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Kimiya Shokoohi is a writer and filmmaker based in Greater Vancouver.
Beginning in the 1960s, activists from the second-wave feminist movement began to present women as the redeemer of society’s ills. But the women that spearheaded that movement were predominantly white, and social movements and the legislation that followed have since cemented white woman as the leaders in the fight against discrimination. While academics and racialized communities have since moved to evolve efforts, there isn’t much evidence to suggest corporate culture is keeping up.
Newer waves of feminism have been penning more nuanced approaches for more than 30 years. Still, straight white women have historically been given preferential treatment over women of colour, even sometimes going as far as becoming the de facto overseers of diversity and inclusion initiatives. In the United States, the paradoxical effects of affirmative action made it so that the laws that banned racial discrimination made it also more difficult to enact programs that helped minority groups. As a result, white women became the dilemma’s greatest beneficiaries.
The problem with making the straight white woman the voice of equality, as has been the case with figures such as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and the network spawned by her “Lean In’' theory, is that it supports a hierarchical fight for power and speaks to the ambitions of just one group, says Kyla Schuller, associate professor of gender studies at Rutgers University and author of the upcoming book The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism.
The goals of first-wave feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt were to get on equal footing with white men. But modern activists such as Rachel Cargle have argued: “If the goal of your feminism is to get equal power with white men, you’re going to have to oppress a bunch of people.”
In Fortune magazine’s annual Global 500 list, there were just 13 female CEOs at the helm of the world’s top companies in 2020 – and none were women of colour. Meanwhile, various studies have found some evidence that female-led organizations have more engaged and inspired workers. Of course, gender alone isn’t the only factor in the equation.
Increasingly, there is a question of what workplaces can and should be doing to become more diverse and inclusive. If the belief is that women are instinctually better equipped, then the better approach would be to consider the concept of “intersectionality,” which weighs how various forms of inequality affect one another.
Intersectionality suggests that companies benefit from bringing women of colour, members of the 2SLGBTQ+ communities and other marginalized groups to the table. “It’s what feminism looks like when it’s formed in unison with fights against racism, economic inequality, homophobia and transphobia,” Schuller said.
The term “intersectionality” first came to public consciousness in 1989 when lawyer and critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw used it to explain overlapping social identities and why all inequality is not created equal. More than three decades later, the term continues to apply to the ways various forms of inequality operate together to exacerbate the other.
When Time magazine caught up with Crenshaw last year, she said, “We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”
Crenshaw insists that the purpose of intersectionality isn’t to make a pariah of anyone – white men or straight white women – but that no one person (male, female, non-binary) is the redeemer of all social inequities.
Expecting white women, no matter how well-intentioned, to lead diversity initiatives is problematic when they haven’t experienced racism firsthand. Elevating them to saviour status may do affected groups more harm than good. With educated and experienced women of colour ready to rise to leadership ranks, focusing on the straight white woman is a relic of the past that the corporate world somehow still can’t shake.
What I’m reading around the web
- Oscar Wilde was onto something when said that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. Perhaps we should be consuming entertainment media with greater prudence – or at least having discussions around how we can do better. The New York Times does just that with a piece on how Afro-Latinos are missing from the recent Lin-Manuel Miranda film In the Heights. Read more about the discussion around colourism and the preferential treatment of more lighter-skinned Latinos here.
- With Muslim communities across Canada reeling after the alleged targeted killing of a Muslim family in London, Ont., attention is turning to the continued misrepresentation of Islam and lack of representation of Muslims in Western media. A new report by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Missing and Maligned, reveals how Muslims represented less than 2 per cent of speaking characters in top-grossing films between 2017 and 2019. The CBC spoke to Muslim Canadians working in film and television for their reflections on the report, including actor Zaib Shaikh, who starred in the groundbreaking sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie.
- In the workplace and beyond, people can have conscious and subconscious biases towards accents. Surprisingly, research has found that linguistic discrimination can affect even native English speakers whose origins are African, Asian and Middle Eastern. For the BBC’s Worklife site, writer Christine Ro examines how status can affect language when the speakers sound like they might come from white, wealthy countries.
More opinion from Globe Careers
Are all your colleagues quitting? As remote work erodes company culture, more employees find it easier to leave One reason for the influx of resignations is the gradual erosion of organizational culture amidst the transition to remote working for many during the pandemic, Navio Kwok writes in The Globe’s Leadership Lab.
Is your company where you want to be in the future? Ask yourself these four questions What you want your workdays to look like is just one of them, writes columnist Harvey Schachter.
More from the section
An employee got COVID-19 just before we planned to let them go. What’s the right course of action? In this week’s Nine to Five advice column, a reader asks for suggestions on how to navigate the situation legally.
LGBTQ employees must be given equal weight in diversity initiatives if companies want to be inclusive One burgeoning change is in the employee benefit realm, where gender affirmation coverage is still leading-edge.
If you want a job in sustainability, have you considered becoming an energy auditor? According to Glassdoor, the average annual compensation for an energy auditor in Canada is $61,000.
Be wary of speedy agreement – sometimes a bit of doubt in negotiation is a good thing Manage doubt, but also manage agreement. Here’s why you should view uncertainty and disagreement as tools
Leadership Lab is a series where executives, experts and writers share their views and advice about the world of work. You can find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.
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