AllVoices Experts: Q&A with Dr. Sarah Saska and Natalia Zenoni

Christina Giordano
April 7, 2021

Welcome to AllVoices Experts, a series discussing emerging trends and technologies shaping the Future of Work. We’re on a mission to create safe, happy, and healthy workplaces for all, and we’re excited to learn from experts who share our mission.

Dr. Sarah Saska (She/Her/Elle) is the CEO and co-founder of Feminuity, partnering with leading technology startups through Fortune 500s to build diverse teams, equitable systems, and inclusive products and company cultures. Sarah has twice been named amongst the Women’s Executive Network’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada and on Culture Amp’s list of “Diversity and Inclusion Leaders You Should Know.” She is a powerful TEDx speaker, and she has been featured in Fast Company for her straightforward and actionable approach to the work. 

Natalia Zenoni Ortiz (She/Her/Ella) is a consultant with Feminuity with a focus on multiculturally intersectional practices within. She is a passionate advocate for cultural awareness and has dedicated her studies and career to support and uplift the voices of immigrants. 

Why Data?

Meaningful conversations are happening around data, particularly about the immense influence and strategic insight it has over our decision-making, systems, companies, and lives. Much of this attention and investment have been put into “big data”.  Specifically, the pay-offs that technologies and analytical approaches can create to make sense of these data architectures. 

At Feminuity, we recognize the varied capacities, both good and bad, that come from data. We seek to harness its potential to better understand people’s experiences of bias, discrimination, and marginalization to encourage organizations to become more equitable.  For us, identifying the roots of bias, inequity, and other challenges begins with an evidence-based and data-informed approach. 

Collecting data on people's experiences in the workplace relating to development, retention, promotion, compensation, and engagement is the first step in establishing benchmarks. Benchmarks are pivotal to lead by example, that is why we must create intersectional standards to create visibility for our goals. 

Data is key, but it can equally be detrimental unless we take an intersectional approach to ensure the inclusion of all people in our work. Taking an intersectional approach to quantitative data allows us to understand people and their complexity. At Feminuity, we use an intersectional feminist methodology when collecting data, from survey design through to how we analyze and present our findings. 

Not Your Average Survey

Survey design is essential in implementing an intersectional approach from the beginning. That’s why we survey beyond the “usual suspects” of gender and race. And we encourage our clients to be critical of gender-only surveys.  

The risk of developing surveys that consider just one aspect of someone’s identity can be found in some “lean-in’ style approaches.  When organizations review aggregate scores of women’s experiences, their efforts often advance women for whom other aspects of their identity are part of dominant groups, such as women who are also white, neurotypical, non-disabled, cisgender, and heterosexual as examples. This leaves others behind and prevents them from getting the supports that they need.  

For this reason, we often include up to thirty-four distinct dimensions of diversity in our survey design. This means that while we examine gender and race, we also go further to consider elements such as physical, mental, and/or cognitive accessibility needs, age, sexuality, citizenship, language, socioeconomic status, neurodiversity, family status, care obligations, education, spirituality, and more.

Including all of these dimensions is important not only for acquiring awesome and intersectional data, but for building trust. Participants must be able to find themselves reflected within the survey. If we fail to do so, we cannot expect people to trust in our work or believe that it is dedicated to helping everyone. 

While our team comprises subject matter experts in fields such as equity studies, queer theory, and critical race theory, along with people from a range of fields and lived expereiences, we also consult with community groups and researchers to solicit their on-going input to shape our survey questionnaires.  

As an example, we listened to and learned from the transgender community and started separating “T” from the acronym “LGBT” in our survey design. We sometimes get told that we’ve made a typo, but it’s intentional! We do this because transgender identity relates to gender, i.e. how people describe themselves as a man, woman, or beyond the gender binary, whereas the labels of lesbian, gay, and bisexual, as examples, relate to people’s sexuality, i.e. who people are attracted to and love in the world.  Sexual orientation is related to who we may go to bed with, while gender identity is more related to who may we go to bed as. 

We feel this is an important distinction given the historical erasure of transgender people within the broader LGBQ+ movement; we want to ensure the experiences of transgender people are centred, and we're able to do this best when we are intentional in how we collect the data from the start.   

Removing the “T” from the acronym “LGBT” is something that we’re currently doing. And that may change as leading practices are constantly evolving. There is always more to learn in this dynamic field and we can only learn from engaging in ongoing communication and refinement.

That’s why we give others the opportunity to tell us about their lived experiences on their own terms. We  always include “another option not listed here” and never the option of “other” because this can have an “othering” effect on people. 

Lastly, we provide multi-select answers unless there is a compelling rationale for not doing so. Too often, surveys are designed with single-select options for easier analysis, but they run the risk of inaccurately and coercively flattening the complexity of the human experience. In our practice, multi-select and self-describe options are vital to be inclusive of diversity of thought and lived experiences. 

Creating Surveys That Build Trust

Including ‘why do you want to know this about me’ messaging in DEI data collection is critical for a high response rate. This is why we focus on defining the purpose for collecting the data-- whether for bolstering DEI efforts, such as designing an organization’s strategy, or governmental reporting of demographic data, as examples.

At Feminuity we believe in embracing an iterative process that welcomes multiple perspectives, constructive feedback, and fine-tuning. We also include explainers into the survey itself to help people learn about people unlike themselves throughout the process.  

Communities in which data has historically been used as a tool of oppression and violence, often require more support. We ask for extremely personal (and potentially sensitive) information, so trust is critical and requires clear communication as to why we’re asking for the data.  When possible, the leading practice is to involve the community as key stakeholders who can provide vital feedback and direction, as well as act as advocates for the process.

Is it Accessible?

A key part of the intersectional data collection process is ensuring everyone can access it. This means that we need to make our platforms accessible for all types of users. This includes accessible and culturally appropriate language translation, and access across different types of devices,

Getting the Numbers Right

An intersectional approach not only requires us to consider the depth and breadth of identities beyond singular social difference notions, but also how they overlap and intersect. 

Our data analysis methodology must be able to capture experiences that have been historically excluded in research. For this reason, we use a reporting group minimum (depending on the sample size); a restorative practice used to avoid potentially identifying individual experiences when reporting small sample sizes. In doing this, we often run into small samples or “onlys” and risk losing essential experiences of people we need to learn about the most; those who are a part of under-represented groups. 

This is often where qualitative data can help us.  By incorporating mixed methods in our research design, we can capture more nuances that are often overlooked. For example, if we feel we cannot report on a particular “only” through our quantitative data, we can still ensure through qualitative data that their voice is reflected in the recommendations that we pair with all of our findings.

The Stories Within the Numbers

We’re all so much more than a number or a statistic, and qualitative data offers nuance and testimonials to people’s experiences that numbers cannot. The thoughtful collection of qualitative data is essential to better understand processes and infuse humanizing narratives into our research and reporting framework. Providing “hard” numbers to people’s experiences and outcomes while honouring their richness and complexity is a key component of intersectional data collection and analysis. 

Bringing Data to Life‍

We honour the trust our clients have given us by trying our best to include this richness in their stories and experiences, and present them in the most authentic and accessible way possible. We implement these practices by using accessible and appropriately sized fonts and colours for all charts to make them as legible, simple, and easy to analyze. We also embrace leading practices to describe and report on different communities in data visuals. We do this by always using inclusive language and staying up to date with how language is evolving in real-time.When designing charts, we are inclusive of people with colour vision deficiencies and ensure sufficient contrast to meet accessibility standards. We also avoid colour palettes that reinforce stereotypes such as pink or blue for women and men, or colours associated with skin tones. Ultimately, we are aware that certain colour stories and labeling can diminish important information. This is why we carefully interrogate how these components might unconsciously signal or direct readers.However, it is important to acknowledge that conflict can always arise regarding the reports we offer for clients. We at Feminuity believe in being clear and direct with people who challenge the reality of the inequities we find. We believe this is a critical aspect to acknowledge the social injustice present in our society. If people believe the findings are wrong or irrelevant, we remind them it is a privilege for them to feel that this has not been their experience.

Conclusion

If we keep tackling equity issues as we have been doing in the past, we’ll be moving backwards while the rest of our departments and industries advance. And we will continue to see the same systems flourishing, where only the privileged can move forward. So much of our world is changing, and we can’t expect to understand our world, our people, and our problems using binaries and outdated methods. We believe that we are all capable of continuing to listen, learn, and align our practices with the realities of our people’s actual perspectives.

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