Feminism in the Workplace | by Nisha Patel

Sometimes in the School of Business, I encounter friends who don’t understand the meaning of modern-day feminism. In an environment where we opt into the specific learning we want, I’m not surprised.

Looking at the tenets of such movements as Women Against Feminism, we can see that there are women who feel feminism excludes and attacks men, and that women enjoy full equality in the status quo. Students see that there are many business organizations that have championed women’s participation in industry-specific areas, such as entrepreneurship, and female leaders are quick to speak to the importance of mentorship of other women. But while initiatives like the Network of Empowered Women Conference have enjoyed nation-wide participation, some students are still slow to speak up in favour of feminism’s place in the business world for fear of being seen as hyper-critical and less fun.

I’ve met many successful female students that feel that feminism is not for them because of their own positive experiences. Being an independent female with institutional and social support has been the norm their entire lives, and they’ve never been overlooked or undercut by their male colleagues. Even male colleagues also point to their own positive treatment of women when denying the existence of workplace discrimination, claiming that women aren’t mistreated because they themselves have never mistreated or seen women being mistreated. But the very nature of feminism in business is that discrimination isn’t a clear-cut, overt choice that evil CEOs and businessmen are making; discrimination is a subtle, subconscious series of socialized biases that we act upon while feeling in full control of our actions. And so my fear is that we’re inclined to use our own positive experiences as a denial of overall discrimination and oppression that exists. Feminism isn’t the norm; it needs to be an active choice and a deliberate series of actions that counter subconscious biases.

The idea that the workplace is equitable is a threat to the progress that companies and businesspeople are capable of achieving. Although we’ve made progress as a global workplace, that progress is losing momentum. The World Economic forum predicts that under Canada’s current rate of achieving employment equity, it will take until 2095 or 81 years, for the gender gap to close. As the report notes, “because women account for one-half of a country’s potential talent base, a nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its women.”

In Canada there are still gender equity issues that need to be examined. The World Economic Forum’s 2014 report on the global gender gap points out some key employment disparities between the hours women work, the type of work they participate in, and the renumeration parity they receive. The old statistic that women make 70 cents to the dollar may not be the financial reality, but the wage equality for similar lines of work is, alarmingly, 72 percent. This means that a quarter of female workers in the same lines of work as men are still failing to earn as much as their male counterparts. So when we claim that women are only paid less as an aggregate because of differences in the industries they choose, we’re wrong.

And when it comes to lifestyle indicators, the data points out further differences. For instance, women spend 254 minutes per day on unpaid work compared to the 160 minutes spent by men. Female unemployment, at 6.8 percent, is lower than male unemployment at 7.7 percent, but 26.5 percent of employed women are working part-time compared to only 11.8 percent of employed men, despite a 1.34 to 1.00 over-representation of women in tertiary education. And even though more women than men go to school, the rate at which women are represented as legislators, senior officials, and managers at only 57 percent of the rate that men are.

Take, for example, a common issue amongst business students: quotas for women on corporate boards. I have heard often that these measures are tokenistic. But corporate boards recruit the skills they require. However, those required skills are based on the status quo, and when the status quo favours male representation on boards, those boards may not be actively recruiting non-status-quo, non-male skill sets. To be frank, the board might not know what new skill sets it could benefit from. This is supported by the data on female board participation in the Fortune 500 companies: boards with higher gender parity tended to outperform boards without. As the World Economic Forum report points out, companies that “recruit and retain women, and ensure that they attain leadership positions, outperform those that do not.”

While the glass ceiling may be cracking, we’ve noticed that because of status quo bias, women at the top are shoved onto the more precariously harmful glass cliff — positions of power during times of crisis that make it more likely that a woman will fail. Since many business students have never had to face these undercurrents of discrimination, however, they won’t be expecting to in the near future either. But that’s why these facts matter: we can, from early on in our careers, actively pay attention to our actions and the systems of power we participate in.

Our discussion is far from complete. Within feminism there are power imbalances within our ranks. The way that women of colour and minorities experience patriarchy is often harder to overcome, and there is pressure to cover those aspects of their identity that make them different. Aboriginal women, more likely to be single mothers in cities, face workplace discrimination and barriers to their participation that may be more profound than other excluded groups. Resumes with traditionally white, male names tend to fare better than those with ‘ethnic’ ties. We have stringent dress codes that we follow and impose on others, but those norms themselves are representative of a Western, heteronormative understanding of business fashion. And we are far from accepting and accommodating the LGBTQIA+ identities into our workplaces; I would be surprised if gender-neutral washrooms, for instance, were even a consideration for large office spaces.

Being there for other women doesn’t mean we’re huddled around a fire with sticks in hand to fend off patriarchal men. We’re not succumbing to feelings of helplessness when we admit that structural, systemic forms of oppression can and do hurt women. We are no less empowered, creative, and ambitious by recognizing that there are reasons that women are fearful and wary of their chances of success. Feminism in business means acknowledging a plurality of levels of privilege and oppression that might exist for women in today’s world, and advocating for workplace equity while being supportive of each other. It’s admitting we are feminists, unafraid of accepting the intricate challenges to face in the years ahead.

Cover illustration courtesty of Wanderer Online illustrator Jonathan Dorianio

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  • Srosh Hassan

    Extremely well written.

  • This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read. Really good job.

  • Carissa

    Brilliant, brilliant piece Nisha! 🙂

  • Jennifer Shah

    Great article.