Feminism raises all sorts of associations – some of which are negative. Even within the feminist landscape, there is a lot of discussion about the term and whether using it makes sense.
Feminism for corporates?
Outside of the feminist realm, feminism is often perceived as a very loaded term. As a political term it somewhat discourages people from reflecting about the underlying ideas and concepts, although they including learnings that could be highly beneficial for corporates and their strategies.
The feminist movement has undergone a strong learning journey during the last fifty years. Second wave scholars have rightfully pointed out that the feminist movement within the US and European countries has been focusing on white-middle-class women and their realities of lives for too long, neglecting lived realities by marginalized women. Further, third wave scholars have rightfully addressed the fact that feminists have excluded – and continue to exclude non-binary and trans individuals, thus reproducing a very narrow definition of what it means to be a woman.
Today, within the academic realm, feminism goes hand in hand with an intersectional understanding of gender, understanding gender as a spectrum and acknowledging individuals’ overlapping identity markers. This understanding needs to bleed into the working culture in order to enable sustainable change for the better.
Diversity goes beyond the category of women
Yet, within the German corporate and political world, gender is often used as a synonym for women. Sometimes, diversity is then also used as a synonym for gender, resulting in the claim “more diversity” – which inherently means more women. Although having more women in leadership would make a company more diverse, reducing the diversity discourse to the category of women will not result in a more inclusive workplace:
Not only does this logic enhance a binary understanding of gender, it also leaves no room for other important identity markers that play into gendered experiences and need to be considered in companies’ diversity strategies. Having a better understanding of the gender dimension in your company should also entail a close look at a wider scope of diversity that affect women’s positioning in societal structures.
An intersectional understanding of gender at the workplace is also the basis of a more nuanced understanding of diversity. Teams may be very international but show very little diversity in all other parameters beyond nationality such as age, educational background, gender, ethnicity and many more.
Diversity goes beyond internationality
In our work, I encounter managers who proudly talk about their international team, concluding that “we need to work on gender but we don’t have a problem with diversity”. Separating gender and diversity does not work. Diversity is a term used to describe a variety of different identity markers within a group, gender being one of them. Thus, having individuals with various genders on board makes a a team more diverse; however an underrepresentation of women inherently creates a diversity problem.
Companies who argue that diversity is not a problem do not only neglect gender as a diversity dimension but also have blind spots on other diversity dimensions. In my experience, the term "diversity" is often mixed up and used inaccurately. For example, to describe internationality.
However, diversity is more than internationality. Bringing together international individuals can be a starting point for diversity - yet it does not always lead to diversity. If recruiters select individuals with a very similar socio-economic background, academic education and career path from various American and Norther European countries they might look diverse paper - however they cannot benefit from cognitive diversity.
Challenge yourself and your colleagues to think about diversity and what it means to you. Digitalization has brought those of us with access to the internet closer together. Young citizens thus self-identify through common values and shared belief systems of their peer group on an international basis. Followingly, Lisa, a middle-class 25 year-old sociology student from Berlin who is into feminist literature might think similarly than Maria, a middle-class 25 year-old sociology student who is into feminist literature in Mexico city. They are exposed to similar media, read similar books and might even be part of the same filter bubble on social media. Contrary, Lisa might have very little common ground with Margarethe, a German who lives in a rural area and has not studied at all, nor been exposed to feminist theory.
It is necessary to consider the different dimensions of diversity. Someone with a non-academic background can make a team more diverse – in terms of bringing in new ideas and perspectives - than someone with a passport from a neighbour country. Similarly, a start up whose team members are all in their late twenties benefits from the perspective of an individual who grew up in a different generation.
Diversity is at your doorstep
When managers tell me that they are failing to become more diverse because they cannot hire internationally, I wonder which understanding of diversity this entails. Of course, international employees are a valuable asset – however companies do not rely on internationals to become workspaces characterized by heterogeneity.
Instead, think about your teams’ limits. What can you currently not offer? In which aspects are you all rather similar? Persons of different ethnicity, religion, cultural upbringing, sexuality, gender, age all add valuable perspectives to your team. You will be surprised how much diversity you can find at your doorstep.