Now more than ever, we need to talk about the revolutionary women of the 20th century that achieved an enormous deal for women’s rights and, of course, how we came to celebrate International Women’s Day. I am not a historian, nor am I an expert in this field. My information comes from a place of curiosity and hours of research on the topic. Besides that, I am a woman myself, trying to understand why we are where we are at this point; and, hopefully, learn how we can reach our goals as a unity.
Please take a second to close your eyes and try drawing some imaginary pictures of a fifty-year-old woman living in western Europe around 1900. Saying she’s not ordinary would be an understatement. Now imagine a Marxist theorist, communist activist, and most importantly – an advocate for women’s rights. Maybe by now, you’re asking yourself, how are you supposed to visualize that?! Those are character traits, not physical ones. But picture a woman being part of the Social Democratic Party in Germany at that time.
Her name is Clara Zetkin, and she was probably one of the very few women allowed in such a male-dominant political circle. She started holding conferences to discuss women’s issues, and by 1907 she organized the first International Conference of Socialist Women in Stuttgart, Germany. Her primary goal was to get women into the workforce in order to take part in the worker’s rights organizations. This way, they would have the means to improve their own conditions.
This started a trend. Almost at the same time, the US declared the first women’s day on February 28, 1909, and the streets of New York were packed with women protesting for better pay and working conditions.
1910 a second International Conference of Working Women came together. At that time, over 100 delegates from across the world met in Copenhagen. Zetkin pushed the idea of international women’s day, and the vote was unanimous, meaning they finally had a day when women could organize and press for equal rights.
Even more interesting, some other revolutionary ideas discussed at the conference were:
8 hour working day;
pregnant women should stop working 8 weeks prior to giving birth;
women should be paid a “motherhood insurance” of 8 weeks if the child lives.
If you think about it, these are also the ideas that heavily influenced the views of maternity and paternity leave that we know today in the most developed countries.
The first-ever European celebration of International Women’s Day happened in Vienna in 1911. Only a year later, more than a million women took to the streets in Germany. And the trend continues in America, being sparked this time by Rose Schneidermann, who insists workers need more than just wages to survive; they also need dignity and decent working standards. With the first world war approaching fast, many countries decide to cancel the holiday to maintain peace on the homefront. To oppose the war, Zetkin organized the 3rd and final Socialist Women’s Conference in 1915.
Present there was Nadezhda Krupskaya, which you probably never heard of. But I’m pretty sure you heard of her husband: Vladimir Lenin. The couple stated that the war only benefited the rich and the weapons manufacturers. Sadly, the war went on, despite all of their efforts.
1917 the most dramatic celebration of the IWD started in Russia, led by the feminist Alexandra Kollontai. Why?
The number of women working in the factories, mainly in the textile or chemical industry, has skyrocketed because men were in the war. The women replacing them were paid only half as much, even though they worked long hours under horrific conditions. Storming the streets of Petrograd on February 23 or in our calendar on March 8, women struck against war, starvation, and the Czar. Two days later, nearly every industry in Petrograd had ground to a halt. The protest wasn’t just women or even workers anymore. Students, teachers, and so many more joined them. The Czars responded by ordering the military to shoot them if necessary. But the protests couldn’t be stopped.
I am remarkably moved and inspired by these women because they had managed to convince whole regiments to switch sides and join them. They went on the streets, risking being shot at and killed. And this was the beginning of the Russian February Revolution, and it was truly women’s day that inaugurated that. But we don’t really learn about this in school, do we? One week after the “celebration”, Czar Nicholas II abdicated, ending about 300 years of Romanov Rule over Russia.
They became one of the first governments of a major power to grant women the right to vote. 1921 it was officially decided that March 8 would be International Women’s Day. Lenin and Zetkin made this a communist holiday in 1922, and the same year the communists in China started celebrating it too. Eventually, all of the progress was destroyed by Stalin in 1936, banning women’s right to vote and even more than that, for example, banning abortion. Being concerned even at the thought of communism, the US erased this day entirely.
Even though South Africa celebrates IWD 2 times a year and has its differences from the European celebration, I have to include one more fearless woman: Lilian Ngoyi. Also known as the Mother of The Black Resistance, Ngoyi was the first woman elected to the executive committee of the African National Congress, helping to form the Federation of South African women. Her energy and her gift as a public speaker won her rapid recognition. On August 9, 1956, (one of the dates when people in South Africa celebrate IWD), she led the women’s anti-pass march, one of the largest demonstrations staged in South African history. Holding thousands of petitions in one hand, Ngoyi was the one who knocked on the Prime Minister’s door to hand over the petitions. She ends up arrested for high treason along with 156 other leading figures.
Now here we are, 2022, and as women we earn less than our male equivalents; we are underrepresented in politics or business. Most scarry, we still suffer significant risks of violence, and many times, women have to handle family care alone. I want our generation to stand up and continue what these lionhearted women created, achieving the freedom we all deserve in all aspects of life.
We women are particularly familiar with prejudices; they accompany us from the cradle to the casket. Prejudices are the reason why women are still rare in leadership positions. Erasing prejudice is a slow process because pigeonholing, and shallow categorization is an important part of our evolutionary history. Even in our newest technologies, bias can be found. Algorithms, which increasingly influence and determine our lives, are a major barrier on the way to a prejudice-free(er) future.
WE ALL THINK IN CATEGORIZATIONS because the automatic classification of people and situations has a distinct evolutionary benefit: It simplifies decision-making processes and thus saves mental capacity and enables us to respond swiftly to recognizable scenarios. However, the biggest danger in categorizing people is it isn’t always fair. Afterall, we only recently learned the difference between structural and unconscious biases. Both are attitudes and beliefs that lie outside our consciousness.
The New Dimension of Pigeonhole Thinking: Al Bias
We live in a new digital age, and era of computers and artificial intelligence (AI). All social media platforms, most search engines and news websites are built on algorithms. AI systems are used, among other things, in most image recognition systems used by large companies, such as the image captioning AI used by Facebook, which recognizes whether a person, animal or object is in an image. It not only identifies people in pictures, but also recognizes whether the person is smiling, wearing accessories, standing or sitting, and the total number of people in a group picture. There is little doubt about the power of AI systems. The data analysis and pattern recognition enabled by Deep Learning enables AI to diagnose early-stage cancer with greater accuracy than human doctors. AI can save lives, change lives, but also destroy lives. And therein lies the problem. Above all, AI has one effect: it allows confirmation bias to grow uncontrolled and unchecked and shows us the world as we like it. Every day it confirms our beliefs, opinions, and preferences. We live in a perpetual echo chamber that is designed, coordinated, and updated constantly by AI. Worst of all it’s fun. That is terrifying.
Algorithmic biases are a completely new dimension, and we will not be able to avoid having to deal with them more closely. Artificial intelligence (AI) is shaping all our lives and we need to ask ourselves two questions in particular:
In many large companies, fundamentally important decisions, such as personnel decisions, are supported by artificial intelligence. For example, AI pre-selects who will be invited for interviews. The knowledge of the algorithms that carry such decisions can be fed by flawed, unrepresentative, and prejudiced past experiences. This has the potential to inhibit positive future development towards an unbiased future. Explained less abstractly, when an algorithm decides who should be shortlisted for an advertised executive position, it preemptively eliminates people with immigrant backgrounds, people with disabilities, and women because it relies on data-based empirical values. For an algorithm, middle-aged white men are a safe choice. AI systems cannot address ethical and social concerns unless they are programmed accordingly. And that’s exactly what’s lacking in the male-dominated IT industry.
AI bias is generally unintentional. Artificial intelligence is not evil. But the consequences of its decisions can be significant: poor customer service, lower sales and revenue, unfair and even illegal actions. And: they can even lead to potentially dangerous conditions.
In a conversation with director Werner Herzog about the dangers of AI, Tesla founder and AI skeptic Elon Musk gave a compelling example: Suppose an artificial intelligence was tasked with maximizing the value of an investment portfolio. Suppose also that the system’s creators did not clearly specify how to achieve that goal. Theoretically, in this case, the machine intelligence could invest more in defense stocks, triggering a war in the worst-case scenario.
Watchout! The Blackbox Problem
The greatest danger of AI-systems is the “Blackbox Problem” — we are now unable to fully understand why the algorithms behind AI work the way they do.
Our brain is the most vital, but at the same time the most complex and enigmatic of our organs. Artificial intelligence, which represents the pinnacle of human technological development, is – despite us creating it – in many ways a mystery. We do know a great deal about our brains, and we can predict with some certainty how they will respond to various stimuli. Likewise, we can know with some certainty what results an AI algorithm will produce given certain inputs. The mystery facing scientists and researchers is not that of the output, but how it is generated. This lack of knowledge about the inner workings of the “black box” of artificial intelligence is the biggest hurdle in AI development and will be with us for a long time, if not forever.
The widespread use of artificial intelligence will be a particular challenge for humanity. Organizations that use AI will need to disclose the human decisions behind the design of their AI systems, as well as what ethical and social concerns they have considered, and how well they have monitored the results of those systems for traces of bias or discrimination. We need models we can trust. Achieving transparency in AI systems is critical. And we need one thing above all else: more diversity in computer science.
But what does that mean in concrete terms? What can I do?
We must become digitally literate; intensively engage with the technologies we use and understand them as well as possible. We must not leave the field to the men.
It is our mission and task to question AI models, we must insist that job advertisements are written in a gender-neutral way and that colleagues review the selection of AI and that diverse data is used as a basis.
A conflicting issue for many but incredibly important: AI learns from our language. Therefore, it is even more important to gender. Changing the way we use language is an important milestone in the elimination of bias.
In the documentary Coded Bias, filmmaker Shalini Kantayya follows computer scientist Joy Buolamwini of the M.I.T Media Lab and data scientists, mathematicians, and watchdog groups around the world to expose the discrimination caused by facial recognition algorithms that are now prevalent in all aspects of daily life. This documentary can be seen on Netflix.
“When you think of A.I., it’s forward-looking, but A.I. is based on data, and data is a reflection of our history.”
Every era has its buzzwords. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DE&I for short, is currently very popular. As entrepreneurs, we feel a certain pressure to take DE&I measures, but do we actually understand what is meant by it and what it is all for? Is it more than a hyped trend and do DE&I measures taken in organizations and companies actually bring tangible benefits that go beyond mere image politics? Let’s take a fresh look at DE&I.
Until recently, the common reaction was, “Wow! Your company has a diversity and inclusion program?” Since then the question has changed to “What? Your company DOESN’T have a diversity and inclusion program?”
Sabine Gromer, Founder of MagnoliaTree
What do we actually mean by DE&I?
We all use buzz words in our everyday speech, sometimes we don’t even know the definition of these words (at least not exactly). Let us explain some of the key “buzz” terms that will show up throughout this article.
Di|ver|si|ty; difference, multiplicity. Diversity refers, among other things, to economic, cultural and social diversity in human societies. In the business context, we understand this to mean diversity and difference in teams. Diversity management focuses on increasing success through deliberately diverse teams.
Equi|ty; a state in which all members of a team are offered the same treatment and the same opportunities, regardless of their affiliation. To achieve eqity of opportunity, structural constraints must be reduced and, ideally, eliminated altogether. Equitable opportunity allows individuals to grow with all their abilities and potential. From our experience, true equitable opportunity is the most difficult goal to achieve. Therefore, it makes sense to think of equal opportunity as a path rather than a goal.
In|clu|sion; literally belonging, is the opposite of exclusion and calls for creating a work environment where all members feel welcome and every facet of their identity, especially their differences, are valued. Inclusion is when you can just be yourself.
It is now common to mention diversity, equity and inclusion in the same breath, whereas for a long time we spoke only of diversity and later of diversity and inclusion. Diversity, inclusion and equity are closely related. Their contents overlap, yet they are different concepts that do not mean one and the same thing.
Before you set DE&I measures, you need to understand these differences and the overlap. As on organization it is also vital to find your own definition of DE&I, taking into account your individual company culture.
Is it enough to simply put a woman on the board and/or hire employees with a migration background?
Many companies see DE&I measures as a good opportunity to polish up their image. Putting a woman on the board or bringing a person with a migration background into a team may be seen as laudable actions from the outside but, believe us, a superficial approach not only changes little, it may even be more damaging in the long run than not taking any DE&I measures at all. Only when a DE&I strategy is understood, internalized and supported by all stakeholders, will it also bring sustainable benefits. A woman quota or a foreigner quota will bring little to no benefit. The system will overrule them and swallow them. In order to survive in an unchanged system, you will assimilate and thus not be able to develop your full potential.
A woman quota is not a DE&I measure.
Why should you NOT set DE&I measures if you won’t take them seriously?
First and foremost, it has to do with trust. Measures set for the wrong reasons break trust in both the company and the leadership. They also lead to internal disruption because they have a similar traumatizing effect on the workforce as reorganization and restructuring measures. From a purely financial point of view, such superficial measures also make no sense because they have no effect or, in the worst case, a negative effect, while at the same time being costly.
Do you think there is no discrimination in your organization?
Many people believe they go through life without prejudice, standing objectively above things and neither consciously nor unconsciously discriminating. But as humans, we simply like to think in terms of pigeonholes, because the automatic classification of people and situations has a great (evolutionary) benefit: it simplifies our thinking and saves us a lot of energy. We have prejudices but we are usually not aware of them. Structural and unconscious prejudices are attitudes and beliefs that lie outside our consciousness. We distinguish between structural and unconscious prejudices. Structural prejudices are collective, system-defined prejudices that are usually not questioned. One example is from when the car industry tested with exclusively male dummies. This led women to be 47% more likely to be seriously injured in an accident and 17% more likely to die in an accident than men. In contrast, we understand unconscious bias to be individual, personal biases that we acquire over the course of our lives, effectively the footprint of structural bias on an individual. Even our technology does not act without values and prejudices. For more on this, read our article on the film Coded Bias.
If you still think you are completely unbiased, we recommend you take Harvard University’s Implicit Bias Test. Link.
We guarantee you, you too are biased.
A short movie on the topic: PURL
If a DE&I strategy is not meant to be a mere image polish, what is the point at all? What do DE&I measures do for my company?
We understand. You need facts, figures, data and above all one thing: a marked benefit for your company. You are not a charity and it is not your job to change the world. Don’t worry, DE&I strategies do correlate with business value. In recent years, countless credible studies have been conducted that come up with proud numbers.
DE&I measures reduce absenteeism among employees:by 10%.
Organizations with higher levels of gender diversity and HR policies and practices that focus on gender diversity are associated with lower employee turnover.
Organizations with inclusive corporate cultures and practices are 57.8% more likely to improve their reputation.
Consumers are more likely to purchase or consider purchasing a product after seeing an advertisement that is perceived as diverse or inclusive.
Companies in the top quartile of ethnic/cultural diversity on leadership teams are 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. 
Companies with the most ethnically/culturally diverse boards globally are 43% more likely to have higher profits.
A sense of belonging in the workplace leads to a 56% improvement in performance and a 50% reduction in risk for employee turnover.
67% of employees:pay attention to diversity when looking for a job.
So it’s clear. Diversity, equity and inclusion are much more than mere buzzwords. They can be a powerful tool and an incredible opportunity to successfully lead your company through a new era.
Have you seen the new Netflix documentary Coded Bias yet? If not, be sure to catch up. In this documentary film maker Shalini Kantayya follows M.I.T Media Lab computer scientist Joy Buolamwini, along with data scientists, mathematicians, and watchdog groups around the world, as they fight to expose the discrimination within facial recognition algorithms now prevalent across all spheres of daily life.
Modern society sits at the intersection of two crucial questions: What does it mean when artificial intelligence increasingly governs our liberties? And what are the consequences for the people A.I. is biased against? When MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini discovers that many facial recognition technologies do not accurately detect darker-skinned faces or classify the faces of women, she delves into an investigation of widespread bias in algorithms. As it turns out, artificial intelligence is not neutral, and women are leading the charge to ensure our civil rights are protected.
Harvard Business Review says: “One of the biggest sources of anxiety about A.I. is not that it will turn against us, but that we simply cannot understand how it works. The solution to rogue systems that discriminate against women in credit applications or that make racist recommendations in criminal sentencing, or that reduce the number of black patients identified as needing extra medical care, might seem to be “explainable A.I.” But sometimes, what’s just as important as knowing “why” an algorithm made a decision, is being able to ask “what” it was being optimized for in the first place?”
In many large companies, fundamentally important decisions such as personnel decisions are made by artificial intelligence. Who is invited to job interviews, who is terminated? Coded Bias shows that the knowledge of artificial intelligence is fed by past experience and thus a positive further development towards a future free of prejudice is inhibited.
“When you think of A.I., it’s forward-looking, but A.I. is based on data, and data is a reflection of our history.”
The large use of A.I. will be a challenge for leaders. They will have to reveal the human decisions behind the design of their A.I. systems, what ethical and social concerns they took into account, the origins and methods by which they procured their training data, and how well they monitored the results of those systems for traces of bias or discriminations. Businesses need models that they can trust. Achieving transparency with AI systems is critical as our adoption grows. But the Artificial Intelligence black box problem is based on the inability to fully understand why the algorithms behind the AI work the way they do.
The evolution of women in a male-dominated leadership world
Women at the top are rare. This is not a new insight. In fact, it has already been highlighted from a variety of angles. In 2015, the New York Times published an analysis revealing fewer women on executive boards than men named John. Though this article is already a few years old, not much has changed.
In this article we focus on Stereotype Threat as a constant companion to women on their way to the top, and how it unconsciously shapes their self-image and behavior.
Researchers have shown that women usually go through three phases in the course of their careers:
1. THE FENDING OFF PHASE
“I am not affected by discrimination. If I fail, it is my fault alone.”
2. THE DISCOURAGEMENT PHASE
“I am affected by discrimination. No matter how hard I try, I will never be equally valued.”
3. THE PHASE OF RESILIENCE
“We are affected by discrimination, but we fight against it and do not let it stop us from going our own ways.”
The crux that women have to struggle with: The Stereotype Threat
“Stereotype Threats refer to the risk of an individual being perceived and judged based on their membership to a social identity group rather than their actual performance and potential.”
We women are very familiar with stereotypes, such as: “Women can’t calculate, women lack spatial perception, can’t park, and don’t have any technical understanding…”
The list goes on endlessly. The fact is — women are too often judged based on their gender and not on their actual performance and potential. When women perform well, there’s an unspoken “not bad … for a woman.”
The Stereotype Threat often, but not always (see below), harms women’s performance. Suppose a woman or girl is faced with a challenge to which a negative female stereotype applies (e.g., mathematics exams). In that case, this woman or girl will demonstrably be agitated, resulting in fewer cognitive resources available to perform the given task. Despite this handicap, some women still make it to the top.
Knowing is power and responsibility
As women it is incredibly important to understand the 3 phases we go through in our professional careers due to Stereotype Threat. Only if we are aware of what Stereotype Threat is and how it is impacting us daily in our work life will we hold the power to protect ourselves from incriminating internalization. With this knowledge, however, we are also given the clear and important responsibility of addressing diversity and inclusion issues. Above all, we must educate young women about the dynamics that determine their career paths, and we must support each other. We strongly recommend that women who believe that they live completely equal lives take the Implicit Bias Test of Harvard University, to test their own unconscious biases. (But you may pour yourself a glass of wine in the process to help you.) We also believe that this knowledge holds the power to initiate and promote a discourse across the invisible wall between feminists and nonfeminists. Only then will changes be possible in the long term and with a broad impact.