to just work harder (and be “nice” while doing so) to reach for the top of existing power structures. Here’s one of the shocking statistics: when women CEOs do manage to reach the top, they earn $0.68 to every dollar their male colleagues make.

She also takes on the #GirlBoss trend, which encourages women to contort and bend instead of working to change the system. “They must be a boss, but not bossy; authentic, but Insta-trendy; real, but not harsh; beautiful, but effortless; killin’ it, but not thirsty; busy, but glowing with Goop-ified self-care; vulnerable, but just the right amount; tough, but just the right amount; confident, but not extra; warm, but not weak; decisive, but not rude; your bitch, but not bitchy.”

What interested me most about No More Nice Girls were the examples of how power might be reimagined and redefined, and how this power can lead to social equity.

For example, what if we viewed power as breaking silence and healing from trauma? Citing Tarana Burke, #MeToo’s founder: “What we’re doing with #MeToo is building something that doesn’t exist. Literally. It’s an international survivor-led and survivor-focused social justice movement.”

Power can also look like projects that intentionally decentre cis men and focus on the needs of women and non-binary people. McKeon offers anecdotes about the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and the co-working space The Wing, all of which were created to be safe spaces and “where men no longer write the rules.”

But feminism is a work in progress, and McKeon raises essential questions about who gets included and excluded in these spaces, urging feminists to challenge their intersectional praxis: “In many ways, the women-only movement has mirrored the challenges of feminism itself: the centering of biological definitions at the expense of transgender women; the exclusion of Indigenous women and women of colour from its most visible and influential positions; claims of battling tokenism while institutionalizing that same philosophy in its own histories and organizations.”

Another chapter is devoted to the power of feminist entrepreneurship, such as Ali Ogden’s Bon Temps Tea Company, which gives micro-grants to women to encourage and support their feminist work, and Taran and Bunny Ghatrora’s Blume, a chemical-free period-product subscription box that includes politicized information about menstruation. These and other examples spotlight ways in which “a feminist-first enterprise that’s built with sincerity can phenomenally change the economic landscape.” They can create kinder workplace cultures that value mentorship, collaboration, staff wellness, and are trauma-informed. Among other things, they can include breastfeeding rooms, child care, and be more intentional in their hiring practices.

McKeon ends with reflections on Women Deliver, a global feminist conference that took place in Vancouver in 2019. Moderators closed main-stage panels with a question about how speakers would use their power. McKeon optimistically writes, “This question was a way of reminding everyone there that they did have power, now, even if it didn’t always feel like it—even if their power didn’t look anything like traditional power…. All of it put a drop more power into this new bucket. It evened things out. It remade the world.”

No More Nice Girls made me ponder the ways I use my power. I’m an author working within a publishing industry context that is still racist, sexist, ableist, and heterosexist. I do my best to mentor, share space (and when appropriate, make way for others), amplify the work of marginalized writers, collaborate to create opportunities, and push from the outside to help steer the slowly moving literary ship in the right direction. It’s easy to grow cynical, to question whether these efforts drive real change, or are just drops in a bucket. But McKeon’s optimism made me reconsider the power of this work. Could it remake the world?

I know that it’s possible to design washrooms to be accessible, safe, inviting, and not segregated by gender. It’s possible because people have done the advocacy and work to design them. Now it’s time to use our power to disrupt oppressive systems and create a world that includes all of us.


Farzana Doctor is the author of four novels, including the forthcoming Seven (Dundurn, August 2020).


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Categories
Activism & Action

What Pipeline Protests Tell Us

Wet’suwet’en supporters on the bridge over the Wedzin Khah river, Wet’suwet’en territory.

A few years ago, I asked an Indigenous female economist how she views the environment in the context of building a strong economy for Canada. She was speaking at a business conference to an audience of female entrepreneurs. Her response: “For the Indigenous peoples, the environment is our family. Non-Indigenous cultures may see the environment as a commodity,” she said, “but Indigenous peoples view the environment as our family, and we treat and protect it as such.”

Whoomp. I felt her statement reverberate through my body. I always saw the environment as important, but at that moment, I realized my view was in an abstract and disconnected way. The environment is family—this concept has been colouring my view of the world ever since.

And so, I have been watching the Coastal GasLink pipeline protests in British Columbia through the lens of Environment = Family. Would I be taking the same action if my family was at stake? I look at my son and think, “Yes, I would.” In a heartbeat.

Yet, the current protests of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia and the Mohawks of Tyendinaga in Ontario over a natural gas pipeline project and land access in Western Canada seem to be coming across to some in the public—including media, political leaders, RCMP, and Coastal GasLink—as irrational, selfish, and even hysterical. As a woman of colour, I am familiar with that tune. Angry women, like angry Indigenous groups, make people uncomfortable. I have been called irrational, selfish, and stubborn—at times when I simply felt that I was right.

But everyone has varying perspectives on what is right.

Coastal GasLink, the corporate proponent of this multi-billion dollar megaproject, believes its pipeline project is right for its business, its shareholders, and Canada’s economy. It feels that its consultations with First Nations have been sufficient and complete. It has ticked the consultation boxes and secured the permits, so Coastal GasLink believes it is technically right to move ahead with construction.

Wet’suwet’en believes they are right to protect their lands, their history, and their family—the environment. They feel that they were not consulted sufficiently and that they did not give consent for the pipeline to pass through their lands, and they have the right to protect their lands and the environment—their family.

Both the company and the Wet’suwet’en view each other as irrational and unfair. Reaching mutual understanding and agreement will be a significant challenge when neither can view the other party as fair and reasonable.

Community consultations for mega projects can take years—even decades—for a corporation and its stakeholders to reach a place of mutual understanding and agreement. When such consultations involve marginalized groups such as women and Indigenous peoples, there are additional layers to work through, starting with how we are perceived as stubborn, irrational, and ungrateful. Colonization of Indigenous peoples, patriarchal dominance over women, and commodification of our natural environment by primarily Western cultures are not dissimilar.

Indeed, they may be so closely linked that making progress in one area requires progress in all areas: ending colonization of Indigenous peoples, dismantling patriarchy, and protecting the family that nourishes us—the environment.

Coastal GasLink’s pipeline project has been in the works for years. The company has spent approximately six years conducting impact assessments and consulting stakeholders, including First Nations communities, along the pipeline route. It has secured all the correct government permits. In spite of this, Wet’suwet’en people continue to demonstrate against the pipeline, bringing construction to a standstill and the country at large to their attention.

I have no connection to the Coastal GasLink pipeline or the stakeholders involved. I am a fellow Canadian watching another complicated and sensitive standoff with Indigenous people regarding a resource extraction project.

But I am a professional in the mining industry. I have been in the field, at mine sites and in local villages, facing angry and fearful people opposing mining projects in faraway places such as New Caledonia, Madagascar, and Papua New Guinea—all as geopolitically and socially complex as our country.

I have listened to hopeful community leaders who hold expectations that a mine will bring good, prosperous jobs and lift their community members out of poverty. And I have listened to tearful mothers and fathers from remote regions where economic opportunity is almost non-existent, heard their hopes that we (the mining company) will help clothe, feed, and educate their children.

I have seen companies choose to keep local communities at “arm’s length,” refusing to truly engage and find ways to share benefits of the mine equitably. I have seen some companies barrel through community protests and local unrest, hire their own security, or call in the local army to forcibly remove local citizens and bulldoze local villages, with devastating consequences. These companies never garner local support and often face involuntary shutdowns due to community blockades, attacks, and other forms of protests that drive project costs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

I have also seen companies completely halt the development of their own multi-billion dollar projects, putting the project on a care and maintenance program (the purpose of C&M is to just have enough funding to “keep the lights on” at site), while continuing to invest corporate money into public consultations, local relationship building, community investments, and forward regional planning—even when the commodity may have tanked in markets. And then, when the price of that commodity rebounds and the project is re-started, that company is better-positioned thanks to the stronger community relationships it has built, garnering trust that a project goal is of mutual benefit for all stakeholders.

A truly sustainable mega-project will aim for a win-win outcome for the local stakeholders and the company. The Coastal GasLink pipeline project seems to be heading for a win-lose. Perhaps the company’s intention was win-win, but somewhere along the way, its stakeholder engagement program failed to recognize and fully engage all the stakeholders involved.

Coastal GasLink may have ticked all the government-required consultation boxes, it may even have gone beyond government requirements, but clearly, that was not enough to mitigate today’s protests resulting in costly equipment sitting idle, the layoff of hundreds of workers and contractors, and a huge economic domino effect across the country with passenger and cargo rail shutdowns.

Many are insisting on government action. But, ultimately, it is Coastal GasLink’s responsibility to do better. It is always the responsibility of the project proponent to know all possible stakeholders and their degree of support or disagreement with the project, recognize and respect the varying hopes and fears, and engage all stakeholders in thorough, comprehensive, and culturally sensitive dialogue and consultations. It owes this due diligence to its business, shareholders, investors, and the country.

There is still a window of opportunity here. As the oil sector is not performing well and the company is bleeding money due to the blockades (not to mention incalculable damage to its corporate reputation), Coastal GasLink could press the pause button on project construction, dismiss the RCMP, and re-engage with its stakeholders. It could listen closer, try to understand each other, search for a common goal of mutual benefit. It may take months or even years, but we need to accept that this is okay, that investing time and energy into building strong relationships in order to help us build more sustainable megaprojects is better for everyone—local communities, the economy, businesses, future generations, and the environment (our family).

Sabrina Dias is the founder and CEO of SOOP Strategies Inc.


Publishers note: On Feb 20th LiisBeth Media staff and advisory board voted unanimously to support the Wet’suwet’en community and their right to assert control of their land as upheld by Wet’suwet’en law and governance. The rule of law argument to applies to both Canada and the Wet’suwet’en nation. Members of the Wet’suwet’en community, led by the five hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs, have not given their free, prior, and informed consent to the current state of the Coastal GasLink project.

We urge the Government of Canada to engage in authentic dialogue with a view towards reaching a withdraw RCMP presence in a way that both maintains surrounding community safety and upholds their commitment to action truth and reconciliation, and to uphold the obligations laid out by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). UNDRIP Article 10 expressly condemns forced removal, including under coercion, and further condemns the use of extra-state actors like corporations.

Anything less is an assault to peaceable coexistence and reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous Peoples in Canada. You can download our full statement here.


For more information on how to support the Wet’suwet’en community, click here.


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Categories
Activism & Action

News So White It’s Blinding

Photo: Mike Sudoma, Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), website homepage 2020. The CAJ shared “Canadian Media Diversity: Calls to Action” publicly and with it members in support of the recommendations.

Working in Canadian media these days can feel like playing a real-life version of Survivor. It seems every quarter brings new buyouts, shuttered outlets, and more castaways. While times are challenging for all journalists, people of colour—already underrepresented—are getting squeezed even harder.

Earlier this week, a first joint report by the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ) and Canadian Journalists of Colour (CJOC) tackled the issue, highlighting why it’s finally time—even in these challenging times—for the country’s newsrooms to stop sweeping appallingly low diversity statistics under the rug and start acting on its recommendations to boost diversity.

The two organizations decided to work together on the report when they realized they shared the same concerns. And that, says Nadia Stewart, executive director of the CABJ, was, “Folks who felt they weren’t represented in the leadership in their newsroom, folks who were still encountering unpleasant experiences, folks who felt like their voice wasn’t heard.” When the heads of the two organizations began to talk, Stewart says, “Representation diversity was still the elephant in the room.”

With diversity and race issues regularly making front-page headlines in Canada and abroad, the industry’s own problem with racial representation had become even more ironic, if not downright comical. Last September, editors at the Vancouver Sun showed a deaf ear to the issue, publishing an op-ed that recommended Canada say, “Goodbye to diversity, tolerance, and inclusion,” then later apologized after many of the Sun’s own journalists denounced the op-ed on social media.

During the 2019 federal election, when Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal erupted, an overwhelming number of journalists criticized the coverage and called for increased diversity in the newsroom, noting the first journalists to question Trudeau on the Liberal campaign plane were all white. Journalist Sunny Dhillon quit his Vancouver posting for The Globe and Mail when he wanted to write about that city’s lack of diversity on council—and was overruled by his bureau chief. In an essay, Journalism While Brown and When to Walk Away, Dhillon explained the “challenges journalists of colour can face in a lily-white industry” and said the solutions were “as obvious as they are unacted upon—hire more people of colour, hear their voices, elevate them to positions of power or prominence.”

Ironically, in recent years, US and international media have started hiring high-profile Black Canadians to cover race issues in Canada.

The goal of the joint report, called “Canadian Media Diversity: Calls to Action,” is meant to move issues of diverse inclusion forward “in a way that isn’t just paying lip service, but actually is actionable steps,” says Anita Li, co-founder of CJOC.

The CJOC has more than 600 members and launched as a Facebook group in October 2018, though Li says the conversations around race has been going on for years. The CABJ was founded in 1996 as a resource for Black journalists in Canadian media and was relaunched in 2018 with “renewed focus” to support young journalists. In the report, the two organizations lay out seven recommendations to improve diversity and create an “equitable media” within the country, which includes creating mentorship and scholarship opportunities for people of colour and self-reporting newsroom demographics. Unlike in the US, Canadian outlets often opt out of publishing such details so that it’s impossible to know how many people of colour work in a news organization, or what roles they play.

Diversity in a dying industry

Increasing diversity in Canada’s struggling news industry faces one seemingly insurmountable roadblock: how to increase representation in an industry that’s simply struggling to stay afloat? Over the last decade, Canadian media has been pummelled by declining advertising revenues and shrinking subscriber bases. A recent report from the Public Policy Forum found that, since 2008, more than 250 news outlets have either closed or reduced the services they offer, and advertising revenue—the lifeblood of most organizations—has all but dried up.

So, is it possible for newspapers and digital publications to increase diversity while facing the constant threat of collapse? Many experts say yes. In fact, the benefits of greater racial diversity in the newsroom has been proven over and over again, starting with a deeper and more authentic relationship with the communities they serve, leading to a more sustainable business model. In an industry suffering from declining readership, a diverse news staff could be what rights the ship.

However, the business case can’t be the only reason to boost diversity, explains Eva Salinas, the former managing editor of Open Canada. In her former role, she actively hired and supported diverse staff and says diverse journalists play an important role in a democratic society by highlighting the stories that originate in Canada’s diverse communities.

“Yes, there is a business case, but there’s also a business case for allowing immigration,” she explains. “That shouldn’t be the leading reason. It’s about equality and human kindness. I think that needs to still be the leading reason.”

Yet another obstacle in increasing diversity is the role unions can play in blocking and even ousting diverse workers during layoffs as they protect seniority over everything else. Given that it’s usually journalists of colour who are less likely to be in senior positions, they tend to be the first offered buyouts.

Thinking outside the box

In response, some newsrooms are getting creative in maintaining both headcount and diversity, says Brian Gibson, president of Unifor Local 2000. “We did do something different here in Vancouver. The members themselves did decide to take a 10 percent cut in the form of a day off every two weeks to prevent layoffs, so the diversity was preserved. But, it’s not 100 percent commonplace because, again, seniority is usually followed, and with the addition of these new folks they’re usually the first to go.”

Logically thinking, journalist shops without a union might find it easier to tackle the diversity debacle, but Gibson has found that not to be the case when working with the recently shuttered Star Vancouver office. “That group was fairly diverse, but our issue there with bargaining was, again, because people negotiate their own wages, the people of colour and women were the lowest paid there. One of our biggest bargaining issues was trying to bring those folks up and get everybody paid the same for the same work,” says Gibson.

In their report, the CABJ and COJC also strongly recommended that news outlets not only hire reporters of colour but create “leadership tracks” for journalists of colour and invest in their potential as future managers. “Current newsroom leaders should be proactive in seeking out and developing leaders of colour. These individuals should be promoted to occupy decision-making positions, such as assignment editors, senior and executive producers, managing editors, and news directors.”

Even as the CABJ and COJC were issuing their joint report, TorStar, which had a strong record of employing young, diverse journalists, announced it would close its StarMetro News offices across the country. Where those journalists will find work is impossible to tell, but they are at a disadvantage with little experience in a slowly shrinking industry.

The authors of the joint report concede that the industry’s problems can’t and won’t be solved on the recommendations of one report and that change won’t be easy, but the group remains united and focused on putting forward solutions. Says Stewart: “The time is now. I think the circumstances are ripe and I do think people are ready for change.”

Categories
Feminist Practices

Time's Up Tech

Dr. Sarah Saska at the #movethedial Global Summit in 2019 (Photo by Photagonist.ca)

There’s a new form of domestic abuse, and so-called “smart” home devices are the weapons.
And, yes, women are more likely to be affected by this perverse use of technology. Here’s how it works: An abuser can lock a victim into her own home using web-enabled locks, and monitor her every move via video security systems. An abuser can expose a victim to extreme heat or cold by remotely controlling a smart thermostat, or wake her up in the middle of the night by blasting music with a remote control.
Smart home abuse is just one way in which technology is disproportionately harmful to women. A few others: Machine learning algorithms can reinforce gender biases inherent in the datasets used to train them, so recruiting tools for tech workers can be biased against women. Crash dummies are based on male bodies, so car safety tests don’t account for female anatomy. Voice recognition software is more likely to understand a male voice. Mapping apps can provide the fastest route to any destination, though not the safest one. And tech gadgets at our service often have female voices, reinforcing gender power imbalances.
Tech’s dark side arises from who designs and builds it—and who’s excluded from the process. When diverse voices are shut out, so too are diverse ideas, perspectives, and values.
According to a 2019 report by Women in Communications and Technology, men in technology outnumber women by a ratio of four to one. Women who manage to break into the sector wield significantly less power. They earn less than their male counterparts and are less likely to be promoted to leadership positions. Little wonder they’re more likely to flee the industry.
The need to include diverse voices in the innovation process propelled Sarah Saska to found Feminuity, a consulting firm that helps tech companies become more diverse and inclusive. Though her firm’s name blends the words “feminism” and “ingenuity,” Saska wants to do more than just get more women hired at tech workplaces.
From left: Dr. Sarah Saska, Danica Nelson, Leen Li, David Yee, Aziz Garuba, and Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh at a Leadership in Technology panel discussion in 2019.

Feminuity’s version of feminism is decidedly intersectional. When clients come to Saska saying, “We need to hire more women,” the 30-something entrepreneur takes the conversation deeper. “The goal of 50 percent representation of women in any space is not only shortsighted but also wildly essentialist. You could end up hiring only white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, resourced women. It’s such a limited frame, and we’ll be no further ahead.”
Rather, an intersectional approach takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences. For example, black women, disabled women, gender non-conforming people, and women who care for children and elders may face specific obstacles to employment and promotion. Until a company removes those barriers, it will not achieve equity.
It’s an approach that’s been missing from tech workplaces, says Saska, who grew up in a feminist home and earned a PhD in gender studies and feminist research at Western University in London, Ont. While researching innovation theory for her degree, she began to realize a huge gap. “There wasn’t anything related to humanness, such as gender or race,” she says. “It was absent. It didn’t make sense to me. How could we not talk about the human side of things?”
Wanting to apply her understanding to the business world, Saska launched Feminuity in 2014, along with innovation expert Andrea Rowe (who has since left the company). A 2016 Studio Y fellowship at MaRS Discovery District helped Saska hone her entrepreneurship and leadership skills, build networks, and translate her academic knowledge into business practices.
Says Saska: “I got into this space because, right now, we’re at an inflection point. Some tech companies are larger than entire countries. Tech companies have power, and they’re outpacing our laws and policies and playing in new and grey spaces. Tech can exacerbate or make things better when it comes to equity.”
In Canada’s tech sector, she says the need for diversity and inclusion work is especially urgent. To her knowledge, the massively successful e-commerce platform Shopify is the only tech company with a senior level diversity leader and a team, while the US has many more companies investing in this area. “Canadian tech talks a lot about how ‘diversity is our strength,’ and I find that frustrating,” says Saska. “Diversity is not a given. It’s something that we must design for deliberately and intentionally. There’s a lot that needs to happen before we can say diversity is really our strength.”
Now in its fifth year, Feminuity employs between 10 and 20 people at any given time, contracting specialists as needed to work primarily with small and medium-sized companies that may not have the resources to hire a full-time employee dedicated to diversity and inclusion, yet know they need help.
The process starts when Feminuity conducts a holistic survey of the business, collecting quantitative and qualitative data about processes, physical space, products, and policies.
The quantitative data is decidedly intersectional, with survey questions designed to create a layered picture of how women with multiple identities experience the workplace, helping leaders understand, say, the challenges of a racialized single mother with child care issues.
To gather qualitative information, Anisha Phillips, an associate consultant at Feminuity, conducts video interviews with employees who opt in. Phillips says participants sometimes assume they’ll be asked if they’ve experienced discrimination. Rather, open-ended questions prompt them to describe what they like and don’t like about their workplaces.
“Inclusion has many different aspects,” explains Phillips, adding it doesn’t always look the way people expect it to. In training workshops, the Feminuity team refers to an article that describes 34 diversity characteristics, including gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, language, physical ability, cognitive ability, mental health, social roles within the home, and political beliefs, to name just a few.
After Saska’s team gathers data and analyzes it through an intersectional lens, they co-design strategies with clients, help build an internal steering committee, provide resources and training, and prepare the company to implement the plan, which typically takes six months to a year, though some engage in the process for several years.
Feminuity’s approach may touch on any aspect of business, not just hiring and human resource policies. It could mean diversifying a company’s supply chain to include Indigenous contractors, for example, or improving how work spaces function for people with disabilities, or closing salary gaps that may exist between a company’s most junior and senior employees.
In some cases, Saska may act as a part-time chief diversity officer, a more affordable way to build inclusion into leadership for companies that don’t have the resources to hire a full-time employee for the role. But her ultimate goal is to build internal capacity to embed diversity and inclusion practices in a company’s day-to-day culture and operations.
The key to embedding equity lies in helping leaders see the business through a lens of “futurism,” which, to Saska, means being thoughtful about the long-term impacts of a product or service for everyone—not just the dominant group.
“Is there a chance it could exacerbate inequities that already exist?” she asks. “If your goal is shortsighted, if you just want to get wealthy, there’s always a shadow side. You’re going to benefit some people—those who have dominant identities, those with power—and you’re going to leave others behind.”
Saska sees more tech startups and scaleups baking social justice into their way of doing business from the very beginning. It doesn’t take a lot of resources, she says, but does take a sense of intention. Small startups on small budgets can access Feminuity’s open-source resources—offered free on its website—to create inclusive job descriptions, interview practices, benefits packages, organizational structures, sexual harassment policies, and compensation packages.
Embracing diversity can avoid expensive and complex problems down the road. Saska cites Uber as an example of how failing to consider the needs of women can create a flawed business model, as the money-losing company is plagued by accusations that the car-sharing app makes users vulnerable to sexual assault by contract drivers.
As for Feminuity’s internal hiring process, Phillips described it as “a conversation” rather than about credentials or degrees. She says Saska wanted to know, what her research was about, what types of issues were of interest to her. “It was about getting to know me as a person,” she says.
Saska describes the company culture as being in a continual process of growth. The team is moving to a new space in Toronto and hiring new team members, some of whom will work remotely. That has spurred her to study inclusive practices for remote teams, which she’ll test on her own group.
“We are trying to figure out, embody, and actualize the work we do with our clients,” says Saska. The goal is to distill social justice concepts into habits of thought for groups who create technologies, and that’s an ongoing project.


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https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/04/26/where-are-the-women-in-canadas-women-in-tech-venture-fund/

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Transformative Ideas

Progress or pinkwashing: Who benefits from digital women-focused capital funds?

(Photo by Vanessa Lee / Unsplash)

Along with crowdfunding, biometric cash assistance, cryptocurrencies, and mobile wallets, another growing digitally enabled source of capital is women-focused capital funds (WFCFs). These funds target women-owned, women-led enterprises, femme and non-binary entrepreneurs, and aim to level the access-to-capital playing field.

That’s the good news. However, a newly released study in Small Business Economics on WFCFs suggests feminist investors, policymakers, and entrepreneurs need to be asking more questions before resting their feminist boots. Professors Barbara Orser of Telfer School of Management at University of Ottawa, Susan Coleman of Hartford University, and doctoral student Yanhong Li recently examined the market positioning of 27 funds in the US and Canada. “We were curious to learn if women-centric investment pools, such as WFCFs, aim to alter exchange processes to support justice and gender equality. At the end of the day, we found that the majority of funds focus on fixing women. Few seek to address structural or institutional impediments,” said Orser. “The bottom line is that among the funds that we examined, only a minority sought to counter structural barriers associated with women entrepreneurs’ access to capital. Most were positioned to facilitate individual wealth creation.”

The study found that this kind of pinkwashing is most likely when funds are created as add-ons to mainstream programs and services, rather than as a central element of the organization’s mission of supporting women and non-binary femmes. In addition, few of the funds displayed third-party assessment or an audit of the fund. Opaque accountability and an absence of independent evaluations were common. This means we cannot always be sure that the funds set to advance women-owned and led ventures actually get to them.

According to the researchers, most WFCFs fall short of supporting a feminist agenda to address institutional and market barriers. The team concludes that, depending on the investment, some WFCFs challenge while some simply perpetuate bias and reinforce structural constraints that impede women entrepreneurs by not actually changing investment due diligence and approval orthodoxies. 

The study offers feminist investors insights to consider before assuming that all funds serve an inclusive economic agenda. This study also alerts LiisBeth readers that there are an increasing number of differentiated WFCFs, so it is wise to shop around—and keep your feminist boots walking.

To download the study (for free), click here.


Creating researched and inspirational content to support and advocate for feminist changemaking takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find value and nourishment here, please consider becoming a donor subscriber or patron at a level of your choosing. Priced between a cup of coffee or one take out salad per month.

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Have you had an experience trying to secure funding for women-focused capital funds? Were you successful? Rejected? Tell us your story! (We’ll keep it confidential.)


Related Reading

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/11/22/righting-who-writes-code/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/04/26/where-are-the-women-in-canadas-women-in-tech-venture-fund/