March was Women’s Herstory Month. That is formally referred to as Women’s History month.
Yet, I persist with Herstory because, language, as feminists recognized long ago, is one of the most powerful institutionalized structures than ensures the persistence of injustice.
It was the reason women in the 70s fought for a new title – Ms one that was not solely defined by the marital status of women. We don’t hear enough about Her story and we should.
March is celebrated in the United States as the one month in the year where women’s herstories are recognized and appreciated. In recent years, the US has even reclaimed March 8th as International Women’s Day. For long decades as countries around the world, including India, where I grew up, celebrated the day with marches and songs recognizing the power and contributions of women to public life, women in the US knew nothing about March 8th.
This is ironic, because international Women’s day was actually created to honor the courageous women in the United States who held strikes demanding better working conditions, wages, and safety in the early part of the 20th century.
Strikes for justice are a critical part of women’s Herstory that often fail to get the attention that they deserve. Yet, this March, millions of women in Spain reminded the world that women’s labor literally makes the world go round. Their cry, “Quando las Mujeres Paran todos se para” translates simply as “When women stop, everything stops!” Women ceased their daily chores and did not show up for their paid jobs. Millions gathered instead in the streets and plazas expressing their frustration at the unjust treatment that women receive at home and at work and calling attention to the rampant sexual harassment they experience.
In the US, another strike was making headlines – for nearly two weeks, teachers in West Virginia refused to go to work. They held massive rallies at the capitol almost daily, protesting low pay and rising health care costs. On the strike’s ninth day, Gov. Jim Justice announced a deal to give all state employees a 5% raise and halt raising health insurance premiums. When it was over many teachers — exhausted, overjoyed and eager, they said, to get back to their students — wept. These past few weeks, teachers in Alabama and Kentucky are threatening to follow in their footsteps.
The strikes in Spain and in West Virginia came on the heels of another contemporary social media movement as women stepped forward in increasing numbers to talk about the persistence of sexual abuse in the workplace using the hashtag #MeToo.
These do not simply show us the power of collective organizing, they show the power of women.
And, it reminds us that women have been at forefront of critical struggles for justice for many centuries now. The reason that Herstories matter, is that without them our collective History is bereft of the experience and voice and wisdom of half the population. The New York Times just owned up to this bias with their new series on women’s Obituaries. And, as with women, the voices and stories of people of color, indigenous peoples, sexual, ethnic and religious minorities are rarely recorded, recognized and shared.
That world of Philanthropy is no less vulnerable to the ‘His’tory bias.
Last month, the Chronicle of Philanthropy carried a lead story called “No More Excuses” that reminded us that 9 of 10 nonprofit leaders are white, a fact that has not changed in over 25 years.
And, while the philanthropic sector in the US boasts a high level of participation by women, gender bias in the sector against women continues to make itself visible in a thousand different ways as charitable organizations seeking to address women’s rights struggle for equal access to funding dollars; as women professionals, especially those of color, are frequently paid less than their male peers, rarely chosen to lead major foundations, and routinely subjected to subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination.
At the Ford Foundation, I studied how issues of implicit bias affect our efforts to bring greater equity to our own sector by speaking to foundation and non-profit colleagues who have been challenging both racial and gender bias in their institutions from hiring to board selection to grant-making decisions.
As the 2015 Responsive Philanthropy article on the same topic reminds us, “even when people explicitly and consciously support fairness, nonconscious processes can undermine their intentions through implicit bias.”
So, how can we ensure we don’t relegate women’s “herstories” to a token month?
Challenge History and Question Objectivity
Foundations assume we are fair and objective, we mythologize our commitment to ideals, we valorize our founders, yet this actually increases implicit bias; we need to guard against biased versions of our own “stories”. Where are the “Herstories” in our foundation? Where are the “Black and LGBTQ stories”? The “Indigenous” or “Muslim” stories?
Take the Implicit Bias Tests:
https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html what you learn will make you humble and change your assumptions
Consider changing performance reviews: make it clear to all managers that the foundation values greater gender/racial equity in staffing and grant-making and is looking for concrete outcomes!
Count aka Conduct an Audit:
Implicitly biased behavior is best detected by using data -conduct a formal assessment of how well your institution does look at what you are funding, who you are hiring, how many women or people of color sit on a grantee’s board, etc to determine how certain patterns of behavior lead to disparate outcomes.
Affirmatively acknowledge your current status:
When Darren Walker realized the Ford Foundation had been lacking a lens on issues of disability rights and access, he wrote a public letter acknowledging the “history” of having excluded people with disabilities from the foundation’s work and community. Public scrutiny helps!
State and pursue inclusive outcomes:
Focus on changing outcomes – it is important for foundations to set very public and specific goals for changing the foundation’s outcomes in this arena. Both the Kellogg and Annie Casey Foundations have set such goals.
Improve decision-making processes at all levels that involve a cross-section of decision-makers:
Implicit biases are a function of automaticity. Engaging in mindful, deliberate processing that includes conscious conversation about implicit biases and includes a critical mass, at least 30%, of underrepresented groups in the decision-making process from board representation to program decisions reduces bias.
Add Intersectional Equity Training to Orientation and Professional Development:
Don’t assume raising the issues will be enough – use expert advice and support to help orient all members of your organization and help them strengthen their skills even if they are experienced professionals – we can all learn!
Monitor and improve the environment:
Foundation environments assume that they are “inclusive” or simply “professional” but often are unconsciously reflecting the dominant white/male/christian culture – when we bring in diverse voices it should be with a view to consciously helping to shift the work culture itself, not simply expecting women and people of color to “assimilate”.
Collect data and monitor outcomes:
Because implicit bias cannot be reliably self-reported, it is important to set goals and collect data to see if they are being met over an extended period of time.
Of course, none of these strategies are magic bullets to ensure more gender just outcomes. But the women in Spain, West Virginia, and around the globe still hear the echoes of their sisters who marched in the streets of New York in 1905 singing Bread and Roses who ensured that we have an International Women’s Day. Our actions could help Philanthropy write a new Herstory!
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Author: Kavita N. Ramdas
Kavita N. Ramdas is an entrepreneurial leader and inspirational speaker passionate about advancing justice, equity and innovation in both local and global contexts. Content expert on women’s rights and leadership; social entrepreneurship and innovation; equitable growth and economic opportunity; social change movements; strategic philanthropy and civil society.