The need for a paradigm shift
It was International Women’s Day again and I was just so fed up.
Every year we lament the grim reality of gender injustice and every step forward means two steps back.
It is time for fresh and more radical approaches – re-thinking how we do things in the most basic way.
It is not about changing gears. It is about getting off that comfortable but slow bike we are riding and replacing it with the Millennium Falcon.
I see these fundamentally different approaches arise in areas of public policy, like the concept of Feminist Foreign Policy.
Which is not a niche subsection of foreign policy. It is all of Foreign Policy, but with a radically different – feminist – approach.
The power of these new concepts shows clearly by the push-back they receive.
Now, as I am passionate about the workplace and organizational design, this is where I want to radically change how we approach these matters.
Where it starts
Today, we lament the lack of women in the workplace, especially in technical and leadership roles. We lament pay gaps, and toxic masculinity, and old boy networks.
And as modern leaders we want to change it, as we value equal opportunities for all genders, appreciate the innovative benefits of diverse teams, and see the need for leveraging female talent to overcome the shortage of skilled labor.
We also understand the reasons for the miserable situation. We try to counter them by providing flexible working hours and female mentorship programs.
But it is not enough. It is too slow. It addresses symptoms. And most importantly, it is only a handful of random measures, applied by HR, that can be easily circumvented or abolished whenever “business needs” arise.
Latest evidence to that fact: The tech layoffs in 2022 have been devastating – and 70% of the affected people were women (research by WomenTech Network, 2023).
This is why we need a different, more radical approach. I advocate for fundamentally changing the way we look at organizational design and company culture.
The Feminist Transformation: A holistic approach
To keep being successful in their areas of operations, companies and organizations need to continuously reinvent and transform themselves.
We have mastered the Agile and the digital transformation.
Now it is time for the Feminist Transformation – a change process leading towards the Feminist Organization.
The key difference to existing approaches like DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) is its change of perspective.
Instead of singular activities addressing insular issues like pay gap or lack of women in leadership positions, the Feminist Transformation is a holistic approach.
It changes everything about running a company or leading an organization, by setting women-centricity at the core and foundation of any organizational design.
It defines ALL structures, processes, and culture in a way that is the most beneficial to women. It changes the current power dynamics.
It is not an afterthought when things go wrong, it is not the icing on the cake in times of prosperity. It is not the visionary goal, far in the future.
Instead, it is simply the non-negotiable definition of a company’s operating model.
The beauty of a committed, non-negotiable approach is that it provides clarity to all stakeholders and members of an organization. It guides decision-making. It also tells people how to behave when nobody’s looking.
With that, it becomes deeply ingrained in the company culture, it defines the “company DNA”.
Feminist Transformation in practice
Let me again clarify that a Feminist Transformation is not just about implementing a list of specific measures.
Instead, it is a commitment made by leadership to build, develop and lead their organization or company in a way that is the most beneficial to women, inside or outside the organization.
Only then, based on this commitment, measures will be implemented, policies will be created, targets will be set that change things fundamentally.
(If you went through an Agile transformation with your organization, you will recognize many traits here: The core exercise is to change people’s mindsets and beliefs about work, collaboration, and leadership. Which specific agile methodologies the teams then choose is up to them.)
Feminist Transformation is a change process leading towards a Feminist Organization.
The steps in this process may vary, they depend a lot on the specific organization, its female employees’ needs, and its societal environment.
The Feminist Transformation is not about soft skills and it is not a feelgood movement. It is a major change process and it may require tough decisions.
These are the 3 main levers:
- Organizational design: To set up processes and structures
- Organizational development: To adapt the organization to changing environmental or business needs
- Organizational culture: People behave, lead, communicate, collaborate, decide
… in a way that is most beneficial to women.
This is the major difference between a Feminist Transformation to other forms of organizational transformative processes.
Agile or digital transformation, like any major organizational change, aims at increasing an organization’s efficiency and effectiveness towards commercial success.
While this is still true with the Feminist Transformation, this approach introduces one additional goal: Maximizing the benefit for women.
I am convinced that at least in a long-term perspective, this goal will rarely contradict the aforementioned one about efficiency, effectiveness, commercial success.
But the key commitment of leadership is this:
In situations with conflicting goals, maximizing the benefit for women is the one that trumps the others.
It is in these situations that this approach enfolds its transformative power. If leadership has to decide about a solution which is detrimental to women but good for business, this should lead to reconsidering the business and / or operating model of the organization instead of choosing the “good for business” solution.
Which then leads to very different outcomes that in the long run are better for business, women, and society alike.
Characteristics of a Feminist Organization
Let me share some thoughts on what characterizes a Feminist Organization. It is an incomplete list and a topic for further exploration.
A women-centric culture creates a workplace that is free from fear. An environment that removes the constant aggressions, marginalizations and discriminations that are the norm in a woman’s day-to-day life.
An environment where everybody is treated with the same respect, decency, and appreciation.
Where every woman’s voice gets heard and valued, and female leadership is the standard.
Feminist organizational design embraces the fact that for various reasons, women’s needs at the workplace differ from men’s.
There are differences related to a woman’s situation in society, her being most often the one to shoulder family care. Women are physically different from men, so specific (mental) health topics need to be taken into account to allow women to enfold their full energy while at the same time taking good care of themselves.
There are also specific socialized skill sets which can be leveraged instead of being exploited or neglected.
But it is also about different perceptions of what makes a good job.
For example, a recent study listed the reasons why people quit their job: Women are more inclined to quit because of stress, unsatisfying tasks, bad leadership, and lack of relatable strategy than men (XING / Forsa 2023).
All of these factors can be addressed by building an organization that is optimized for women.
Leadership is female
A Feminist Transformation must standardize female leadership to turn it into normality. In a Feminist Organization, women do not ask for a seat at the table – it is their table, they own it.
To get there, any deciding body needs to be staffed with minimum 50% women. This applies to boards, management levels, but also to the change process itself – any change committee needs to feature equal representation.
This also requires full transparency about where and how decisions get made. Informal hierarchies and back-room rounds need to be dissolved.
A Feminist Organization ensures participation
Feminist organizational development shares the believe that decisions need to be made where the work happens, by those closest to the problem.
Women are a diverse group in itself, thus a female leader at the top is not the one to decide what is the most beneficial for all women in the organization.
With that, a Feminist Transformation itself also needs to be a participatory process and incorporate participation in all structures and processes of the organization.
A Feminist Organization supports mothers
While this is self-evident for mothers in the staff, I want to highlight the support for mothers outside of the organization.
A Feminist Organization must not thrive by exploiting stay-at-home women, being partners to staff members.
This means it requires and supports its male employees to take an equal share of parental leave and care work.
It also removes any behaviors, structures and processes that favor employees with access to the unpaid work and support of a stay-at-home or part-time partner (like extended working hours, specific travel requirements etc).
A Feminist Organization removes pay gaps
While this is on the list of every DEl plan, data shows that there is little success so far.
A Feminist Organization thus addresses the root of the problem, by
a) replacing salary negotiations with a salary formula,
b) increasing the female ratio in higher-paid jobs to at least 50% and
c) switching everybody to a 4-day work week without pay loss.
Needless to say, it also makes its salaries transparent.
A call to action
I hope for nothing less than to spark a movement.
To encourage women to demand a Feminist Transformation and collaborate to make the Feminist Organization a reality.
To encourage men to act as their strongest allies.
And to encourage leaders – us all – to spearhead this movement.
For a better workplace, a better life, a better world.
*Jutta Horstmann is a
feminist sustainability and free software advocate with 25 years of experience in the IT sector. She speaks to us about her article on an episode in the podcast.
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