Categories
Our Voices

A Salon Of Our Own: And Here’s What Happened

couch-at-abby-small

LiisBeth, the shit-kicking feminist entrepreneurship zine you’re reading right now, held its first-ever consciousness raising–style salon a few weeks back. It felt like the heady old days of feminism. It felt like the thrilling future of feminism.

The evening gathering took place in the living room of LiisBeth board advisor Abby Slater—businesswoman, impact investor, social-enterprise champion—and featured two leading feminist thinkers and changemakers: Andi Zeisler, author of the brilliant We Were Feminists Once, and Sarah Kaplan, gender capitalism expert and director of the brand new excellently named Institute for Gender + the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Oh, and let’s mention a third: Petra Kassun-Mutch, the instigator of the salon, founder of LiisBeth and spirit incarnate of the zine’s namesake, Stieg Larsson’s Stieg Larsson‘s Lisbeth Salander, a fictional, dragon-tattooed, streetwise avenger, champion of the underserved, unheard, and overlooked. Or in Petra’s world, women entrepreneurs.

Thirty-five members of the LiisBeth community congregated, including executives, writers, artists, activists, non-profit leaders, startup founders, and students. There were deep pockets, shallow pockets, pockets of colour, pockets of queerness, pockets of supermoms who have done it all, women at the start and end of careers, and every gradation in between.

It seemed absolutely right, the very randomness of ourselves gathered for a necessary conversation: assessing the state of feminism in this age of individualism.

Or as Zeisler might put it: How do we rescue feminism from the clutches of capitalist neoliberalism, which would divide our collective action for change and reduce feminism to a brand to sell us stuff?

Or as Kaplan might put it: Rather than stand on the sidelines of capitalism, how do we create true systemic change rather than being co-opted to fit in “nicey nice” with the status quo of inequality?

Kassun-Mutch was pressed with questions: Has feminism stalled out? With so much inequality still—we have not come nearly far enough, baby—how do we get back on track? Given that we have to swim in this system, how do we leverage the tools of business to change the system? While being sensitive to intersections of feminism—and the room was a sampling of that—how do we work together, support each other, be good allies rather than be divided by our differences?

How do we get back to collective action to change a system that so often diminishes women?

The conversation stirred up anger (as it should), plenty of laughter (as a gathering of women usually does), and a strong desire to connect between the generations and intersections and fault lines of business and non-profit. It also reinvigorated a passion and excitement for the hard work of making shit happen. Plenty of ideas flowed from the evening, which we’ll be following up in LiisBeth stories for months to come.

The next evening, LiisBeth gave us another peak into the future of feminism as the media sponsor for Zeisler’s talk at the Rotman School of Management, organized by Kaplan. Astonishingly, while Zeisler has spoken about feminism at campuses across North America, this was her first-ever invitation to speak at a business school. No doubt that has something to do with her attack on corporate capitalism for hijacking and neutering the feminist agenda, to render it into a pinked commodity.

The room was packed with young female MBA students whom Zeisler gave plenty to think about. I spoke to quite a few after the talk. Many identified as feminists, and now they were questioning what they were learning in business school. One wondered aloud, “Am I being trained to merely sell stuff to women? To exploit women, to increase profits, reduce costs, for my own advancement?”

Heading into the lecture, I introduced myself to an older executive who told me she works in finance. Given the subject of the talk, I asked what challenges she’s faced working in such a male-dominated industry. She shrugged, almost dumbfounded by my question. “You know, with sexism,” I nudged.

“None,” she said.

After the lecture, she rushed up to me, mouth agape at her apparent amnesia. “When I started my career, I was forced to share an office with a co-worker who was stalking me. I had a different approach to sales; I took time to get to know my clients rather than closing the deal on the first meeting. I was outselling my male colleagues and they couldn’t stand it. And even though I was making the company tons of money, the male executives kept pressuring me to change my sales strategy.”

And this is what she did: she left and started her own company. Things clearly went swimmingly ever since.

She admitted that she had completely forgotten that the harassment she endured was the very reason she went to work for herself.

The three MBA students I chatted with didn’t see any immediate exit strategy from the trenches. They truly worried about being co-opted by toiling in the muck of those trenches. Would they end up working for corporations that exploit women, systematically pay them less, and block opportunities?

And then their conversation drifted to asking themselves this question:

How could they work in the system while changing the system to make it more equitable?

Between them, they could check the boxes of a multitude of intersections: race, working class, immigrant, refugee, gender queer. Even though women now constitute 30 per cent of students at Rotman business school, they still feel like a maligned minority. They told me that just going to school requires enduring an onslaught of microaggressions: male students ignoring them in study groups and talking over them in class; male profs using gendered case studies (i.e. all men) and sexist language; male executive MBA students heading to strip clubs for bro-bonding after weekend classes. They don’t see that scenario changing once they start their careers, not with men still dominating business leadership and business values.

“Feminism shouldn’t be an optional lecture,” one tells me. “Feminism should be on every course curriculum in business school.”

That’s one solution. And they came to another, as they circled back to why they had chosen to do an MBA in the first place.

One had graduated from gender studies, sharpened her teeth on the critiques of capitalism, and went to work in social services and non-profits to create change. But the more she saw how corporations exploited women through their supply chains, the more she realized how hard it would be to create true change from the sidelines. “We need activism all throughout industries and in different positions in society. I wanted to become someone in business who could make change. We have to have women in business who are feminists and activists. Change won’t happen unless we have people on the inside who care about doing the right thing and can convince others to do the right thing.”

Personally, I came away from the two events chuffed by the future of feminism, and we’ll be tracking it right here in the digital pages of LiisBeth. Stay tuned for that—and for more hell-raising salons too.

 

Related Readings and Audio Interviews

Categories
Our Voices

A Salon Of Our Own: And Here's What Happened

couch-at-abby-small
LiisBeth, the shit-kicking feminist entrepreneurship zine you’re reading right now, held its first-ever consciousness raising–style salon a few weeks back. It felt like the heady old days of feminism. It felt like the thrilling future of feminism.
The evening gathering took place in the living room of LiisBeth board advisor Abby Slater—businesswoman, impact investor, social-enterprise champion—and featured two leading feminist thinkers and changemakers: Andi Zeisler, author of the brilliant We Were Feminists Once, and Sarah Kaplan, gender capitalism expert and director of the brand new excellently named Institute for Gender + the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
Oh, and let’s mention a third: Petra Kassun-Mutch, the instigator of the salon, founder of LiisBeth and spirit incarnate of the zine’s namesake, Stieg Larsson’s Stieg Larsson‘s Lisbeth Salander, a fictional, dragon-tattooed, streetwise avenger, champion of the underserved, unheard, and overlooked. Or in Petra’s world, women entrepreneurs.
Thirty-five members of the LiisBeth community congregated, including executives, writers, artists, activists, non-profit leaders, startup founders, and students. There were deep pockets, shallow pockets, pockets of colour, pockets of queerness, pockets of supermoms who have done it all, women at the start and end of careers, and every gradation in between.
It seemed absolutely right, the very randomness of ourselves gathered for a necessary conversation: assessing the state of feminism in this age of individualism.
Or as Zeisler might put it: How do we rescue feminism from the clutches of capitalist neoliberalism, which would divide our collective action for change and reduce feminism to a brand to sell us stuff?
Or as Kaplan might put it: Rather than stand on the sidelines of capitalism, how do we create true systemic change rather than being co-opted to fit in “nicey nice” with the status quo of inequality?
Kassun-Mutch was pressed with questions: Has feminism stalled out? With so much inequality still—we have not come nearly far enough, baby—how do we get back on track? Given that we have to swim in this system, how do we leverage the tools of business to change the system? While being sensitive to intersections of feminism—and the room was a sampling of that—how do we work together, support each other, be good allies rather than be divided by our differences?
How do we get back to collective action to change a system that so often diminishes women?
The conversation stirred up anger (as it should), plenty of laughter (as a gathering of women usually does), and a strong desire to connect between the generations and intersections and fault lines of business and non-profit. It also reinvigorated a passion and excitement for the hard work of making shit happen. Plenty of ideas flowed from the evening, which we’ll be following up in LiisBeth stories for months to come.
The next evening, LiisBeth gave us another peak into the future of feminism as the media sponsor for Zeisler’s talk at the Rotman School of Management, organized by Kaplan. Astonishingly, while Zeisler has spoken about feminism at campuses across North America, this was her first-ever invitation to speak at a business school. No doubt that has something to do with her attack on corporate capitalism for hijacking and neutering the feminist agenda, to render it into a pinked commodity.
The room was packed with young female MBA students whom Zeisler gave plenty to think about. I spoke to quite a few after the talk. Many identified as feminists, and now they were questioning what they were learning in business school. One wondered aloud, “Am I being trained to merely sell stuff to women? To exploit women, to increase profits, reduce costs, for my own advancement?”
Heading into the lecture, I introduced myself to an older executive who told me she works in finance. Given the subject of the talk, I asked what challenges she’s faced working in such a male-dominated industry. She shrugged, almost dumbfounded by my question. “You know, with sexism,” I nudged.
“None,” she said.
After the lecture, she rushed up to me, mouth agape at her apparent amnesia. “When I started my career, I was forced to share an office with a co-worker who was stalking me. I had a different approach to sales; I took time to get to know my clients rather than closing the deal on the first meeting. I was outselling my male colleagues and they couldn’t stand it. And even though I was making the company tons of money, the male executives kept pressuring me to change my sales strategy.”
And this is what she did: she left and started her own company. Things clearly went swimmingly ever since.
She admitted that she had completely forgotten that the harassment she endured was the very reason she went to work for herself.
The three MBA students I chatted with didn’t see any immediate exit strategy from the trenches. They truly worried about being co-opted by toiling in the muck of those trenches. Would they end up working for corporations that exploit women, systematically pay them less, and block opportunities?
And then their conversation drifted to asking themselves this question:
How could they work in the system while changing the system to make it more equitable?
Between them, they could check the boxes of a multitude of intersections: race, working class, immigrant, refugee, gender queer. Even though women now constitute 30 per cent of students at Rotman business school, they still feel like a maligned minority. They told me that just going to school requires enduring an onslaught of microaggressions: male students ignoring them in study groups and talking over them in class; male profs using gendered case studies (i.e. all men) and sexist language; male executive MBA students heading to strip clubs for bro-bonding after weekend classes. They don’t see that scenario changing once they start their careers, not with men still dominating business leadership and business values.
“Feminism shouldn’t be an optional lecture,” one tells me. “Feminism should be on every course curriculum in business school.”
That’s one solution. And they came to another, as they circled back to why they had chosen to do an MBA in the first place.
One had graduated from gender studies, sharpened her teeth on the critiques of capitalism, and went to work in social services and non-profits to create change. But the more she saw how corporations exploited women through their supply chains, the more she realized how hard it would be to create true change from the sidelines. “We need activism all throughout industries and in different positions in society. I wanted to become someone in business who could make change. We have to have women in business who are feminists and activists. Change won’t happen unless we have people on the inside who care about doing the right thing and can convince others to do the right thing.”
Personally, I came away from the two events chuffed by the future of feminism, and we’ll be tracking it right here in the digital pages of LiisBeth. Stay tuned for that—and for more hell-raising salons too.
 
Related Readings and Audio Interviews

Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices

A Conversation with “WE WERE FEMINISTS ONCE” author Andi Zeisler

On September 20th, 2016, Andi Zeisler, author of “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Movement,” spoke at LiisBeth’s first-ever salon (sold out).  Just prior to the event, Liisbeth’s Managing Editor, Margaret Webb, interviewed Andi.

LiisBeth: Your brilliant critique argues that feminism has been high jacked by neoliberalism, giving us what you call marketplace feminism, where women are engaged with individual choice and empowerment rather than the hard work of tackling and fixing systemic inequality. I want to start where your book leaves off. What kind of feminism do we need going forward in order to make meaningful change?

Andi Zeisler: Something that I hope is clear throughout the book is that I don’t think that marketplace feminism has replaced systemic, boots-on-the-ground feminism. I absolutely think that’s always been happening and will continue to happen. Marketplace feminism just happens to be the most amplified version of feminism right now. All the feminism work that’s been going on over the past decade is absolutely having an effect on things and that will continue to happen. I have seen feminism become much deeper, much more intersectional, much more enmeshed in people’s everyday lives and that’s the kind of feminism we need going forward. It’s not an activist project they need to take time out of their lives to do but it is their real lives and part of their everyday life.

LiisBeth: In your critique of choice feminism — whatever a self-declared feminist chooses is feminist is feminist — you argue that there has to be a “line in the sand,” that surely feminism has to stand for something. What is that?

AZ: It has to stand for equality and the autonomy and freedom of all women, not just women who can afford to make consumer choices that prop up their sense of empowerment or sense self actualization. It has to be about supporting women’s equality in every way, whether that’s financial, body, social, as a parent or whatever. It really does have to be about real equality and not a facsimile of it.

LiisBeth: You offer great examples of how feminism has been co-opted by neoliberalism and capitalism, for instance with femvertising, which is using feminism to sell things. How is this harmful to women?

AZ: Anytime a political and social movement becomes excessively individualized and made to seem that it’s something you can choose and has no impact on everyone else, that is harmful. A good example is the so-called mommy wars that has being going on for the last couple of decades, where women who opt out of the workforce because they can afford to…and talk about it as if that’s a choice versus something that’s coerced out of them by a capitalist system that’s still based on having a stay-at-home parent as an anchor. That’s damaging. It makes it seem like it’s a choice and has nothing to do with how we value women in society and in the workforce. It’s like saying that the framework of capitalism has nothing to do with people’s choices and, of course, it does.

LiisBeth: Given that we exist in this neoliberal world of capitalism, how should feminists engage with it? Are there areas or ways we can co-opt or exploit capitalism to move the feminist project forward?

AZ: I’m not saying this is an ideal form of activism but it’s one we have that seems to work well and that is public shaming — calling out companies when they stereotype women in advertising, when they make really gross gender generalizations. Or calling out TV shows when they use slurs or stereotypes. All of these things threaten to hit corporations and pop culture products where it counts, which is in the chequebook. When a critical mass of people tell them what they are doing is wrong and threaten their bottom line, that tends to get their attention.

LiisBeth: How do you think we can engage men in feminism?

AZ: This is one of those questions that I find bothersome, the very idea that men have to be invited to engage in feminism. If men care about feminism, they should not have to be invited…. (Their role) is to take feminism into spaces where they already have the ears of their peers or superiors and make change there. We absolutely need men advocating for gender equality. But if they are men who are going to wait to be invited, they are probably not the people we need. We need the people who are already on our side and willing to do the work in their community

LiisBeth: Okay, put another way, how can men gain from feminism?

AZ: Feminism has always been, by extension, about men because it’s about decimating the idea there’s a gender binary, that there are certain things women do and certain things men do. Of course, feminism has already had men in mind when we talk about things like child rearing, emotion and sexuality. That women should not be constrained by centuries of stereotypes that are often based on nothing applies to men too. When women are liberated from constricting ideas of gender, so are men and that can be really powerful.

LiisBeth: Bitch has grown from a zine into a business with a website, a lecture series, a feminist curriculum for the classroom, a lending library, a writing fellowship. How do you promote or maintain feminist values in your business?

AZ: For a long time, it was really hard because we are a nonprofit running on a shoestring and there were definite issues around the amount we were able to pay people or that we weren’t able to pay health insurance for a long time. Part of the reason we moved (from San Francisco) to Portland 10 years ago was so we could have an organization that could live its mission of being feminist. That means paying everyone a fair wage; paying health insurance for everyone, including part-time employees; having family leave policy; having a generally hierarchical but respectful staff structure. As a nonprofit, we talk about mission and visioning a lot. We talk about communication and the importance of communicating respectfully, listening to people, being open to discussion, being open to dissent. It’s not necessarily enforced in a structural way, but it’s an important organizational value.

LiisBeth: How do you practice feminism in your personal life?

AZ: I accepted a long time ago that you can be a feminist, you can advocate for feminism, but it’s impossible to live every bit of your life in what other people might consider a feminist way. For instance, I was married for almost 16 years, but I would never argue that marriage is a feminist institution or that as a feminist getting married, I made it feminist. Whether it’s where you live or how you live, what you wear, whether you shave legs — when we start talking about whether x or y is or isn’t feminist (that) gets us into that individual unhelpful place where feminism is no longer an ongoing ethic but this idea of a personal choice that can be weighed on the scales of goodness and found acceptable.

LiisBeth: You have said that feminism is not supposed to be fun or cute or sexy. It’s a movement about changing a system and changing values and that’s really hard work and demands hard conversations and conflict and confrontation. Are you bitch slapping feminists to get back into the streets to hold meaningful protests? If so, what kind of protests would you like to see?

AZ: I don’t think there’s any lack of protests. They just don’t look like they did 40 years ago. A lot of activism now happens online, which is a much more inclusive way to do activism when you think about it. Consider how many people couldn’t participate in those protests in the ’60s and ’70s because they were working in factories or their religions didn’t permit it or whatever. I think there’s much more acceptability in how we collectively practice activism and understand activism now. Feminist activism needs a range of people. Some are going to put their heads down and write policy; some will be out in communities talking to and mobilizing people. The way activism is understood now, there’s a lot more for people to do according to their strengths and what their skills are.

LiisBeth: What makes you optimistic about feminism?

AZ: There’s a lot that makes me optimistic. A lot of it is going to universities and seeing that young women are so very immersed in and involved in feminism and politics and thinking deeply and critically about media and economics and gender roles and things like that. I never understand when older feminists say, where are all the feminists? I just think they’re looking in the wrong place or they’re looking at a much narrower range subjects than today’s feminists are actually focusing on.

LiisBeth: Do you think your work at Bitch will change as a result of immersing yourself in this look at feminism, or your views of feminism will change?

AZ: I’m not sure if I can answer that. A lot of things that I wrote about are still happening and in some ways becoming more pronounced. I also think that marketplace feminism is not necessarily going to remain at the kind of tenor it is now. It’s like environmentalism 10 years ago, which was really embraced by Hollywood and advertising and at some point it was no longer the new lens to promote things. That didn’t mean people stopped caring about environmentalism. It just became less overt. I don’t think that feminist activism has ever stopped or will ever stop as long as things are the way they are. When marketplace feminism is no longer a culturally amplified thing, there will still be a ton of feminist work to be done and a ton of feminists doing that work.

 

Related Media:

A Conversation with Gender Capitalism Expert Sarah Kaplan, by Margaret Webb

How to Embed Feminist Values Into Your Company, by Valerie Hussey

Why We’re Feminists, by Valerie Hussey

Confessions of a Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay’s Ted Talk,  by LiisBeth Curator

CBC Here and Now Interview with Andi Zeisler (audio) 

Rotman School of Management Talk Video Clip

Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices

A Conversation with "WE WERE FEMINISTS ONCE" author Andi Zeisler


On September 20th, 2016, Andi Zeisler, author of “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Movement,” spoke at LiisBeth’s first-ever salon (sold out).  Just prior to the event, Liisbeth’s Managing Editor, Margaret Webb, interviewed Andi.
LiisBeth: Your brilliant critique argues that feminism has been high jacked by neoliberalism, giving us what you call marketplace feminism, where women are engaged with individual choice and empowerment rather than the hard work of tackling and fixing systemic inequality. I want to start where your book leaves off. What kind of feminism do we need going forward in order to make meaningful change?
Andi Zeisler: Something that I hope is clear throughout the book is that I don’t think that marketplace feminism has replaced systemic, boots-on-the-ground feminism. I absolutely think that’s always been happening and will continue to happen. Marketplace feminism just happens to be the most amplified version of feminism right now. All the feminism work that’s been going on over the past decade is absolutely having an effect on things and that will continue to happen. I have seen feminism become much deeper, much more intersectional, much more enmeshed in people’s everyday lives and that’s the kind of feminism we need going forward. It’s not an activist project they need to take time out of their lives to do but it is their real lives and part of their everyday life.
LiisBeth: In your critique of choice feminism — whatever a self-declared feminist chooses is feminist is feminist — you argue that there has to be a “line in the sand,” that surely feminism has to stand for something. What is that?
AZ: It has to stand for equality and the autonomy and freedom of all women, not just women who can afford to make consumer choices that prop up their sense of empowerment or sense self actualization. It has to be about supporting women’s equality in every way, whether that’s financial, body, social, as a parent or whatever. It really does have to be about real equality and not a facsimile of it.
LiisBeth: You offer great examples of how feminism has been co-opted by neoliberalism and capitalism, for instance with femvertising, which is using feminism to sell things. How is this harmful to women?
AZ: Anytime a political and social movement becomes excessively individualized and made to seem that it’s something you can choose and has no impact on everyone else, that is harmful. A good example is the so-called mommy wars that has being going on for the last couple of decades, where women who opt out of the workforce because they can afford to…and talk about it as if that’s a choice versus something that’s coerced out of them by a capitalist system that’s still based on having a stay-at-home parent as an anchor. That’s damaging. It makes it seem like it’s a choice and has nothing to do with how we value women in society and in the workforce. It’s like saying that the framework of capitalism has nothing to do with people’s choices and, of course, it does.
LiisBeth: Given that we exist in this neoliberal world of capitalism, how should feminists engage with it? Are there areas or ways we can co-opt or exploit capitalism to move the feminist project forward?
AZ: I’m not saying this is an ideal form of activism but it’s one we have that seems to work well and that is public shaming — calling out companies when they stereotype women in advertising, when they make really gross gender generalizations. Or calling out TV shows when they use slurs or stereotypes. All of these things threaten to hit corporations and pop culture products where it counts, which is in the chequebook. When a critical mass of people tell them what they are doing is wrong and threaten their bottom line, that tends to get their attention.
LiisBeth: How do you think we can engage men in feminism?
AZ: This is one of those questions that I find bothersome, the very idea that men have to be invited to engage in feminism. If men care about feminism, they should not have to be invited…. (Their role) is to take feminism into spaces where they already have the ears of their peers or superiors and make change there. We absolutely need men advocating for gender equality. But if they are men who are going to wait to be invited, they are probably not the people we need. We need the people who are already on our side and willing to do the work in their community
LiisBeth: Okay, put another way, how can men gain from feminism?
AZ: Feminism has always been, by extension, about men because it’s about decimating the idea there’s a gender binary, that there are certain things women do and certain things men do. Of course, feminism has already had men in mind when we talk about things like child rearing, emotion and sexuality. That women should not be constrained by centuries of stereotypes that are often based on nothing applies to men too. When women are liberated from constricting ideas of gender, so are men and that can be really powerful.
LiisBeth: Bitch has grown from a zine into a business with a website, a lecture series, a feminist curriculum for the classroom, a lending library, a writing fellowship. How do you promote or maintain feminist values in your business?
AZ: For a long time, it was really hard because we are a nonprofit running on a shoestring and there were definite issues around the amount we were able to pay people or that we weren’t able to pay health insurance for a long time. Part of the reason we moved (from San Francisco) to Portland 10 years ago was so we could have an organization that could live its mission of being feminist. That means paying everyone a fair wage; paying health insurance for everyone, including part-time employees; having family leave policy; having a generally hierarchical but respectful staff structure. As a nonprofit, we talk about mission and visioning a lot. We talk about communication and the importance of communicating respectfully, listening to people, being open to discussion, being open to dissent. It’s not necessarily enforced in a structural way, but it’s an important organizational value.
LiisBeth: How do you practice feminism in your personal life?
AZ: I accepted a long time ago that you can be a feminist, you can advocate for feminism, but it’s impossible to live every bit of your life in what other people might consider a feminist way. For instance, I was married for almost 16 years, but I would never argue that marriage is a feminist institution or that as a feminist getting married, I made it feminist. Whether it’s where you live or how you live, what you wear, whether you shave legs — when we start talking about whether x or y is or isn’t feminist (that) gets us into that individual unhelpful place where feminism is no longer an ongoing ethic but this idea of a personal choice that can be weighed on the scales of goodness and found acceptable.
LiisBeth: You have said that feminism is not supposed to be fun or cute or sexy. It’s a movement about changing a system and changing values and that’s really hard work and demands hard conversations and conflict and confrontation. Are you bitch slapping feminists to get back into the streets to hold meaningful protests? If so, what kind of protests would you like to see?
AZ: I don’t think there’s any lack of protests. They just don’t look like they did 40 years ago. A lot of activism now happens online, which is a much more inclusive way to do activism when you think about it. Consider how many people couldn’t participate in those protests in the ’60s and ’70s because they were working in factories or their religions didn’t permit it or whatever. I think there’s much more acceptability in how we collectively practice activism and understand activism now. Feminist activism needs a range of people. Some are going to put their heads down and write policy; some will be out in communities talking to and mobilizing people. The way activism is understood now, there’s a lot more for people to do according to their strengths and what their skills are.
LiisBeth: What makes you optimistic about feminism?
AZ: There’s a lot that makes me optimistic. A lot of it is going to universities and seeing that young women are so very immersed in and involved in feminism and politics and thinking deeply and critically about media and economics and gender roles and things like that. I never understand when older feminists say, where are all the feminists? I just think they’re looking in the wrong place or they’re looking at a much narrower range subjects than today’s feminists are actually focusing on.
LiisBeth: Do you think your work at Bitch will change as a result of immersing yourself in this look at feminism, or your views of feminism will change?
AZ: I’m not sure if I can answer that. A lot of things that I wrote about are still happening and in some ways becoming more pronounced. I also think that marketplace feminism is not necessarily going to remain at the kind of tenor it is now. It’s like environmentalism 10 years ago, which was really embraced by Hollywood and advertising and at some point it was no longer the new lens to promote things. That didn’t mean people stopped caring about environmentalism. It just became less overt. I don’t think that feminist activism has ever stopped or will ever stop as long as things are the way they are. When marketplace feminism is no longer a culturally amplified thing, there will still be a ton of feminist work to be done and a ton of feminists doing that work.
 
Related Media:
A Conversation with Gender Capitalism Expert Sarah Kaplan, by Margaret Webb
How to Embed Feminist Values Into Your Company, by Valerie Hussey
Why We’re Feminists, by Valerie Hussey
Confessions of a Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay’s Ted Talk,  by LiisBeth Curator
CBC Here and Now Interview with Andi Zeisler (audio) 
Rotman School of Management Talk Video Clip

Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices

A Conversation with Gender Capitalism Expert Sarah Kaplan

Sarah Kaplan, co-author of “The Rise of Gender Capitalism,” is the Director of the new Institute for Gender + the Economy at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. She spoke at LiisBeth’s first-ever salon (Sold out) along with We Were Feminists Once author Andi Zeisler. LiisBeth was the media sponsor for Zeisler’s talk at the Rotman School on Sept 21, 2016.

LiisBeth: How did you come to feminism?

Sarah Kaplan: I am a woman living in this world and you can’t step out the door without experiencing the ways in which white male privilege exists. I was always the person raising the issue and trying to make sure things were more egalitarian. At some point, I decided I had to start doing this as my primary work and that’s when I started focusing my research work at the university on the role that gender dynamics play in the economy.

LiisBeth: Can you point to a specific moment when you realized you needed to make it your central focus?

SK: There’s a moment every single day. Let’s start with Donald Trump saying that Clinton doesn’t look presidential. What does it mean to look presidential? Apparently, it means you can’t look like a woman. There are 500 of those things every day and it just accumulates and it just accumulated for me.

LiisBeth: Why is the Rotman Institute for Gender & the Economy necessary?

There is already a lot of research being done on this intersection between gender and economy in the business world and nonprofit organizations. But we have less rigorous academic research in the business school community. There’s a real need for business schools to bring the scholarly rigor to these questions, to explore not just the correlations, but also the causal relationships, the underlying mechanisms, and the ways that we can make progress. Because despite all of these reports saying that gender equality would be better for the economy, we can’t make much progress in practice, and the question is, why?

LiisBeth: What do you hope to achieve at the Institute?

SK: This is not just a research institute to focus on women’s leadership, although that is certainly an important issue. It is much more focused on gender dynamics. We are very interested in considering not just questions about women but the interactions between men and women and people of all different genders in our society and looking at those questions at the level of the economy and business as well the individual. A lot of the research that has happened in business schools so far has really been focused on that individual, pointing out that women need to negotiate differently than men and things like that. I’m not very interested in telling women how they can improve themselves to fit into the existing system. I’m much more interested in doing research into understanding how the system can be changed to accommodate a wider variety of people.

LiisBeth: Why do you think that gender equality is good for business or, to push it further, many studies show that female leadership is good for business, that female-led companies outperform others?

SK: We are in a situation where, somehow, it has become necessary to say, not just that it’s the right thing to do to give people equal opportunities, but you have to prove that having women in leadership is better than having men in leadership. We have somehow gotten to the point where we assume patriarchy and male dominance is the norm and that we have to measure everything against that. We don’t see firms being asked to justify why they have men in leadership. But we somehow have to justify why there should be women in leadership, we have to “make the business case.” While we have some evidence from consulting firms that there’s a correlation between women in leadership and firm performance, actually the scholarly research suggests that it may just be the same. It should be enough to say that men and women perform the same on average, so why should we be discriminating against women? One of the questions that I am tackling in my own research is our obsession with the business case. Some people will say we need the business case in order to get change. But we’ve got ourselves caught in a tricky situation – a “business case” means that the only way we get change is if women are better. Why should we have a different bar for performance for women than we do for men? I keep saying, look, even if women aren’t better, at a minimum, they are the same in their performance, and if that is the case, why should we systematically discriminate in our systems and procedures against women? I don’t understand this obsession with having to make the business case that women are superior.

LiisBeth: I’d like to go back to talking about why women are superior. Just kidding. Why not focus on diversity rather than gender?

SK: There’s scholarly research coming out that shows when organizations speak broadly about diversity they are actually less effective in achieving diversity goals, because it’s so broad, suddenly everything and everyone is diverse. Oh, I have a different undergrad degree than you, I’m diverse. I think we have an issue — women are 50 percent of the population and the fact that there are so few represented in organizational leadership and that there are so many barriers to achieving promotions or equal pay, there is a lot of value to just focus on that so that you can make targeted interventions. There are incredibly important intersections (we will be looking at). The dynamics that face a white straight woman are very different than the dynamics that are faced, say, by a black gay man. We should definitely be paying attention to all the different intersections and not assume this is a problem of discrimination faced by elite white women. What about working-class Latinas? What about working-class white women? What about African American men?

LiisBeth: Do you believe that paying attention to women will help us pay attention to other intersections of diversity?

SK: I want to talk less about women and more about gender and gender dynamics and that means paying attention to men as much as paying attention to women. One of the things I’ve become convinced of, if we don’t change our notions of masculinity we are never going to be able to change society because men are constrained into those roles as well. So I don’t want to just focus on women. While I am focused on gender dynamics, I also want to understand that the intersections between race and ethnicity and sexual orientation and all of those diversities. Part of the goal of the institute is to stay away from this obsessive focus on women. We don’t even have women in the title of the institute. We really believe if we focus on women, we’ll get stuck back in a conversation about how to how to fix women when what we really want to do is fix gender dynamics and we want to fix society and fix structural issues.

LiisBeth: After reading “The Rise of Gender Capitalism,” it made me want to stock my portfolio with nothing but gender-inclusive companies. Would that be a good idea?

SK: Do you mean a good idea from the standpoint of financial performance?

LiisBeth: Sure.

The jury is out on about whether it’s “superior performance,” but what we do know that at a minimum it’s not worse performance than other similar types of portfolios. So, if you want the same performance as other portfolios but you want to make sure you aren’t investing in companies that are discriminatory, then it’s a brilliant thing to do.

LiisBeth: How do you sell gender capitalism to feminists who may have been anti-capitalism, anti-investing, anti-business?

SK: So the capitalist system is an incredibly powerful tool for social change. But as soon as you engage with the system, you risk being coopted to the point where feminism becomes just another marketing tool and that’s very tricky and we don’t have an answer for it yet. You look at a company like Dove, which has a marketing campaign about every woman’s body being beautiful. That’s great and a lot of people have hailed that as a great step forward for women and other people say, yeah, but Dove is still trying to sell products that people use to make themselves beautiful. So maybe you’re being coopted. So I think the way to talk to people in the women’s liberation movement who may have seen business and investment as the enemy is to say, yes, it can be. So you have to have those honest conversations but you have to have to be in the conversation. You can’t avoid the conversation. It’s like during the peak of the AIDS crisis, when we still didn’t have many good treatments. And ACT UP was a grassroots organization that was very focused on treatment and getting drugs developed for treatment. They were very much a protest movement but at the same time they realized they had to get to sit at the table with the pharmaceutical companies to talk about research priorities and the only way to do that was to get super educated about the science and then go to these tables and say, no, this what we know and this is what we should do. And where ACT UP had its greatest success was in coupling the incredible protest they did to raise awareness with the engagement in the conversation, the willingness to sit down and try to change the priorities. I think it’s the coupling of those two things that can make progress. I’ve learned a lot from what ACT UP did to think about what we might do about engaging when we start talking about gender.

LiisBeth: Do you think that women who have had some success in business are sufficiently feminist? Are they keen to apply a gender lens or are they a little too co-opted by the current system?

SK: I don’t want it to be that women have to be sufficiently feminist. We all have to be feminist. Why aren’t we asking, are men sufficiently feminist? If women rise up, they rise up in whatever way can. Right now the system is a patriarchy so women are going to rise up benefitting from the values of patriarchy. They are not going to be suddenly feminist in a world that isn’t. So I think it’s unfair to expect that women should be more feminist than men.

LiisBeth: So how are men reacting to this gender lens theory of capitalism?

SK: There’s a big spectrum. There’s a percent of men who are all on board and have maybe experienced a moment of radical empathy, so they actually know how to think differently about this, how to question their own privilege. There is a percent on the other end of the spectrum who think this is BS and aren’t interested in changing because they’re not interested in giving up any of the benefits of that come with the privilege they’ve experienced. And there’s a big bunch of men in the middle who get it or don’t get it or kinda get it and think it’s probably a good idea but don’t really know what to do and don’t have this as a priority. Yeah sure, totally for it and it’s a good thing to do but it’s not on their top 10 list of what they’re going to spend time on. And it’s the same thing for women. We can’t have different expectations for women than we do for men. But we need to convert more men. At Rotman, we now have a men’s ally group that is focused on men having those moments of radical empathy so they can become true champions and not just indifferent actors in the middle of the process.

LiisBeth: We could talk for hours. But is there anything I haven’t asked that you think is critical to get across?

SK: We need to find a way to get gender to intersect with business, the economy and finance and that’s not a straightforward process. It’s not just about making a business case. We need to figure a way to engage that doesn’t involve coopting and that’s the experiment we’re running right now and hopefully we’re going to make progress.


Next Up: LiisBeth talks to Bitch media co-founder Andi Zeisler, author of We Were Feminists Once, who will speak at the LiisBeth salon and Rotman School on Wednesday September 21, 2016, marking the Gender and the Economy Institute’s inaugural speaking event. 

Details below (for tickets click here).

Gender and the Economy Experts Speaker Series @ Rotman

5:00 PM – 6:45 PM

Andi Zeisler, Co-Founder and Creative/Editorial Director, Bitch Media Nonprofit Feminist Media Organization; Author, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl ®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (PublicAffairs, 2016) on “From Riot Grrrl to Marketplace Feminism: Selling – and Selling Out – Feminism”.

Tickets are $34.99 and includes a copy of the book. A reception follows.

Related Reading

Gender Lens Investing

The Rise of Gender Capitalism by Sarah Kaplan and Jackie Vandenburg