Women Making Waves: Dr. Sarah Saska, CEO of Feminuity

by Tyler Adams on Mar 7, 2019 3:00:00 PM

When you're putting out your first-ever Gender Equity Report, like TINYpulse is this week, it's always good to talk to someone with a doctorate in Diversity, Inclusion, and Innovation. Dr. Sarah Saska not only matches that description, she gave us some really helpful advice: to make sure our research didn't encourage the homogenization of women in the workforce.

We talked about how companies fall into that trap, which companies her consultancy, Feminuity, can't work with, and the concept of "diversity debt.” Dr. Saska picked up our call at her office in Toronto while holding Feminuity's Chief Barketing Officer, Gordon. We omitted any "aww"ing on our part from the transcript.

A headshot of Dr. Sarah Saska, CEO of Feminuity.

TINYpulse: How would you describe what you do at Feminuity? And am I pronouncing that right? "fe-mi-new-i-ty?"?

Dr. Saska: That's right. We just had our logo redone with a nudge embedded in the design to try to help people to pronounce it.

feminuity's logo - the word "feminuity" in black with syllable marks and bracketed in aqua

Is it working?

I think it is!

At Feminuity, we like to say that we’re working to make better things and to also make things better, for everyone.  We support organizations to make better things such as inclusive products and services.  We work with clients to identify different types of bias that may be embedded in a product or service and we also help them to think about the unintended consequences that may come from certain products.  

We also work to make things better for people within organizations, whether that means ensuring the accessibility of a physical or digital working space or the inclusiveness of a company’s health benefits, ensuring their policy supports members of the trans* community, for example.

What’s an example of an unintended consequence of a product?

Smart home tech provides an example.  

We know women and girls are disproportionately impacted by various forms of violence - in Canada, 7 out of 10 survivors of family violence are women and girls - and smart home technology now provides abusers with a new way to control their victims when they're not in the home.  

As of now, smart abuse cases are not formally tracked by police officials, and this is concerning as smart home device use is expected to grow by 60% by 2021(Canada).

Smart abuse will disproportionately impact women and girls which makes smart abuse an unintended consequence of smart home technology and in many ways, a largely gender-specific technology problem.

 

I watched your video on "diversity debt" and it's still blowing my mind. Can you define that for us?

When I was in undergrad, I started day trading to put myself through school. The most common advice that I received from people who understood much more than myself was to make sure that I built a diversified portfolio. While approaches to trading definitely vary, the advice to build a diversified portfolio remains a fairly common tactic that investors continue to use to mitigate the risks that are associated with having "all your eggs in one basket" so to speak.

The same advice is relevant to companies. If everyone on your team looks, feels, and thinks much like yourself, then you're effectively putting all of your eggs in one basket with whatever you're designing for the world.

When we have a diversity of people, perspectives, and experience within any given team, the chances of what comes from that being more useful to the world are a lot higher.

I think it's so fascinating that you and your co-founder [Dr. Andrea Rowe] came from this academic background, and now you're in the position of doing what sounds like a lot of education.   Is that helpful?

For folks who are skeptical and not yet “bought in,” our research backgrounds seem to matter. We draw on data and research to help them understand.

Our educational background can also work against us because being so grounded in research can sometimes result in us being a bit long-winded, which can be a problem in a world of 140 and now 280 characters.  Over the last five years, Andrea and I have had to learn how to translate complex and important ideas into simple, snackable, and accessible soundbites. Helping people to understand intersectionality has been challenging to say the least!

How do you talk to organizations about intersectionality?

Well, we use visuals or we leave it to the greats.  For those who are new to the concept of intersectionality, we recommend Kimberlé Crenshaw's TED Talk on the framework.  Crenshaw is credited with founding the term "intersectionality" 28 years ago. Her original paper can be found here.

Is there a space where you think there's a really big gender gap in employee experience right now?

Too often, companies design gender-related initiatives that while well-intentioned, can give the sense that women need fixing or that women need to be “empowered.”  More often than not, women need companies to look at their policies, procedures, and cultures to de-bias them and rid them of barriers to allow women the space to do their thing.

Are there organizations that Feminuity can't help?

We can't support or grow with organizations that don't think that there's any sort of problem going on.

When companies are too quick to present a knee-jerk reaction saying "Oh we don't have any diversity and inclusion issues, we're good," we can't really help them, at least not yet.

We also don't work with organizations that want to engage with us simply to “check a box.”

If they come to us and tell us exactly what they need and that they have already decided won’t work for us either - "We're going to have a women's sponsorship program and that's going to solve all of our problems pertaining to advancing senior women.”

We know that we need to spend a lot of time to really understand the organization and what's actually going on before bridging into solution-mode. We want organizations that have some openness in their hearts and their minds; those who understand that it will be somewhat messy and a bit uncomfortable.

You mentioned the last six months and how things are accelerating; what do the next six months or the next year hold for gender equity in the workplace? What do you think the future is going to hold for you in your field?

In the last few years, we've seen a lot of the "add women and stir" approach.  I think in the last little while we've started to see more nuance around that conversation and an understanding that a "women-first" approach doesn't actually work; the approach needs to be intersectional.  

We work diligently to support women, but diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, especially in the Canadian context must be about so much more.  We approach all of our work using an ‘intersectional’ lens which means that we support new immigrants and refugees to gain meaningful employment; we help Millennials and Baby Boomers to build reciprocal working relationships, we support people on the autism spectrum to thrive in the workplace, as well as those who transitioning, chest-feeding young children, and supporting their mental health, as examples.

People are starting to understand that women aren't a homogenous group. You can't design one program that will fit all women.

Shifting beyond an “add women and stir” approach and seeing the benefit of using an intersectional framework in this work is also helping people to shift away from “solutions” that treat women as a homogenous group. We’re learning that we can't design one program and expect it to fulfill the needs of all women.  We need to make sure that there are budgets and resources invested in tackling structural inequalities and inequities within organizations to really move things forward.

I'm a little shy about the follow up question because I don't want to ask for a band-aid after you just explained how nuanced the future will be - but is there advice that you can give employees to make their employee experience better for women and also more equitable across all genders? Is there something people can do tomorrow?

It starts with understanding that we cannot treat women as a homogeneous group. If you've already got that part down, I think you're well on your way.

Too often, we see a problem and we're quick to design a solution for it without actually consulting with the people who are most impacted by it. We recommend sending out a survey or interviewing women inside your organization. Opening space to unearth the experiences of women within an organization to really just understand what's going on is important.

Too often, we see a problem and we're quick to design a solution for it without actually consulting with the people who are most impacted by it. 

Once you do that, then you can be a facilitator or a leader to co-design solutions with women within your organization.

One thing we've seen a lot in companies that use TINYpulse is the rise of women's groups within organizations; for advocacy, for support, for connection. What makes a good women's group, or what makes an effective one?

A good [women's group] is one that brings an intersectional framework to the group and holds space for all of those intersections and needs. If a group doesn’t hold space for the many intersecting identities then it's most likely that the group will advance white women.

I think you mentioned on the site, or it might have been in an interview, that you bring a "gender lens" to your work. Is that a term that you use?

There's a cool example from Volvo. In the 1990s, a group of women at Volvo developed the "Your Concept Car".

In their design process, they consulted with other women about their needs for vehicles. One of the needs that came from that was a keyless entry because they found that moms, women, people carrying groceries, most people, really, needed an easier way to get into their vehicle. Now keyless entry is quite standard across most automobile organizations.

The same is true of other lenses - the field of disability studies has brought some of the most fascinating and useful developments to the world, those of which are often enjoyed by disabled and able-bodied people alike.

 

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This post was written by Tyler Adams

Tyler is TINYpulse's Communications Specialist, which means he gets to excitedly tell people stories of transformative and dynamic workplaces. He loves writing and seasonal Oreo variations.

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