Business Culture

Equity Expert Dr Sarah Saska on Navigating Diversity in the Workplace

Workplace policies are an essential part of any organization. Not only are they enacted to maximize a company’s efficiency, but they set the standards in place that align with the company’s mission and values. However, when it comes to building and executing these plans, it’s often easier said than done. Over years of development, workplace policies are still facing shortcomings, particularly in terms of diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality. But, according to equity experts like Dr Sarah Saska, solving these oversights shouldn’t be a long-term project.

Dr Saska is the co-founder of Feminuity, an “equity-driven feminist practice” that focuses on building equal practices and inclusive workplace policies. This month, the brand is unveiling the results behind its latest report, “40+ Dimensions of Diversity & the Many Intersections,” which aims to help companies evolve towards more inclusive policies. In a recent interview with Bay Street Bull, Dr Saska discusses the study’s findings, the different ways in which a workplace policy provides the foundation for a company, and strategies to enhance employee performance and morale.

Despite the progress made over the years, what are the biggest gaps you found in workplace policies throughout the study?

Dr Sarah Saska: At Feminuity, we work with organizations of all sizes—from start-ups to Fortune 500s —so we have a lot of experience developing inclusive workplace policies.

One common gap with many workplace policies is that they lack intersectionality – they only focus on or support one aspect of people’s identity. For example, they may only focus on gender (“We need more women in leadership!”), or they may only focus on race (“How do we attract more racialized team members?”). While gender and race are incredibly relevant realities that affect people’s opportunities, outcomes, and treatment at work, a holistic and effective DEI approach must be more expansive, comprehensive, and intersectional.

Beyond binary gender and race, employers must consider abilities, age, caregiving responsibilities, citizenship, cultural backgrounds, education, faith/spirituality, genders beyond the binary, language, immigration status, military experience, personality, relationship status, sexuality, size, socioeconomic background, criminal record, transgender status, workplace seniority, and so much more.

This is why we set out to create our “40+ Dimensions of Diversity & the Many Intersections” report; in order to help organizations incorporate a more intersectional lens into their policy development.

What unique challenges do certain intersectional demographics face that have traditionally been unsupported?

Dr Sarah Saska: Groups with multiple marginalized identities are often dismissed and reduced to a single identity. It is important to remember that all people have overlapping and intersecting identities. Identities are not fractions that can be removed and isolated.

Through our work and lived experiences, we frequently hear about the dangers of these more one-dimensional approaches to identity and inclusion. Take for example pay equity analyses that are leading practices for understanding if your workplace is allocating compensation fairly and without harmful biases. At the aggregate level, the data might show that there are not any significant salary disparities between men and women. However, a more granular and intersectional analysis might reveal that this reality is far more reflective of white women’s experiences and that significant disparities still exist for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women. Plenty of research already demonstrates this pattern. These analyses should also go beyond the gender binary, and investigate the outcomes of non-binary, gender fluid, transgender, Two-Spirit, and other marginalized gender identities. Many organizations forget intersectionality and gather gender-related data in ways that unintentionally exclude and erase gender diversity.

Moreover, intersectional analysis helps us break down misleading ideologies like the “model minority myth” which labels Asian people as industrious, rule-abiding, well-educated, and higher income and then stigmatizes other racialized people in comparison. This myth only uplifts a small portion of well-educated East & South Asian people with tech backgrounds and erases the struggles and challenges of Southeast Asian refugees, First Generation Asian immigrants, Asian people from lower castes, and Pacific Islanders who still experience immense disparities in income, educational attainment, and workplace representation. An organization might think that Asian people are well represented on their teams (many tech companies come to this conclusion) and sideline challenging anti-Asian racism in their DEI strategy, but not realize that they are still playing into these inequities and are only hiring and promoting specific intersections of Asian identity.

People at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities also face unique oppressions due to the unique composition of their social location. Countless case studies and testimonials show that racialized women are more likely to be assigned administrative tasks and “office housework” like scheduling, note-taking, and cleaning up and are then looked over when it comes to being assigned the “glory work” that positions someone better for advancement. Black women are far more likely to be tone-policed and deemed “aggressive” whereas, in contrast, white women are often stereotyped as passive and given greater empathy.

These issues are important in common DEI initiatives such as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). ERGs are organized around specific social demographics and these communities act as support systems and advocacy platforms for marginalized and underrepresented communities. However, ERGs are usually designed around singular identities and do not create adequate space for acknowledging people’s multiple intersections. An ERG for people with disabilities might only focus on physical disabilities and gloss over mental and neurocognitive disabilities.

A women’s ERG might implicitly prioritize the oppressions faced by women from dominant groups and not address issues faced by women from non-dominant groups such as trans women, queer women, racialized women, neurodivergent women, and more.  Intersectionality tells us that companies should make a concerted effort to encourage collaboration between ERGs so they can create more intersectional programming and all team members can be included and seen in their activities.

What are some of the positive changes that have taken place over the years to better support women in the workplace?

Dr Sarah Saska: While we know intersectionality is still a challenge, we have seen some great progress in the past few years with organizations starting to go beyond one-dimensional policies. At Feminuity, we’ve worked with many clients to help them understand the nuances of intersectionality to help develop inclusive policies that benefit all women, as well as many other employees.

A great example is expanding traditional maternity leave (often only available to biological mothers) to “parental“ leave.  This ensures LGBTQ+ women, women who adopt children, and men are able to take the time they need. We often encourage workplaces to go a little further and create a “care leave” policy. This is more general and allows anyone to take time to care for loved ones, whether that be newborns, foster children, ageing parents, or even pets.

How can consumers and employees decipher if a company’s policies and statements are merely performative?

One of the most important questions to assess if an organization is being performative is to ask – Do they take public accountability when they make mistakes? If they don’t, chances are their policies or statements may not align with meaningful actions.

At Feminuity, we believe that organizations must assess and update their companies’ values and culture before implementing new policies or issuing statements. It is difficult for both consumers and employees to trust these statements or policies – no matter how good they might sound – if the organization implementing them has not undergone a genuine evaluation of their culture.

A great way for employees to evaluate if a policy is performative or not is to ask – are the people affected by the policies included in their development? By consulting these people as part of the decision-making process, company leaders can expand their own understanding of employee needs and ensure that new policies support the team the way they intended them to.

For consumers, it’s important to pay attention to how the organization treats their clients, customers, and their people to assess if they are genuinely committed to their “mission statements.” For example, pay attention to the amount of accessibility offered to customers. Does the organization have an accessibility department? Are accessibility programs applied to all levels of the organization? Are there policies in place to accommodate and support their people with accessibility needs? The answers to these questions can help unpack an organization’s genuine intentions.

What are some strategies that companies can use to make their policies more inclusive across a wide spectrum?

There are many ways companies can work to become more inclusive. A great place to start is by doing an honest assessment of the inclusiveness of existing policies. Once you’ve done this assessment, you can consult with your people and involve them in the development of new policies, while implementing ways to receive open and honest feedback.

Also, know that organizations don’t have to embark on this process alone, that’s why DEI experts – like Feminuity – exist to support companies and teams on this journey to assess existing structures and create more inclusive workplaces.

RELATED: 6 Canadian Startups That Are Hardcoding Diversity Into Today’s Leading Companies

In what ways do gender-focused workplace policies generally do more harm than good?

In our experience, gender-focused workplace policies generally come from a good place but often leave people behind and can actually reinforce inequity.

The biggest problem is that these policies are created with the “default” woman in mind, but in North America that default is a white, cisgender, heterosexual, and non-disabled woman. Therefore, gender-focused policies tend to benefit them and exclude other women with more complex identities. In reality, everyone has a culmination of multiple identities that make them who they are. Racialized women, women who have disabilities, LGBTQ+ women, immigrant women, etc., require support in ways that address their needs beyond the gender gap and these complex identities are not taken into account with standard gender-focused policies.

How can companies shift their IWD celebrations to create a more sustained impact?

At Feminuity, we help organizations align their good intentions with meaningful and long-term impacts. This includes shifting IWD celebrations from performative acts to meaningful actions. This can include:

  • Building awareness for topics that affect women, such as menopause, fertility treatment, and miscarriage.
  • Developing a pipeline for feedback, where women’s needs within a company can be acknowledged and addressed.
  • Designing programs that support women’s career development.
  • Designing inclusive policies that offer benefits for all women and all types of families. 

What are some examples of companies that have evolved their policies appropriately over the years?

Many companies worldwide have taken great strides to implement more inclusive policies. For example, in 2019 UK based intimate healthcare brand, Intimina, implemented a menstruation policy that allowed for flexible scheduling and menstrual care allowances. Telecommunication company Vodafone introduced a training and awareness program to all employees globally, including a toolkit focused on understanding menopause and providing guidance on how to support employees, colleagues, and family members. And as of January 2022, Pinterest now offers benefits that support employees of all genders facing infertility as well as four weeks of paid leave for employees who experience a loss through miscarriage.

These are just a few examples of notable policies that show the ways in which workplaces can support their people.

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