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Allied Arts & Media

Stuff Your Stockings With Feminist Joy


Photo: Champagne Thompson

Most practices of the Christmas season contradict my feminist values, the gendered narratives of Christianity conflated into the season of “giving,” with women carrying the burden of holiday shopping, cooking, and social coordination. Then there’s the “give and get”—giving a charitable donation in time to get a charitable tax receipt by year end.

For me, holiday giving and celebrating should not be powered by a capitalistic consumer agenda but by love, thoughtfulness, kindness. During the holiday season, winter solstice in particular, I focus on hope and gratitude for female* energies rather than the pinging of POS machines in shopping malls driving us into debt. Do our loved ones really want that? I don’t think so.

This year I endeavoured to find a way to engage with the festivities, in ways that make my heart happy. I visited three events featuring feminist makers and changemakers: the Made by Feminists Market at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel; Ottawa’s Feminist Fair; and the Indigenous & Ingenious Show and Sale in Toronto. You can check out their crafty arts online, as I am sure they will inspire you to new ethical shopping heights, as they did me.

Here are some of my feminist faves that are sleighin’ it!

 SaSa Naturals, Toronto

This powerhouse family team walks the feminist talk! Sisters Sarai (22), Jahdiel (25), Kristine (27), and their mom, Carolyn, run SaSa Naturals, an ethical, all-natural approach to self-care that emphasizes the power of women’s bodies. The co-founders are incredibly knowledgeable about each product and ingredient as well as traditional hygiene and wellbeing practices of women around the globe. They source goods directly from female-run shea nut farms in Ghana and even visit regularly to ensure female farmers are being treated equitably and that plant-based products are produced sustainably and free from chemicals. Products include all-natural deodorant alternatives, delectable soaps, bath bombs, lip chap and Yoni steam kits (unlike Amazon’s selections, these vaginal cleansing kits use herbs that honour the sacredness of womanhood). By using traditional medicinal practices rather than chemicals, the SaSa team is building a sassy brand that reminds women that our natural selves are our true selves. Check out their Instagram page to place orders that can be shipped to both Canada and the United States.

 Radical Roots

Kristen Campbell, an ecological restoration maven, founded her company almost two years ago as a way to make beautiful change in the era of climate crisis. She handmakes seed bombs—ethically sourced native plant species balled up in clay—that you can chuck at any barren patch during your morning walk or your own garden for that matter. Add rain, and flowers spring up. Bees and butterflies will love you, as native habitat springs from these flower bombs. Beautifying the world has never felt so therapeutic as hucking an enviro-friendly bomb of life to Mother Nature! An excellent gift for the outdoorsy, flower-loving, tree-hugging types in your life or for anyone who just wants to drop an f-bomb—and feel great about it.

 Read My Flowers


Helena Verdier discovered a love for transformative upcycling while studying at Carleton University. Now 26, she has made a business of repurposing some of our favourite literature into works of visual and wearable art. She creates paper flower crowns, centrepieces, and floral decor, showcasing and selling her flower-power pieces on her Instagram page. Seeing Verdier’s artistry highlighted on the Feminist Twin’s page enticed me to make the trek to their Feminist Fair in Ottawa for their sixth annual event where I discovered plenty more feminist gift-giving ideas.

 Hand Stitched by Claire

Remember those framed embroidery pieces hanging in grandma’s house, greeting you with cheesy, sentimental sayings, like “Home is where the heart is” and all that? Well, Claire’s (Claire ask us to not publish her last name) embroidery art is not that. The 30-year-old stitches radical, feminist ideas into her hoops such as “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” and “Ovaries before brovaries” as well as slogans for the woke such as “If it is inaccessible to the poor it’s neither radical nor revolutionary” and “Hang on lemme overthink this.” She also draws on racialized voices for inspiration. From Serena Williams: “The day I stop fighting for equality…will be the day I’m in my grave.” Such soulful, gut-punching, and often hilarious affirmations gave me the most painful belly laugh—and sure to deliver the same kick to your pals. Claire ships her work straight to your door—and accepts custom orders should you know exactly what will tickle a friend’s feminist fancy.

 Chief Lady Bird

At Indigenous & Ingenious, I visited Chief Lady Bird, an Anishinaabekwe artist who resists colonization through her mixed media prints, brilliant murals, skateboard decks and youth-focused projects that focus on Indigenous resilience, sex and body positivity, as well as calling attention to the importance of Indigenous women in our communities. She recently illustrated Nibi’s Water Song, a brilliant children’s book about Nibi’s quest to find clean water in her community, highlighting the need to listen to Indigenous voices and protect our planet for future generations. You can order Chief Lady Bird’s art on her Instagram page. She takes commissions for custom pieces too.

But the greatest
gift I took away from my foray into these feminist fairs? The knowledge that every dollar we spend casts a ballot for the world we want to inhabit. One maker told me that the money she made at the event will help pay her rent this month. When we buy from our brilliant sisters, we are also giving a gift of survival and support in the fight to dismantle the patriarchy. Now, I can deck the halls with that!

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Related Reading

Activism & Action Our Voices Systems

The Seven Sins of Gender Washing

As someone who wholly embraced and participated the environmental and sustainability movement in the early 2000s (to the point of founding the World’s only Platinum LEED-certified dairy), the opportunity to hear Naomi Klein speak on the state of the environment and environmental debate in Canada on Oct. 17 at the University of Toronto was something I just couldn’t miss.

In her talk, Klein cited many troubling facts, but the most burdensome of these was that after 50 years of environmental activism and effort, as a society, we still struggle to make meaningful progress.

Even with scientific evidence and now actual lived experience of the impact of growing levels of green house gases on the planet, and even after the signing of the 2016 Paris Agreement, environmental activists like Klein remain skeptical. While 55 countries representing 38 per cent of the world’s emissions agreed to implement plans that will “limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change,” Klein argues that the targets are already at risk. Several countries continue to approve large scale industrial projects that will make this achievement mathematically impossible, she notes. Canada for example, played an important role in convincing leaders of the need for even tougher measures, yet recently approved an emissions increase of 43 per cent for the Alberta Tar Sands’ new fossil-fuel-based pipelines. In practice, this will increase Canada’s emissions well beyond the target set in Paris.

Furthermore, environmental watchdog organizations, like UL Ventures (formerly TerraChoice), an independent global science safety company, continue to call out case after case of greenwashing. The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 to describe instances in which a company, government or any other group promotes green-based initiatives or images but continues to operate in ways that damage the environment. In fact, according to UL, 95 per cent of green products assessed today are guilty of greenwashing.

While we are patting ourselves on the backs for our day to day efforts, Klein suggests, we as a society are not doing nearly enough. Yes, we can change lightbulbs, buy green products, build LEED-certified buildings, and ride our bikes to work in the snow. But it turns out that in the face of continuued approval of large scale, fossil fuel based industrial projects that serve capitalist, corporate and national interests, these individual efforts represent but a few colourful grains of sand on a 150-mile beach.

The environmental movement has learned it is up against something much bigger than political will. It’s up against the reluctance of us all, and especially of those in power, to give up our 21st century way of life.

Common Ground: From Greenwashing to Gender-Washing

While listening to Klein, it occurred to me that the gender equality movement (known more commonly as feminism) is a lot like the environmental movement.

The literature in both fields indicates similar causal roots (unequal power dynamics, capitalism run amok, neoliberalism), and both are deemed exploitative in nature. They are both wicked problems that require intersectoral solutions. Each domain is full of third-party certification opportunities to help consumers separate the curds from the whey (LEEDS, Green Globes, ISO 14001, WEConnect, and Buyup Index).

Taking this idea further, many similarities can also be seen in the ways that corporations and even governments pay lip service to these two philosophies to turn a profit, or a vote.

In 2009, TerraChoice developed its list of the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing”, which became a widely-used taxonomy to categorize common types of greenwashing activities. The seven sins are: Hidden Trade-off, No Proof, Vagueness, Worshiping False Labels, Irrelevance, Lesser of Two Evils and Fibbing. Categorizing practices like this helped consumers to recognize and understand different types of greenwashing activities so they could make more informed choices.

The seven sins list was indeed useful during my days as a sustainable enterprise entrepreneur. And so, I thought it might be similarly helpful to develop a “Seven Sins of Gender-Washing” list to help us all better identify gender-washing practices. The term “gender-washing” describes organizations that try to sell themselves as progressive on the gender equity front, when in reality, they are not.

Here goes.

  1. The Sin of Re-Skinning – A company that attempts to “look” like its work environment is currently gender progressive by ensuring its company website, annual report, and advertising copy has lots of women in the photos. It uses positive gender speak in its corporate communications, and content marketing output, yet when you check out the gender composition at the top it is 80 per cent, or worse, 100 per cent men.
  2. The Sin of Worshipping False Progress – Where corporations create special “We Love Women Who Work Here” days; buy tickets to women empowerment lunches for female staff; appropriate initiatives like the UN’s “HeforShe” campaign for commercial gain; or give to Oxfam’s “I Am A Feminist” campaign as part of a marketing campaign, yet internal organizational policies and day-to-day gender-biased cultural practices remain fundamentally unchanged.
  3. The Sin of Distraction – A claim suggesting the company is pro-gender equity, but upon digging deeper, you find the claim is based on a narrowly defined initiative without concern for the larger, more important issues. For example, in 2011, Walmart trumpeted its new Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which involved a commitment to source $20B from women-owned businesses. Sounds good, however, this amounts to just 5 per cent of its overall expenditures. And, Walmart was already buying from some women-owned firms. The initiative came on the heels of a class action suit launched against Walmart by its 1.5 million female associates for its allegedly discriminatory practices.
  4. The Sin of Corporate Inconsistency – Where distant head offices write, implement and impose gender equity and inclusion policies, and promote this as progress, but their branch plant or satellite operations in other jurisdictions don’t follow suit and are not help accountable for doing so.
  5. The Sin of Positioning Basic Compliance as Leadership – Companies that tout government-mandated policies—like pay equity or parental leave—as gender-progressive initiatives; or Ontario organizations that send out press releases announcing they “have done away with dress codes” (meanwhile dress codes have already been deemed unacceptable by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 2016).
  6. The Sin of Irrelevance – A case where a company promotes the fact that 65 per cent of its employees are women, however they are all on the factory floor, are mostly hired as part-time workers with no benefits, and have no representation in senior management let alone on the board.
  7. The Sin of Only Counting Heads – A case where a company trumpets the addition of two new female board members or the promotion of a female manager to VP to change the ratio, not the culture. Sometimes, “non-trouble makers” or like-minded women who won’t challenge the status quo are chosen by design. This does nothing to change the culture or support inclusion. Appointees we hope to see serve as changemakers become mere headstones at the board table, and their ability to create change for all genders in the company is amputated-usually at the voice.

When it comes to the seven sin taxonomy, many may argue that perhaps these initiatives are not really sinful at all, but demonstrations of positive intent. The phrase, “Let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good,” comes to mind. As a colleague of mine said, “At least they changed the pictures on the website—it’s a start isn’t it?”

Once again, we can learn from our environmental movement counterparts. Yes, some organizations, keen to be perceived as market leaders in the gender equity space, might put the cart before the horse—a “fake it till you make it” approach—advertising where they want to be, and not where they are today. Sorry, but that still makes it gender-washing-until their policies and results catch up with their claims.

Do Organizations That Gender Wash Eventually Improve Authentically?

Furthermore, evidence from the green space shows that few companies ever actually move (willingly) beyond their greenwash-oriented status. Why? Turns out “the perfect” is not the enemy, it’s the business case decision-making framework.

To help organizations understand what being stuck in the short-term business case loop looks like, the sustainability field developed something called “The Maturity Curve”. Different consulting firms have customized different versions, but the core idea is the same. Becoming a truly environmentally positive enterprise is a journey. Points along the curve articulate the pros and cons from one state to another. It can help decision makers see that some returns take a long time to be realized.

If we apply the maturity curve concept to the gender equity space, it would look something like this:



As the chart illustrates, the reason companies in the environmental space actually never move past the compliance or market opportunity levels is because short-term returns are possible at those levels. Consumers eager to vote green with their dollars buy the products based on the ads, the green coloured package and superficial claims. Both believe they have done their bit.

Organizations that do want to make a substantive difference need to move up the curve. However, as you move up the curve, so do costs, and returns take more time to realize. Maturing takes investment. As we know, not all quarterly-earnings-oriented organizations can stomach a long return horizon. As a result, only a small percentage of organizations make the leap to the next stage of commitment.

This also speaks to the fact that that there is a limit to what we can truly expect from large corporations and institutions when it comes to changing the world. Few will ever, if at all, reach the fourth stage, unless these goals were part of the founding vision in the first place.

From Gender Washing to Gender Equity, to Action

So what does our understanding of green washing and role of companies in helping to drive environmental change tell us about the pace and nature of change we can expect in the gender equity space?

For starters, we can remind ourselves that real, deep social change happens at a glacial pace and is inherently complex. It involves changing institutions, culture, underlying, interlocking systems like capitalism and culture, versus just the products we buy or companies we work for.

We can also learn that individual efforts, such as “buying your way” out of a significant and fundamental social problem, make us feel good, but don’t do nearly enough. We must move from being consumers to becoming citizens again. As citizens, we can and should re-engage at political levels, read, think critically, stand up (on the street if need be, not just while sitting on your couch using Twitter), speak our truths, get uncomfortable, and take the time out of our days to contribute meaningfully to an intentional larger movement.

As Klein said two weeks ago, to really make a difference on these kinds of problems, we need an  intersectional collective, activist effort.

In her view, just as the colonialists saw their colonies and their natural resources as their own larder for growing their personal stature and fortunes at home, society has for too long viewed women as an inexpensive resource to exploit. Women have been used as “spare parts to fill in, versus lead[ers in] our economy.”

In short, we need to end our dependence on the extractive economy to save the planet, and similarly end our exploitation of women to advance society. And we need active, engaged and informed citizens, not consumers, to get there.

Now that would truly change everything.


Related Readings and Articles:

Entrepreneurs by Choice; Activists by Necessity” by Cynthia MacDonald




Our Voices Systems


I did something really nerdy recently. I read the Emancipation Proclamation, that seminal document in US history. One thing struck me immediately. It doesn’t make “the business case” for the abolition of slavery. We know the Confederate South did – free labour kept that economy churning. But the proclamation framed abolishing slavery as a moral issue.

Today there are many forms of modern slavery: human trafficking is a profitable, multi-billion dollar criminal activity and we can add forced labour, child labour, forced marriage as forms of slavery. Do we care whether someone can make a business case for each of these conditions of human exploitation? I don’t.

While we can likely agree that slavery is wrong, women around the world are still arguing their case for gender equality. What gives? Discrimination, like slavery, is wrong. Yet woman – and some men – are twisting themselves into Gumby knots to make the business case for gender equality, to prove women have value, to justify implementing workplace policies and practices that establish benchmarks for equality and equity.

Where is Abe Lincoln, with the clarity of purpose, when you need him?

Michael Kimmel, an American academic, activist and a leading feminist author of many books on males and gender, gave an interview to The Canadian Women’s Foundation. He was asked, “How do you convince men that equality is better for them than patriarchy?” Kimmel said there were three cases to be made. The first was the rightness and fairness of it, and the third was the personal benefit for more balanced, happier relationships. But it was the second case, what he called the business case — on which he put ample focus — that got me thinking.

Kimmel said that, “equality is good for organizations, countries, and companies.” More specifically, he said, “I think the business case enables us to respond to the fear men have that gender equality is a zero-sum game: that if women win, men are going to lose. The business case makes it clear that the pie gets bigger and everybody benefits, not just women.”  Kimmel’s TED talk is worth watching.

I’ve heard the “business case” before; I’ve even made it – somewhat uncomfortably.

But why is it necessary to make a business case for equality? And especially one that panders to male insecurity and the status quo. How about focusing on the moral compass that directs us to differentiate right from wrong? Rather than reassuring men that they won’t lose anything if women gain full equality, I’m more interested in exploring how the greater participation of women throughout the economic universe impacts society as a whole.

Do women in positions of authority influence the very purpose of a business, and if so, what is the impact throughout the business and more broadly, societally? HR policies can help level the playing field, which is very important, but when women are a larger share and stronger voice at the table, does the business output look different? I’m not suggesting that women are above corruption, but if men and women worked in partnership and trust, would things truly begin to change? Would there have been the subprime debacle, or multiple Enron-scale malfeasances? Is it possible, as some research suggests, that women’s leadership and their approach to business and social organization would have an overall positive influence on capitalism writ large?

It’s impossible to answer my question because it’s highly theoretical. Thus far women haven’t founded many businesses that have grown into Fortune 500 companies and been subject to broad examination. Given the realities of business today, it’s hard to take one or two examples out of context and draw meaningful conclusions.

So I’m simply going to consider how, in a limited example, women might influence change.

Consider sex. It sells. So does violence. Both are used all the time to sell products, and we see big box office films “sell” stories that are relentlessly violent, and often sexually violent. Who is most likely to say, “Enough! There are other ways to entertain and sell products”? So far it hasn’t been the largely male advertising and studio executives. They’re making too much money for themselves and their clients. Nor will it be the worker bees. Even if they have the imagination to envision something else, they lack power. Creative directors or film directors may have brilliant ideas, but few are independent of the corporate structure, and so they are simply another commodity to be exploited by corporate capitalism. But are women indifferent to the throttle hold that sex and violence have on our society? Sexual exploitation and violence are profitable and their impact and influences on society are very far reaching. Certainly, in the case of advertising, they go farther than the products they promote. What’s the alternative?

Personally, and that makes this a study of one, I more readily recall commercials that make me laugh than I do commercials that make me feel inadequate. I’ll never look like the Calvin Klein model who is seducing the stud with his zipper open, and I will never end up in bed with either of them. I know that and don’t need to be reminded of it, but even at my age, I would like to know who makes undies that don’t ride up and are still a little sassy.

In our world, ravaged by violence, the gratuitous forms only serve to further inure us to horrors. Think the Montreal massacre, the Sandy Hook massacre, Orlando, Columbine, and 9/11. Or beyond North America, the rape of Yazidi women, Rwanda, the Holocaust, and the Inquisition. One could draw the conclusion that humans have an inexhaustible capacity for evil. So then what? I wonder if we brought women into the discussion without the pressure to conform to the       status quo, would we experience a shift in approach to business that would reflect different values? I think so, and I bet that a lot of men would be very relieved.

Could that shift be good for business—and society?

I guess it depends on whether you define business only in terms of the profit it makes, rather than its contribution to society that includes, but isn’t exclusive to profit. The degree of violence and sexualization of women from a very, very young age has not always been normalized. Both are now so entrenched that I believe we will liberate our imagination and change only when women are at the table in a role of true authority and partnership, where they’re able to express themselves with free and honest voices, and when men are willing to give up a paradigm that is inherently destructive to women—and also to themselves and society.

Easy to do? No. Men at the top will need to look deeper and realize their privilege. That privilege is about their power over others. Change means not just sharing the desk, worktable, conveyor belt, or boardroom table with women, but hearing their voices, loud and strong, as they express their ideas and vision. It means truly believing that equality is the issue of our age.

Michael Kimmel opens his TED Talk with a revealing statement: “Privilege is invisible to those who have it. …  Class, race, and gender are not about other people, they were about me.” This is true for women of privilege, just as it is for men. Our class, race, and gender have an impact on everything and everyone. Ultimately, women will only achieve full equality when we all understand and accept that equality is a moral issue, and when we have the will to recalibrate that moral compass and put it to work.

Related Articles

A Conversation with Gender Capitalism Expert, Sarah Kaplan“, by Margaret Webb

A Q and A with Michael Kimmel” by Jessica Howard, The Canadian Women’s Foundation

Activism & Action

Feminist Entrepreneurship—Changing the Face of Capitalism, One Enterprise at a Time

Vancouver-based Lunapads recently became a 2016 Canada Post E-Commerce Innovation Award-winner in the category of Community Impact. Lunapads opened for business in 1993. The company survived the rollercoaster startup phase and today it is a successful, seven-figure feminist enterprise with thousands of customers worldwide. It also boasts two innovative social impact programs, One4her, which improves access to education for Ugandan girls, and G Day For Girls, a global social movement involving “rite of passage” events that celebrate and empower girls aged 10 to 12 who are transitioning to adolescence. Lunapads is a She-EO venture, and  is on BCorp’s Best for the World list which highlights the top 10% most highly ranked B Corps globally.

LiisBeth had the opportunity to meet with the company’s Co-founder, Creative Director, and feminist entrepreneur, Madeleine Shaw on Sept. 23.

LiisBeth: Tell us about Lunapads.

Shaw: Okay, Lunapads is a for-profit, Vancouver-based social impact business. We’re a founding Canadian B Corp. We specialize in natural menstrual products and also products that meet bladder leakage needs. We are all about helping individuals have healthier, more positive experiences and outlooks about things their bodies do, getting rid of the shame some people feel when it comes to topics like menstruation, postpartum needs and leakiness.

LiisBeth: We want to learn more about you as a feminist entrepreneur, which you so totally are! First, what does feminism mean to you?

Shaw: Feminism, to me, is just about a movement that strives to achieve social equality. For me, I came to feminism at around age 17 or 18 as a way to try and make sense of gender oppression I had experienced personally. Learning about feminism opened my eyes to the fact that inequality is something many people experience and that gender equality does not exist in our culture. Girls, women, trans, non-binary people are particularly oppressed under a patriarchal power dynamic. To me, feminism just addresses all of them. It’s a lens through which one sees the world. It helps you see and understand inequality, the power dynamics behind it, and encourages active participation in changing that.

LiisBeth: How did your feminist outlook affect your career decisions?

Shaw: It actually helped me to opt out of the mainstream business working world. Just to back it up, while at university I started taking women’s studies courses. The reason I became interested in women’s studies is because of what I experienced during frosh week at Queen’s University in the mid-80s. I was pushed down onto a muddy field along with all the other first-year girls and the football team did push-ups on top of us. It was like this fake rape simulation going on. I was 17, I was thousands of kilometres away from home. I was shocked and appalled.

Then, the following week, I went into my first English 100 survey class. I wanted to be an English major because I loved reading. But when I looked at the syllabus, I found there was not one single woman writer on the entire syllabus for the entire year. Not one word written by a woman. Not one in the entire history of English literature. My mom has a Master’s degree in English and has kind of schooled me that this was not perhaps an accurate reflection of who is out there. I just thought, “Oh my God, here’s one of, what is supposed to be, the better higher institutions of learning in Canada, and this is their version of reality? I can’t take it!” I went down the hall to women’s studies and more-or-less never looked back.

Later, I got involved as a student leader doing mostly anti-date rape, anti-sexual violence-type campaigns like Take Back the Night and No Means No, and organizing screenings for documentaries like Killing Us Softly. I wanted to create change.

With respect to business, initially, as a university student, I hated the idea of business. I thought that was the last thing I would ever do. I thought it was an inherently exploitative activity that was sort of hand in hand with patriarchy. Capitalism was how patriarchy funded itself basically, right? That was my belief system in the early days. As a person of privilege, I didn’t understand where money actually came from, that people needed jobs and the economy supported families. Later, I started to consider that maybe capitalism wasn’t an inherently broken system but instead an inherently neutral system that had been kind of politically hijacked by a certain kind of person influenced by patriarchal values. Capitalism as a system wasn’t the problem. The values of those in power who had the opportunity to shape and leverage it is the problem.

So, I got excited about the idea of entrepreneurship. I thought, if I can find and create my own business and make it on my own terms with my own values then number one: I don’t have to go up to the 26th floor of some corporation who makes things or extracts things that I don’t believe in and whose practices don’t align with my values.

As a confident feminist, I also figured l probably wouldn’t survive for even a matter of months within that kind of a power system. I’m just a very independent, creative spirit. Entrepreneurship for me was an expression of leadership and creativity that my kind of rebellion. Fuck that! I don’t need to be that [corporate] kind of person. I don’t need to have the big title and the big… whatever. I get to have what I want on my own terms. So when I was 25, I started my first business. I’m 48 now. The idea that I could start my own business was a revelation to me. I was like, “Whoa! This is so exciting!”

LiisBeth: What was your first business?

Shaw: My first company was called Everywhere Designs. As a child, I always loved sewing and textiles. I guess I at first tried to be a feminist fashion designer by making clothes that were comfortable and that I felt celebrated women and that were sustainable, local and just alternatives to mass-marketed, super-sexy kind of things. I love colour, and I wanted to play with making my customers feel more alive and a little more vibrant. Just a way of expressing yourself in an interesting and creative way. So I purchased the small garment manufacturing business that had been making Lunapads, opened a little boutique and did a lot of customer work. Tons! I’ve made so many wedding dresses. Oh my goodness!

Lunapads grew out of that. I was on my own for about seven years when I met my business partner Suzanne [Siemens] in 1999 at a community leadership course. When we first met, I thought she represented the path of the capitalist dark side that I feared. She was corporate. An accountant. But that path almost killed her. She was looking to apply her talents to something that mattered to her. We have now been partners for 16 years.
LiisBeth: As a women’s studies graduate, where did you go to learn about building a company?

Shaw: The venture program at BCIT, though it’s called something else now… Now there’s entrepreneurial education programs everywhere. Back in the day, not so much. It was one of the few. I just loved it. They were great. I think there were maybe 12 or 15 people in my whole class.

LiisBeth: Were there women in it?

Shaw: There were one or two others.

LiisBeth: How has feminism influenced the way you operate your company?

Shaw: For starters, when we hire someone, we always look for a strong fit with our values before anything else. Feminism is one of our corporate values, so if somebody does not identify that way, then they’re going to have trouble fitting in.

LiisBeth: What’s the gender balance of your staff?

Shaw: If you go by the numbers, it would be 90 percent who are women-identified and 10 per cent genderqueer-identified.

LiisBeth: Have you ever had men apply for jobs in the past?

Shaw: Never. We hire them as contractors. We absolutely have amazing business relationships with them. And our accountants are men and our tech guys are men. We have never had any men apply, so it would be hard to hire them. Let’s start there.

But we’re certainly open to it. It has just happened that way, and I think it’s partly driven by the type of products we make, which is not to say that all women menstruate or all demonstrators are necessarily women. We hire feminists.

LiisBeth: What kinds of policies would we see in a feminist company’s employee handbook?

Shaw: We have explicitly written policies around trans inclusion. We offer both maternity and paternity leave. We have a glossary of different terms so people understand what a gender as a spectrum is or what this gender means or what genderqueer means.

We expect and train people to use gender-inclusive language when dealing with customers. For example, if you’re in our social media marketing group, you don’t say, “Hey ladies! Hey girls!” If you are addressing a group of people who do identify that way exclusively, then that’s fine, but if you’re trying to address the wider community of Lunapads, then we’re very particular about using gender-inclusive language.

LiisBeth: Have you gone as far as changing your pronoun language in your marketing material?

Shaw: Yes. When we are speaking generally of our customers, we don’t use the language of “girls” and “women”; we use the words “community” or “individuals” or “people who menstruate.” We’re also working on our imagery. We just did a photo shoot with some trans people so we can be representative visually, and not just verbally, in the copy.

LiisBeth: Let me ask about another area of decision making in procurement. When you’re sourcing suppliers, do you look for women-owned enterprises to deal with?

Shaw: It’s challenging, especially when you’re dealing with textiles, but it’s true in many things. I would say that we look for sustainability first when it comes to supply chain, because we’re trying to work with environmentally sustainable fabrics. Because we’re B Corp, we look for B Corps, so we know their values match with ours. It may not be a specifically woman-owned or feminist organization, but it’s one that has been evaluated for its overall social and environmental impact.

LiisBeth: What about decision making and operating? How flat? How hierarchical? How has, let’s say, feminism, influenced your management practices?

Shaw: It’s interesting because I remember as a university student doing feminist organizing, I actually experienced a lot of frustration in that environment, where it almost felt too collective and too inclusive sometimes, to the point where things just didn’t get done. I would say that we’ve been through some interesting iterations. They say that a company’s culture is a direct reflection of the issues leaders themselves are working through, which is interesting.

A few years ago, we made the conscious decision for my partner Suzanne to be the point of the arrow, which implies this hierarchy.

Can we still be a feminist company and have somebody who is the boss? My answer to that is: I think yes. We’re still living in patriarchal times. There’s no doubt about it. We’re all, to some extent, still carrying around that baggage, but I also believe in efficiency, and I believe that not every decision needs to be collective. It just doesn’t. If you’re going to scale your business it can’t be.

LiisBeth: Feminism is everywhere today. And historically, feminists have an uneasy relationship with capitalism. Where do you see this all going?

Shaw: Let’s start with feminism. I feel more and more like we’re in the age of feminism, finally! People are recognizing the untapped resource of women, in particular from an economic perspective as taxpayers, as workers, and also at the same time we’ve got the climate collapsing due to values-free business practices that are exploitative.

When it comes to feminism and capitalism, I personally believe that the success of the feminist business revolution will be to change capitalism and, I hope, also work to address climate change because it’s our biggest opportunity.

We know the system of patriarchy needs to change, but within that we’ve got the capitalist system. It’s so essential and yet it’s been seized by a few and used in a twisted way. That’s why I believe things like feminist entrepreneurship can make a difference, where we can really take a kick at creating alternatives within the capitalist system.

The act of doing business can be really positive if you do it right. I think that the combination of feminism and capitalism, powered by creativity, can change the world.

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Activism & Action Our Voices

Small Business Owners Need To Shift Their Attitude Towards Maternity Leave

My son was born when I had been running my business for almost four years. I was not going to walk away from it so that meant finding a way to navigate my own maternity leave. I had a business partner, which gave me some needed flexibility. The legal time allowance for mat leave was irrelevant given I was the boss; I had to figure out how to make it work.

What my own experience taught me was the value of flexibility. If I hear anyone complain that the one-year maximum for maternity leave permitted in Canada is overly generous, I have to keep myself from attacking. It’s particularly hard to hear a woman say that she doesn’t like hiring women of child-bearing age because “then you have to deal with them having babies.”

Recently, a woman with two school-aged children said this. Sadly, she’s not the only narcissistic ignoramus who thinks that way. The truth is, taking a year maternity leave is terrific for everyone. It’s wonderful for the new mother and baby, of course. But it can also be an easy opportunity for your business to expand its skill pool.

Consider the challenge of accommodating mat leave in positive terms

People who wanted to work with us saw “filling in” for a mat leave as an excellent resume builder. Usually, they had slightly less experience than the person on leave, as most with equal experience won’t make a lateral move for one year, unless they’re out of work and really seeking permanent employment. Then you risk losing them mid-contract if something better comes along. But for someone more junior, filling a mat leave provides new, increased responsibility and exposure. We had terrific interim hires, and broadened our circle of supporters for those who moved on.

Once or twice, a new mom decided not to return. That gave us the opportunity to train and test her replacement for an entire year. By the time we knew the job was open, we knew whether that person was a good fit. How often do you get to audition someone for a year before offering a permanent position?

Allow flexibility that will keep women in the workforce — and help everyone function better

Your business can accommodate more flexibility than you realize. That’s where having a positive attitude starts. Let go of thinking that employees will take advantage of flex options, and you’ll discover just how much flexibility you can build into your business — and how appreciative people will be in turn.

Step one. Ask your employees to tell you what is important to them. They might ask you to put a comfy chair in the washroom so a woman can pump milk comfortably. Or to come in at 10 and leave at 4 for six months, which might enable a woman to return to work sooner or shorten her commute time dramatically. Or, take two hours at lunch so a woman can go home to feed her baby.

Many women on mat leave want to remain involved and engaged with work, and may also need to earn more than employment insurance (EI) pays during their leave. I always encouraged people to take the maximum amount of time off allowed but in the early years of our business, we were too small to top up EI, making it hard for some to afford the time off. Job sharing can be a brilliant solution when the employees propose it. I’ve seen situations in which two women, recognizing their similar situations, set up a job-sharing arrangement that lasted through the births of five children. One had a baby, then the other. It went back and forth for years and worked for everyone — including the business. Though neither earned a full-time salary, they both maintained their experience and currency in the workforce.

View mat leave as an investment in yourself — and your business

My own mat leave was successful for a few reasons. I lived close to work so I could go home at lunchtime. I returned to work three days a week until my son was six months, then four days for the next six months. I could also afford to hire a nanny as I had a partner who worked. My income was modest at the time, and I paid Emily my entire salary, which matched the rate for full-time nannies.  I viewed employing her as an excellent investment in my business and myself. She cared for my son five days a week, which meant that during the one or two days I was home, I could work or take a nap or make dinner — all in a relatively relaxed frame of mind. That helped me perform better as a mom and a business owner. On the days I worked in the office, she brought the baby to me twice a day, allowing me to nurse for 13 months. That was important to me and helped me create balance and feel good about it. When you’re building a business, sometimes that type of investment will help you be successful on both the home and work fronts.

Create family-friendly policies to make a workplace family

Because of my experience and positive attitude towards flex options, women in the office who wanted to have children knew we would be open to their requests for accommodation. Others benefitted as well. We established a policy that gave every employee 40 hours of personal time off a year, no questions asked. Parents could use the time to be with their children for illness, class trips, doctor appointments — without having to dip into vacation time, or worse, lie and call in sick. Other employees could use their personal hours for doctor’s appointments, moving days, or even recharge their batteries by taking in a movie. No one had to ask permission to take the time; everyone used it, as they needed it.

We also instituted a phone call policy that supported parenting. Anyone, at any time, would be interrupted by a call from a child, or the school. No questions were asked except, perhaps, do you need to go home? As a result, parents were more relaxed and the atmosphere was welcoming to kids. They sometimes hung out at the office when they had a stomachache (though nothing more serious). They dropped by after school and curled up somewhere to do homework or nap. They played with the office dogs – and there were a bunch of them, but that’s another column.

The office wasn’t overrun with children. No one complained because we normalized and integrated children and parenting into our workplace practices. For those who didn’t have children, “the kids” simply became part of our culture. We witnessed children being born to co-workers, watched them grow up, invited them to watch the Santa Claus parade as our office had the perfect perch, and eventually even gave some of those kids their first summer jobs. They did good work, too. Real work, and we paid them fairly. We were proud of them. Our company did what we could to make the divide between work and home easier, more fluid. We didn’t just talk about work/life balance; we did what we could to help people achieve it. Now some of our “work kids” have children of their own, and they tell stories of when their moms or dads worked with us, how they loved coming into the office, and how special they felt. That makes an impression on employees, a pretty nice one, I can assure you.

The approach and attitude worked when we had four employees and when we had 40. It allowed us to retain a superbly talented and committed team of professionals. People wanted to work with us for many reasons, but this was among them. No one left because we were unwilling to try to accommodate change, and everyone knew that they might be the beneficiary of that attitude, so everyone worked to help each other. We had full-time and contract workers who moved across the province and across the country and continued their association with us because we were determined to make flexibility successful. Today, electronics makes it easier to do than it was in 1986.

I’m going to continue to focus on flexibility in a future column by shining a light on policies that help keep women in the workforce that also create the best, most productive workplace for everyone. Stay tuned for my thoughts on vacation time (hint, two weeks is not enough), sick leave, caregiver leave, sabbaticals, telecommuting….


Featured Our Voices

Don’t "Think" in a Vacuum: Create a Decision-making Framework

Establishing a framework for decision-making isn’t meant to put you in a straightjacket; it’s intended to help you stay focused on the purpose that you’ve set for yourself — to create a successful business. Most of the time, there are alternative solutions to problems; the challenge of choosing the right one will force you to dig deep into your goals, motivations and values.
A decision-making framework guides your response to problems and solutions. It’s how you live the values that you determine are important to you, your business and even your product; and it ensures that those you do business with adhere to these same values. You will need to constantly test decisions against the values you want expressed by your business. It may sound like a lot of work, but we do some of this naturally all the time. Our values guide us instinctively.
What if your only goal is to maximize profits?  
All businesses need to make money, but having that as your singular purpose would guide your decision-making framework. You would pay the lowest wages possible and rent the least expensive space you could find, regardless of its comfort for employees. You would escalate pricing and source the least expensive materials available, regardless of their impact on the environment. You would locate your business in the least expensive jurisdiction available. Indeed, you would make all your decisions to ensure one thing only: the best profit margin. Your employees and the quality of your product would be secondary to making money. You would not think about your clients and suppliers as partners, nor consider how your business impacted their business or your community. For most of us, this is an extreme example.
What does a sustainable business decision-making framework look like?
LiisBeth founder Petra Kassun-Mutch launched the first Platinum Leed certified dairy in Canada in 2008, to produce award-winning, cave-aged cheese. Petra decided her company — Fifth Town Artisan Cheese in Ontario’s Prince Edward County — would not only make excellent cheese but also be a sustainable business, applying a sustainability lens to every aspect. She aligned her personal values with her business goals in her framework for decision-making, and those guided her every step of the way.
Petra partnered with all of her suppliers, learning enough about the business of supplying goat or sheep milk to understand what she could and could not ask of her suppliers. She understood the seasonality of milk production, how farmers built up supply and what it meant if their milk wasn’t purchased. She didn’t ask farmers to do things that would hurt their business for the benefit of her own.
She not only made the manufacturing process sustainable, she also sourced sustainable, organic, raw product, and extended that to elements not obvious to clients and consumers such as the cotton in staff uniforms (organic and sourced through fair trade suppliers); and the packaging, wrapping paper and containers (organic inks and labels adhered with environmentally safe glue). For every aspect of the business, Petra considered and found the environmentally sustainable solution.
What was the impact of her approach? Fifth Town became the number one destination for tourists in Prince Edward County. In its first full year of business, sales hit $1.2 million. People loved the cheese, but they also travelled to experience the entire operation and environmental commitment that Petra had made.
There was a time when sustainability in business was a fringe concept, dismissed as unnecessary or unaffordable. That’s no longer the case, but Petra was ahead of the curve, and she had to keep herself on track, as there was no established path to follow. Creating a decision-making framework ensured everyone who worked with her knew the direction they were going and that taking shortcuts was not acceptable.
Can Feminism be a decision-making framework?
If we recognize that there is now greater comfort in embracing sustainable business practices, what can we extrapolate about embracing equity in the workplace as a decision-making framework? Is it just a matter of time until businesses realize the need for it? Would avoiding the misunderstood and maligned term “feminism” help more businesses adopt the framework for decision-making that could help them achieve more equitable workplaces?
There is no question that feminism is a more difficult decision-making framework to develop and apply, as it’s not simply a matter of sourcing different glue for labels. In fact, it is the glue. It will advance cohesion in the workplace and ensure the greatest contribution by everyone to your business and the economy. Why that isn’t the primary goal of all business, especially those that want to maximize profits, is confusing. Happy employees are the best employees. Happiness comes from having some autonomy in your work, being respected, treated equitably and seeing that the people around you are respected and doing work that is meaningful.
So why is there resistance to even talking about feminism? Perhaps it’s because people think of feminism as an ideology. But wasn’t environmentalism once considered an ideology? Today it’s understood as a practice. Would it really be that difficult for principles of equity to become universal practice? Perhaps there are other barriers to change that we’re not willing to call out. For example, feminism politicizes the process of gender analysis, and politics has yet to become a comfortable and inclusive domain for women.
Plus, applying an expressly feminist lens to your thinking makes you think harder about everything. Next time you make a decision, ask yourself if that decision impacts women differently than men? Is the price of the haircut in your salon higher for women than for men, for a similar cut? Is the cost of a massage the same? Is the cost of tailoring the same for a woman’s jacket as for a man’s? In fact, are alterations included in the price of a suit, as they typically are for a man’s and rarely for a woman’s? Are dry cleaning costs the same?
These are obvious consumer-based examples, but considering them will lead you to more difficult issues, such as pay equity, access to advancement, and mentoring, to name some of the most obvious that we need to discuss openly. Is the government supporting economic development practices that ensure women and men have equal access to capital, for example? Are government programs designed to advance the types of business that attract a higher percentage of men? If so, why? And what can be done to provide equitable support to the business initiatives of women? What’s driving the decisions that lead to inequity?
Learn to question assumptions. In this era of hi-tech, certain kinds of businesses are privileged as being more scalable and global and therefore more valuable. In that environment, how would a disposable diaper be viewed today or maybe a new girdle for women? Spanx, anyone?
Once you’ve put a framework for decision making into place, you’ll discover yourself using it for all sorts of things beyond business. I warn you, though, that will open your eyes to social, economic and political patterns that you probably won’t like. But as a citizen, you’ll then want to push others — government, organizations, and families — to develop an equity decision-making framework too.