I have been thinking about this for a while and I asked my network to see if they could help me explore the concept. And of course, it’s led me down many paths.
The traditional workplace has long been associated with hierarchical structures, unhelpful (sometimes harmful) power dynamics, and strict gender roles. For decades, this environment has perpetuated a culture of sexism, harassment, and discrimination, creating a hostile, toxic workplace for many.
Some of the key characteristics of traditional workplaces:
A focus on competition and individualism, rather than collaboration and teamwork.
A hierarchical structure that reinforces power and control at the top, and limits opportunities for those who do not fit the mould.
An emphasis on traditional gender roles, with men often seen as the primary breadwinners and women as caregivers or support staff.
A lack of representation and support for women and other marginalised groups in leadership positions.
A culture that values "masculine" traits such as aggression, dominance, and assertiveness, and dismisses or devalues "feminine" traits such as empathy, compassion, and collaboration.
I’ve felt all of these as a woman working in organisations.
So, I wonder, is it possible to unf*ck work by creating a more feminist workplace?
Why, Michelle are you bringing Feminism into this?
So, feminism is a social, political, and cultural movement that advocates for gender equality and the promotion of the rights and interests of all genders, not just women. Feminism recognises that gender inequality harms everyone and seeks to create a more equitable and just society for us all.
Intersectional feminism is a feminist philosophy that recognises oppression and privilege intersect in complex ways based on social identities such as race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and much more. This framework acknowledges that people may experience different forms of discrimination and disadvantage (and privilege) depending on their various identities, and that these cannot be separated from one another.
Essentially, applying an intersectional feminist approach to work means recognising the complex ways in which our social identities intersect and interact in the workplace and actively working to create a more inclusive, equitable, and just workplace for all employees.
In fact, as Kai Javed reminded me on my LinkedIn post, “Gender mainstreaming as a UN sustainable development goal is underpinned by feminist theory on gender equality so theoretically speaking, if we are inclusive we are inherently feminist in our workplace inclusion development practice.”
In recent years, the concept of a "feminist workplace" has emerged as a way to create an inclusive and equitable work environment. In this article, we will explore the key characteristics of a feminist workplace and the first steps organisations can take to create one.
What makes a workplace 'feminist'?
A feminist workplace is a workplace that values gender equality and strives to create a more inclusive and equitable environment for all employees, regardless of their gender. In a feminist workplace, the leadership and organisational culture prioritise policies and practices that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.
This may include things like:
Equal pay for equal work
Flexible work arrangements to accommodate the needs of employees with caregiving responsibilities or other obligations outside of work
Comprehensive and affordable healthcare, including reproductive healthcare options (for those in countries without universal healthcare)
Training and education programs that address gender bias and harassment in the workplace
Strong anti-discrimination policies and practices that protect all employees from harassment and bias based on their gender identity, expression, or other identities
Employee resource groups or other forums for employees to discuss and address issues related to gender equality in the workplace
Opportunities for career advancement and leadership positions for women and other underrepresented groups.
Okay, tell me more
A feminist workplace recognises and addresses the systemic inequalities that have historically marginalised women and other groups and aims to create a more just and equitable workplace for everyone.
Naomi Davies highlights that “an equalities / feminist perspective must include trauma-informed responses, compassion first leadership, deep democracy in action and learning as we go in complexity. A reduction in over-reliance on project management and KPIs.”
What you'll find in a feminist workplace:
Inclusivity - Women and other marginalised groups are given the space to thrive by promoting diversity and inclusivity. Having a focus on creating a positive and inclusive work environment where everyone's voices are heard and valued. This can lead to greater job satisfaction and fulfilment, as employees feel they are contributing to a greater cause and are part of a community that shares their values.
People working to address systemic issues - It is important to fix the workplace rather than trying to "fix" women because the problems in the workplace are not caused by women themselves, but rather by systemic issues and biases that exist within the workplace. Focusing solely on "fixing" women assumes that they are the problem and that they need to change in order to succeed, rather than addressing the root causes of inequality and discrimination.
Focus on the well-being of employees - Ensuring all employees have access to flexible work arrangements, paid leave, and other benefits supporting work-life balance. This creates a culture of care that values the health and well-being of employees.
Valuing transparency and accountability - Promoting open communication, listening and constructive feedback. This creates a culture of trust and responsibility, where employees feel comfortable speaking up and holding others accountable for their actions.
Prioritising collaboration over competition - focusing culture on collaboration instead of competition can reap numerous benefits. Cooperation fosters teamwork, encourages knowledge-sharing, and promotes a sense of belonging among employees. It creates a more collaborative work environment where everyone works towards a common goal rather than focusing on individual achievements. This approach can lead to better problem-solving, innovation, and higher productivity. A culture of cooperation can also reduce stress and burnout by promoting a more supportive work environment.
Promoting education and continuous learning - providing employees with self-directed training, development opportunities, and resources supporting their growth and development. This creates a culture of learning that values personal and professional growth.
Challenging traditional gender roles - Men are often pigeonholed into roles perceived as "masculine," such as leadership and decision-making. This perpetuates a culture of toxic masculinity that harms both men and women. By promoting gender equality and challenging traditional gender roles, a feminist workplace creates a more equal and supportive environment for all employees.
Ensuring a safe workplace - zero tolerance for sexual harassment, discrimination, or gender-based violence, ensuring all team members feel safe and respected. Education, dialogue, role-modelling and holding everyone accountable.
The potential problems with feminist workplaces
It can be challenging to identify any real disadvantages of a feminist workplace, as the implementation of feminist principles in the workplace is aimed at creating a more equitable and inclusive environment for all employees! Some potential challenges or criticisms that could arise are:
Resistance to Change - Some employees, especially those who may be accustomed to more traditional or hierarchical workplace cultures, may resist or be uncomfortable with the changes brought about by a feminist workplace. For example, they may feel that gender-based quotas or initiatives are unfair or that affirmative action policies discriminate against certain groups.
Cost - Implementing feminist practices and policies may require resources, such as time, money, and personnel. For some companies, the cost of implementing these changes may be viewed as a disadvantage.
Difficulty in Implementation - It can be challenging to put feminist principles into practice, especially in traditionally male-dominated industries or where gender biases are deeply ingrained. It may take time and effort to create a workplace culture that truly values and supports gender equity.
Potential for Exclusion - While the goal of a feminist workplace is to create a more equitable and inclusive environment for all employees, there is a potential risk of excluding or marginalising other groups, such as those who do not identify as women or who do not conform to traditional gender roles. It's essential to ensure that feminist workplace initiatives are inclusive and intersectional.
Criticism from External Parties - Companies that take a firm stance on feminist issues may face criticism or backlash from external parties, such as customers or investors who disagree with their values or policies. This can create negative publicity and potentially harm the company's reputation.
What about the men?
Men can have different experiences working in a feminist workplace. Some men may feel empowered and appreciate the emphasis on equality, equity and inclusivity. They may feel that they are part of a team dedicated to promoting diversity, respect, and fairness and that their contributions are valued regardless of gender. Men who have experienced discrimination or harassment based on their gender or other characteristics may also feel that a feminist workplace creates a safer and more supportive environment for them.
On the other hand, some men may feel uncomfortable or even threatened by a feminist workplace, particularly if they have internalised sexist beliefs or feel that their traditional gender roles or their power/status is being challenged. They may feel that their opinions or experiences are not valued or that they are being unfairly criticised or excluded based on their gender. This can lead to resentment and hostility.
So, while it’s important to listen to concerns or it's important for all employees, regardless of gender, to be open to learning and growth and to work towards creating a respectful and inclusive environment for everyone.
What about the women?
When I asked about this on my LinkedIn post, Liz Crutchley immediately spoke about what we, as women, need to do to make the world of work a better place. Her two key points were “Unapologetically bringing your whole self to work and stop f*cking apologising”.
As I mentioned above, creating a feminist workplace is not about focusing our attention on the women, or making this work additional burdens for women to carry. We internalise the messages that we’re to blame if we’re not progressing with our careers the way we hoped and imagined we would. We think we need to focus our attention on ‘fixing’ the women who need to deal with their confidence issues, or imposter syndrome or not being strategic enough (all things I have been told I need to address in my career).
One of my favourite quotes by Alexander Den Heijer “When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”
Women face several obstacles when it comes to advancing in the workplace. Gender bias and stereotypes perpetuate unfair expectations and biases that hinder women's opportunities for growth. Limited access to challenging assignments and mentorship, combined with societal pressures related to work-life balance, further impede our professional development. The underrepresentation of women in leadership positions makes it challenging for aspiring women to find role models and support. Implicit biases, discrimination, and a lack of organisational support also contribute to the barriers women encounter.
None of these things are anything to do with individual women. It’s the environment they are in that harms them.
Examples of Feminist Workplaces
The Women's Foundation: A nonprofit organisation that focuses on improving the lives of women and girls in Hong Kong. They have implemented feminist practices within their workplace, including equal pay, flexible working arrangements, and a commitment to addressing sexual harassment and discrimination.
Buffer: A social media management company recognised for its commitment to gender equality in the workplace. They have implemented salary transparency, a gender-neutral parental leave policy, and a diverse hiring process to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace.
Patagonia: Patagonia is an outdoor clothing and gear company recognised for its commitment to social and environmental responsibility, including gender equality in the workplace. They have implemented policies such as equal pay, flexible working arrangements, onsite childcare and a commitment to sourcing from women-owned businesses to create a more equitable workplace.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): The ABC is Australia's national broadcaster, and they have committed to gender equality in their workplace. They have implemented flexible working arrangements, parental leave, and unconscious bias training policies to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace for all employees.
First Steps to Implementing a Feminist Workplace
Creating a feminist workplace requires a deliberate and sustained effort from leadership and all employees.
Some first steps organisations can take to create a feminist workplace include:
Hold leadership accountable - Creating a feminist workplace requires a sustained effort from leadership. It's crucial for leaders to prioritise gender equality and inclusivity, hold themselves and others accountable for creating an equitable work environment, and actively listen to feedback from employees.
Establish a diversity and inclusion task force - A task force made up of employees from different backgrounds and levels will help guide the organisation's efforts towards becoming a more inclusive workplace. The task force can identify specific goals and initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion and provide regular progress updates.
Conduct a diversity and inclusion audit - A diversity and inclusion audit can help identify areas where the organisation needs to improve. This includes analysing the workforce demographics, assessing employee satisfaction and engagement, and identifying potential barriers to diversity and inclusion.
Develop and communicate a diversity and inclusion policy - A formal policy that outlines the organisation's commitment to diversity and inclusion can help set the tone and expectations for all employees. It should include clear definitions of discrimination and harassment and provide guidance on reporting and addressing incidents.
Foster a culture of open communication - The organisation should encourage open and honest communication and provide channels for employees to share their thoughts and concerns. This includes creating a safe space for reporting incidents of discrimination or harassment and responding to complaints in a timely and supportive manner.
Provide diversity and inclusion training - All employees should receive training on diversity and inclusion to help them understand the importance of promoting gender equality and creating a safe and inclusive workplace. The training should cover topics such as unconscious bias, cultural competency, and respectful communication.
Implement equitable hiring practices - The organisation should review and update its recruitment and hiring practices to ensure they are fair and inclusive. This includes using gender-neutral language in job postings, removing bias from the selection process, and actively seeking out diverse candidates.
Provide employee benefits that support work-life balance - A feminist workplace recognises the importance of work-life balance and provides benefits such as flexible work arrangements, parental leave, and childcare support.
The 'business case' for Creating a Feminist Workplace
It's almost annoying that we have to even think about this!. But you'll appreciate that in order to get anything done in an organisation, you have to promise tangible financial benefits.
So, in this vein, creating a feminist workplace can lead to better employee retention, engagement, increased productivity, so you’ll get improved financial performance.
Research shows that gender diversity in leadership and management positions can improve financial performance, innovation, and decision-making. In addition, by promoting gender equality and creating an inclusive workplace culture, organisations can attract and retain top talent, increase employee engagement and productivity, and reduce the costs associated with turnover and discrimination lawsuits.
Additionally, a feminist workplace can help organisations better serve their customers by creating products and services that are more inclusive and responsive to the needs and interests of diverse customer groups. By creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace, companies can better understand the needs and preferences of their customers, leading to increased customer loyalty and sales.
Creating a feminist workplace is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. Studies have shown that diverse teams make better decisions and are more innovative. In addition, the evidence shows that creating a diverse team improves business outcomes. By bringing together people from different backgrounds and experiences, we can create a more innovative, creative, and effective workplace.
By promoting diversity, and inclusivity, challenging traditional gender roles, prioritising well-being, valuing transparency and accountability, and promoting education and continuous learning, we can unfuck work and create a more supportive, equal, and inclusive workplace for all.
Thanks for the fab questions, challenges and comments on my LinkedIn post by Charlotte Axon, Kai Javed, Naomi Davies, Liz Crutchley, Colin Newlyn and Peter Stannack. I’m looking forward to exploring more on this topic.
Fix the System, Not the Women by Laura Bates - https://www.waterstones.com/book/fix-the-system-not-the-women/laura-bates/9781398514331
HBR Women at work - Sorry, not sorry - Do women really apologize more than men at work? https://open.spotify.com/episode/1ZBekX5pIqTqRrHp5UgkT7?si=OGB9FSlRRbq2FxXOcp5M6w
Addressing workplace gender inequality -Michelle Ryan - https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/addressing-workplace-gender-inequality
Feminism in the workplace supports everyone - EJ Peters - https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2020/10/26/feminism-in-the-workplace-supports-everyone/
Whitney Wolfe Herd: How To Build A Workplace Where Women Can Thrive - https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/04/195980/whitney-wolfe-herd-equal-pay-day
How to run a feminist company - Lila MacLellan - https://qz.com/work/2017573/how-to-run-a-feminist-company
Fawcett Society - https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/Pages/Category/current-projects
Companies invested in the success of women at work - https://ripplematch.com/career-advice/companies-invested-in-the-success-of-women-at-work-d819cb0b/#