Leadership and culture

Breaking the glass ceiling: How feminist principles drive progress and equality in organizations

Published on March 09, 2023

It’s Women’s History Month again, and here we are, talking about the same issues again.

Although there has been significant progress over the years, the gender gap in the tech industry remains a grim reality, even in 2023. Women make up less than 30% of the tech workforce but those who do make it into the industry often face harassment, unequal pay, and limited opportunities for advancement.

While efforts have been made to attract more women to the tech industry, retaining them has been a challenge for organizations. A survey by MetLife shows that women in STEM careers are more likely to leave their jobs compared to women in other industries, citing a lack of growth, role models, and mentors. These factors make it difficult for women to see a clear path to advancement in the industry and can lead to burnout and frustration. Addressing these issues is crucial for promoting gender diversity and creating a more equitable tech industry. So, where do we begin? Feminist principles might hold the answers.

But what are feminist principles, anyway?

Feminist principles are a set of values and beliefs that center around promoting gender equality and challenging patriarchal structures and norms. Feminist principles recognize that gender inequality is not just a personal issue, but a societal one that is perpetuated by systems and structures that reinforce power imbalances and discrimination. Some examples of feminist principles include valuing diversity and inclusivity, promoting work-life balance, and advocating for equal pay.

Traditional organizational principles Feminist principles

Efficiency and profitability are prioritized

Equity and collaboration are prioritized

Employee well-being may be overlooked in favor of productivity

Work-life balance and the personal and social costs of burnout and overwork are recognized

Power imbalances may be perpetuated through hierarchical structures and top-down decision-making

Participatory decision-making and shared leadership are emphasized to reduce power imbalances

Individual achievement is often emphasized over collective achievement

Collective achievement and collaboration are prioritized over individual achievement

Workplace policies may not consider the needs of marginalized groups

Policies and practices are designed to address the needs and experiences of all employees, particularly those who are marginalized or underrepresented

Competition and individualism are often prioritized over cooperation and community-building

Cooperation, community-building, and interdependence are valued over competition and individualism

The intersection of feminism and technology

Feminist principles are playing a key role in driving progress and equality in the tech industry by promoting diversity, inclusivity, and equity. These principles are leading to more gender-inclusive design, promoting greater representation of women in tech roles, addressing bias and discrimination in workplace practices and culture, and advocating for policy changes that support gender equality. 

Applying feminist principles to technology design and development involves developing products and services that are accessible and user-friendly for a diverse range of users. This includes addressing bias and discrimination in algorithms and data, and creating products that better meet the needs and perspectives of diverse groups, including women.

In terms of employment and leadership positions, feminist principles also advocate for equal representation of women in organizations. Several initiatives are working to address the underrepresentation of women in tech, such as Girls Who Code, which offers coding education and resources to girls and young women. The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT)  promotes women’s participation in computing and technology through initiatives such as the Aspirations in Computing program and the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing. 

Some major tech companies have also implemented policies and initiatives to address harassment and discrimination. One example is the People & Culture Report that Uber releases every year. This report outlines Uber’s commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, and highlights the progress that had been made in achieving these goals. The report includes data on the company’s employee demographics, as well as initiatives that had been implemented to address issues such as pay equity, bias in hiring, and harassment.

Another example is Google’s Code of Conduct, which outlines the company’s expectations for employee behavior and interactions with others. The code of conduct includes specific guidelines for preventing harassment and discrimination, and sets out consequences for employees who violate these guidelines.

By implementing policies and initiatives like these, tech companies can create a more inclusive and respectful workplace environment for all employees, regardless of their gender or other characteristics. This can help to address the underrepresentation of women in the tech industry and promote gender equality by providing a more supportive workplace culture for women.

How practical is it? 

Feminist principles such as equity, diversity, and inclusivity are being applied to the development of new technologies, from AI to blockchain to virtual reality. These principles recognize that technology is not neutral and that it can reproduce and amplify existing social inequalities. 

It can lead to more equitable and inclusive technologies that better meet the needs and perspectives of women. Speech recognition software is a great example of this. In the past, speech recognition software was often developed with male voices as the default, leading to inaccuracies and frustration for female users. This was because the data used to train the algorithms was predominantly based on white male voices.

Now, speech recognition software can better recognize and interpret the voices of female users because software developers began using data sets that include more diverse voices, including those of women, people of color, and non-native English speakers. This can help ensure that speech recognition software is more accessible and user-friendly for a wider range of users.

Incorporating feminist principles into tech development can also promote innovation in organizations. By valuing diverse perspectives and experiences, and bringing it into the design process, tech companies can develop products and services that are more innovative and responsive to the needs of a broader range of users.

The online customer service help desk, Zoho Desk, is a pioneer in making digital resources accessible to those with special needs. The software provides a range of accessibility features that make the platform more user-friendly for people with disabilities. This includes features such as screen readers that render speech and Braille outputs, reading masks that enhance focus, motion sensitivity sensors that help reduce the risk of seizures, and font size adjustments that improve the overall visibility of the content.

The Algorithmic Justice League, founded by Joy Buolamwini, an MIT researcher, is a testament to how incorporating feminist principles into tech development can be accomplished practically. It does not have to be a far-fetched idea. Buolamwini’s discovery that facial recognition technology was much less accurate at identifying her face led her to investigate bias and discrimination in AI systems. The organization has conducted audits of commercial facial recognition systems and developed resources such as the AI Ethics Tool Kit to help developers and data scientists identify and address potential sources of bias in their algorithms and data sets.

Organizations in the tech industry still have a long way to go to promote gender equity and diversity. By embracing feminist principles, organizations not only improve their products and services, but also help create an equitable society.

Incorporating feminist principles into organizational values and practices can drive progress and equality by creating a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable workplace culture that benefits everyone. It is up to individuals, organizations, and society as a whole to work towards this goal and create a better future for all.

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