Systems Model Series: Feminist Systems Thinking (FST)

Feminist, System Thinking, Critical Systems Thinking (CST)

Adapted from the article originally written by Omisha Manglani

for the Cabrera's Cornell University, System Thinking in Public Affairs Course



Feminist Systems Thinking (FST) was developed by Dr. Anne Stephens in 2010, on the basis of her work with communities in the development field. Emerging from Critical Systems Thinking (CST) and Cultural Ecofeminism, FST is part of the third wave of systems thinking. [2] FST aims to better understand power relations by acknowledging privilege and diversity in practice. While it embodies the key aspects of CST, it focuses on the heuristics required to work with communities or challenge the realities of social work. It was developed to consider and value marginalized communities (hence, the feminist perspective) and their environments. [3]

Stephens’s work is adapted to and grounded in her action-based research with Indigenous peoples in Northern Queensland, Australia. She found that there was “a near absence of thinking around both gender and ecological justice issues within the field of critical systems thinking.” [3] Moreover, FST sets out to engender accountability of marginalization on the basis of both gender and ecology. Stephens further stresses the role of morality in research; to challenge hierarchical frameworks and affect change through justice. [3]

Key principles of FST in practice:


  • Adopt a gender sensitive approach: be careful about using non-gender specific language that may overlook hierarchies altogether;
  • Value voices from the margins: try to look beyond structural privileges and seek out “nonexperts;”
  • Incorporate the environment with research: expand one’s purview by observing nature beyond the anthropocentric lens;
  • Select appropriate method(ologies): pluralistic thought is key because perceptions vary based on socio-cultural context – practice critical reflection of communication to adapt to context; and
  • Undertake research that promotes plurally

desirable and sustainable social change: research and project work must be “responsive [and] grounded” to avoid (expert) domination. [3]

FST makes boundary judgements, which is the process of deciding which elements make up a system. For instance, people living within your house make up the household; a broader boundary with individuals living and/or working in the same pincode as you might make up your locality. The simple act of creating boundaries creates a mental model from your perception, and ability to distinguish and relate subjects and/or objects. Each actor’s boundaries vary. Hence, FST is context-specific and there are limits to the researchers' knowledge. The researcher must maintain a position of relativism (i.e. understand context-specificity; not assume absolute truths) during participation to embrace diversity of thought and experience. [3]


  • Critical Systems Thinking and Cultural Ecofeminism have been jointly employed in humanitarian efforts by the International Rescue Committee. [4]
  • FST principles encourage deliberate and context-specific (deliberate) action towards social improvement. In the current power systems, coercion is an innate issue of research and social work, hence FST sets out to engender emancipation or liberation from oppression, with a commitment to achieving mutual understanding between the researcher and their
  • While FST emerged from social science practices, making judgements about “the other '' is a common practice that we all engage in. FST enables us to question preconceptions about “the other.” [3]


  • Stephens’s FST has not been explicitly employed by social workers or researchers. So, it may have a limited perspective and reviews from other
  • Accounting for context-specificity leaves gaps which a researcher may not detect, or adapt to as a
  • Similarly, choice of methodology based on context may cause societal unrest or bias data. For example, a village’s elders may condemn you for speaking to the marginalized members of a

Employing the key principles of FST can prove to be a game changing methodology, especially in the field of development sociology and humanitarianism- making them more meaningful.


Sources and further reading:

  1. Image: DI_feministLogoGraphic-01-900x534.png
  2. Cabrera , Cabrera L. (2019) What Is Systems Thinking?. In: Spector M., Lockee B., Childress M. (eds) Learning, Design, and Technology. Springer
  3. Stephens, (2012). Feminist systems theory: Learning by praxis. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 25(1), 1–14.
  4. A feminist approach to humanitarian support. Retrieved September 12, 2019, from Council on Foreign Relations website
  5. Stephens, (2013). Ecofeminism and systems thinking (1st Edition). New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  6. Selbervik, , & Østebø, M. T. (2013). Gender equality in international aid: What has norwegian gender politics got to do with it? Gender, Technology and Development, 17(2), 205–228.
  7. pdf