Tackling gender bias

 Sarah Saska au coin d’une rue où passent des gens affairés.

“I wanted to ensure that what I was doing makes a difference beyond the shelves of the library.”

— Sarah Saska

By Hillary Rose

With the number of full-time academic jobs dwindling, many PhD students are searching elsewhere to apply their knowledge and research skills. Sarah Saska (MA [Women’s Studies] ’10) is no exception.

Taking a very entrepreneurial approach to her doctorate, Saska is breaking the mould and using her research to make a difference in the world outside of academia.

As a co-founder of Feminuity, a social enterprise dedicated to excellence in innovation through gender equality, Saska helps organizations develop new approaches to achieving gender equality in innovation work.

Often, in male-dominated fields, innovation can be “gender blind”: the field frequently acts as if gender differences don’t exist and, by default, often marginalizes the contributions of women.

“Take the example of male body crash test dummies. When the automotive industry only tests male dummies, we are creating a large gender blind spot. We cannot understand how male and female bodies react differently in a crash, such as the effects of a seat belt during a crash on a pregnant woman,” Saska explains.

“There is also the example of our health. Heart disease has been primarily researched on men, resulting in women being misdiagnosed. This is also true of osteoporosis, a disease that has been long considered a female disease, leaving it often undiagnosed in men. When we do not apply a gender lens in innovation, it is harmful to both men and women.”

This gender-blind approach also often leads people to remain unaware of the contributions made by women and girls around the world.

“The medical syringe, the car heater and the life raft were all invented by women. When women contribute to innovation, they are empowered to further social and economic progress, but still, to this day, there is a lack of support for women and girls in entrepreneurial and innovation careers,” says Saska.

So little research has been conducted on the link between social innovation and the empowerment of women and girls that Saska’s work is the first of its kind. She is taking a very different approach to her PhD, and by going outside the university in pursuit of research opportunities, she sees herself as an entrepreneur in the world of academia. With so many not-for-profit organizations starved for research assistance, she saw an opportunity to offer something they would never be able to afford: a researcher.

“I felt a deep commitment to making a difference in this often under-funded sector, to physically create a bridge between theory and practice by turning hands-on academic work into real-world impact. I wanted to ensure that what I was doing makes a difference beyond the shelves of the library.”

Saska sent out a call to partner with organizations. She offered 3,500 research hours and stated her areas of expertise and interests.

“I saw this as a win-win scenario. I would get the research experience and the organization would have a professional researcher at their fingertips. There is so often a disconnect in the relationship between research that is being done by someone, somewhere, and who could benefit from it. We need to bridge this relationship.”

Sarah Saska

Sarah Saska in Toronto's MaRS Discovery District. Photo: Jovian Tsang

The response was astonishing.

“I received over 250 offers. People must have forwarded my email on to others because I had responses from individuals who weren’t even on the list. For two months, I did informational interviews with many organizations, helping me to narrow my focus and make a connection.”

Saska found that connection with The MATCH International Women’s Fund, a grant-making organization that funds women's rights organizations and Canada’s only social innovation fund for women. Operating for over 37 years, MATCH supports projects that aim to break down social barriers and advance women’s rights.

Saska’s research fit the bill: she seeks to understand how social innovation can empower women and advance gender equality, while at the same time understanding how women contribute to the field.

Her entrepreneurial idea even solicited the support of MITACS, which had funded only a few not-for-profit collaborations in the past.

Saska also went on to win a prestigious Discovery District Studio Y Fellowship at MaRs, one of the world’s largest innovation hubs. As a fellow, she worked on building entrepreneurial skills among students in Grade 4 and 5.

“Through inquiry-based learning, we created a space where we were infusing youth with entrepreneurial concepts. We showed them how they have many resources within themselves and taught them how to think outside the box, all with the goal of putting these students in a much more entrepreneurial mindset long before they pursue post-secondary studies.”

Saska clearly believes that when you teach women and girls how to take an entrepreneurial approach to what they are doing, they have huge potential to help advance gender equality.

“When you look at all the major issues women and girls deal with globally, it is obvious that a deep gender bias continues to exist. However, when we remove women and girls from the sidelines and provide them with the support they need, they are empowered to make this world better for everyone.”

Saska is headed to Hanoi, Vietnam, in November to design an entrepreneurship and innovation program for youth, with a specific focus on women and girls. She will also be speaking in Toronto at a University of Ottawa alumni event in the winter of 2016.

Main photo:
Sarah Saska, co-founder of Feminuity, on Bay Street in Toronto’s financial district. Photo: The Globe and Mail / Matthew Sherwood.

Sarah Saska arborant une étiquette à son nom, les mains tendues en pleine conversation.

Sarah Saska’s interest in gender and social innovation led her to take part in an event to found the Rideau Hall Foundation, which seeks to amplify the Governor General’s mandate to honour and inspire Canadians. Photo: Steve Bezanson.


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