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Building feminist organizations: collaboration is key

Apr 21 2015

When Clayman Institute director Shelley Correll was asked to speak on the panel “Building Feminist Organizations,” she knew immediately the focus of her talk: collaboration. By building a collaborative, inclusive environment at the Clayman Institute, Correll has experienced firsthand how to put the theory from her own research into action to achieve greater impact broadly and empowerment in the workplace. 

The panel took place at the annual conference of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), a nonprofit professional organization dedicated to developing feminist scholarship and promoting feminist leaders. Oriented towards both activism and scholarship, its annual conference is a lively gathering of devoted and new members of the 45-year-old organization. This year the theme of the four-day winter meeting was "Feminism: In Theory, Practice and Policy," fitting for its Washington, D.C. location. In plenary sessions, panels and roundtables, sociologists discussed their research, activism and organizations. 

Bridging the divide between academics and practitioners

As a backdrop to her talk, Correll referenced the stall in progress toward equality.  Sociologists note that many of the measures of equality (gender pay gap, percent of women in leadership, etc.) have not made significant progress in the past decade despite women’s high educational attainment and significant investment in creating change. Correll suggested that one area where we need more attention is industry-academic collaboration, or bringing together the best research with the insights from people doing the work in organizations in order to craft and test new solutions to promote change.  

Correll highlighted the work she is leading at the new Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership. Shortly after the Center was founded in 2013, Correll instituted a new Corporate Partner Program to bridge the divide between academics and practitioners. Together, this learning community tackles big questions like promoting organizational change and engaging men as allies. The partnership enables researches to move in promising new directions while practitioners gain new tools for diagnosing and advancing their efforts. Key to the success of these efforts is building a collaborative environment where all expertise is valued and heard.

Correll highlighted the Institute’s mission of disseminating research outside academia and creating meaningful social change.  She pointed to the Institute’s Online Feminism Conference, which jumpstarted conversations and collaborations between academics and wider audiences, particularly among women of color. In the spirit of expanding dialogue and engaging in social change, the Online Feminism Conference brought together a cross-section of academics, hashtag activists, social media experts and feminist activists. Although different from the Corporate Partner Program, the Online Feminism Conference also created opportunities to create change among diverse populations.

After briefly outlining the history and current state of the Institute, Correll discussed lessons that she has learned along the way in an effort to help others build feminist organizations. She emphasized the importance of meeting people where they are — evident in the Institute’s Voice and Influence Circles and training programs. Two key elements of the programs’ success are giving individuals the opportunity to reflect on their own lives, and — when they are ready — providing data and research to illustrate the systematic nature of social phenomena. 

These theories also apply to the Clayman Institute staff. While some organizations on campuses can have internal divides based on a range of dimensions like hierarchies (staff versus faculty) or expertise (history versus business), the Clayman Institute strives to value all voices and contributors. Those who are new to feminist theory learn during lunches or informal conversations. In internal and external environments, we can engage in bringing feminist theory to practice and create inclusive, welcoming spaces.

Feminist messages and the media

Other members of the panel also spoke about their feminist organizations. Panelists Heidi Hartmann of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Barbara Risman of the Council on Contemporary Families and Jerry Jacobs of the Work and Family Researchers Network discussed their organizations’ histories and missions and shared challenges and victories. 

A common theme was best practices for working with the press. Risman shared that her organization chooses not to include the word “feminist” in its materials in order to cultivate a reputation as an impartial research-driven organization. 

Correll noted the importance of joining existing conversations with the media. “It’s much easier if you’re not trying to set your own media agenda from scratch,” she said. “Look for ways you can provide commentary on media conversations that are already taking place.”

In her work at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Hartmann shared the importance of responding rapidly to press requests with single-page research briefs. 

In another example of furthering collaboration with the media, Risman spoke about the Council on Contemporary Families’ annual conference, where media awards are presented to journalists who provide outstanding coverage of family issues and contribute to the public having a greater understanding of the issues. The awards also bring members of the media and academics together to discuss the issues. 

Jacobs’ new organization provided a different perspective: he outlined the challenges in building upon and complementing other existing organizations, without replicating their efforts. He cited conferences and similar gatherings as key to encouraging collaboration by convening interested parties. Jacobs talked about the success of his June 2014 Work and Families Researchers Network Conference, which brought together an energetic crowd of 725 attendees from 42 countries. 

The SWS meeting clearly reinforced the importance of collaboration across a broad range of interested groups, including journalists, academics, practitioners and other organizations, to create effective feminist organizations.


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