Four Waves of Feminism Review: How We’re Transforming the Workplace

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Group of demonstrators on road with a cardboard sign that reads 'Each time a woman stands up for herself she stands up for all women,' in all caps.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Feminism, the fight for women’s social, political, and economic equality, has been a constant undercurrent of history. There are many types of feminism, which are sometimes described as ‘waves.’ Let’s explore the four waves of feminism, examining how these movements have transformed the workplace landscape, and discuss some of the challenges that still lie ahead.

Wave One: Chipping Away at the Glass Ceiling (1848-1920)

The first wave, born in the 19th century, focused on fundamental rights. Women were largely confined to the domestic sphere and denied the right to vote, own property, or pursue higher education. Pioneering feminists fought for basic freedoms, arguing that these were essential for women to participate equally in society, including the workplace. While the first wave undoubtedly paved the way for future feminist movements, its focus on suffrage and legal equality often came at the expense of acknowledging the specific struggles of Black and Indigenous women. 

The fight for equal access to education was crucial. Before this wave, women were largely excluded from professional schools and universities. As educational opportunities opened up, women began entering fields like law, medicine, and teaching, challenging the notion that these were solely male domains. This shift had a ripple effect, creating a demand for women’s skills in the workforce.

However, the workplace remained a key battleground. Women faced discrimination in hiring and promotion, earning significantly less than men for the same work. Labor unions, while offering some protection, often excluded women or relegated them to lower-paying jobs. This kind of work and discrimination was highlighted by tragedies such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which claimed the lives of over 140 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, due to illegally locked exits and unsafe working conditions. The fire and its aftermath highlighted the exploitation women faced in factories, spurred calls for workplace reforms, and was the catalyst for improved safety standards and the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

Wave Two: Dismantling the System (1960s-1980s)

The second wave, fueled by the Civil Rights Movement and the fight against the Vietnam War, emerged in the 1960s. It challenged not just legal barriers but also the very cultural norms that perpetuated gender inequality. Works like Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” ignited a rethinking of how society places limitations on women. 

The second wave’s impact on the workplace was undeniable. Women entered the workforce in record numbers, and legal protections like Title IX (prohibiting discrimination in education programs receiving federal funds) opened doors to previously male-dominated fields. Maternity leave policies began to be implemented, though with significant variations across companies and countries.

The fight for equal pay became a central tenet of the second-wave movement. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, a landmark victory, made it illegal to pay women less than men for equal work. Second-wave feminists also tackled sexual harassment, a previously unaddressed issue in the workplace. They argued that such behavior created a hostile work environment and demanded policies to hold companies accountable.

Some key wins included the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on sex, among other factors. In 1965, the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut established a right to privacy that extended to a woman’s access to contraception. This decision laid the groundwork for the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, which legalized abortion nationwide.

Despite these gains, the fight for true equality continued. The wage gap persisted, and women were still underrepresented in leadership positions. Sexual harassment remained a problem, often brushed aside or poorly addressed by companies.

Wave Three: Intersectionality and Individuality (1990s-2010s)

The third wave, emerging in the 1990s, broadened the feminist conversation thanks to second-wave feminism. It acknowledged the experiences of women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and working-class women, who often felt excluded from the mainstream feminist narrative. Issues like body image, reproductive rights, and domestic violence took center stage.

The emphasis on intersectionality in the workplace came into existence at this time, thanks to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s coining of the word in 1989. Third-wave feminists challenged the “lean in” approach to workplace equality, arguing that it ignored the systemic barriers faced by women of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Issues like unconscious bias in hiring and promotion and the “motherhood penalty” (where mothers are seen as less committed and face career setbacks) were brought to the forefront.

The third wave’s focus on diversity has had a lasting impact. Companies are increasingly recognizing the need for a more inclusive work environment. Initiatives promoting racial and gender equality in hiring and promotion, along with programs addressing unconscious bias, are rising. However, significant challenges remain. The gender pay gap persists, and women of color still face a steeper climb to leadership positions.

Wave Four: The Power of “Me Too” and Social Media (2010s-Present)

The fourth wave, characterized by its use of social media, exploded into public consciousness in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It tackled sexual harassment and assault with unprecedented ferocity, giving voice to survivors who had previously been silenced. The movement exposed the prevalence of these issues in the workplace, particularly in Hollywood and other male-dominated industries. Social media platforms like Twitter became tools for collective action, with hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUp holding powerful individuals and companies accountable.

The fourth wave has significantly impacted the way sexual harassment is handled in the workplace. Many companies have implemented stricter policies against harassment, including mandatory training for employees and clearer reporting procedures. There’s also a growing awareness of the concept of “microaggressions,” subtle forms of prejudice and discrimination that can create a hostile work environment for women and other marginalized groups.

However, the fourth wave is about more than just sexual harassment. It champions bodily autonomy and challenges traditional gender roles. Issues like the gender pay gap, access to affordable childcare, and parental leave policies remain central to the conversation.

The fight for gender equality in the workplace is far from over. Fourth-wave feminists are pushing for increased transparency in salary data, dismantling the “glass ceiling” that hinders women’s advancement to leadership positions, and a more flexible work culture that accommodates diverse needs.The four waves of feminism paint a powerful portrait of women’s relentless pursuit of equality, not just in the boardroom but across every facet of life. Each wave built on the shoulders of the one before it, chipping away at the walls of patriarchy and carving a path for a more just future. The fight isn’t over, not by a long shot. But the tide is turning despite the setbacks we’re currently facing. As conversations about equity and inclusion continue to swell, and as women from all walks of life raise their voices in unison, a truth becomes clear: the revolution isn’t coming, it’s here. And it’s being waged not just in protests and manifestos but in the everyday acts of defiance, the quiet victories, and the unwavering determination of women everywhere.