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Activism & Action

Steal Our Feminism, But Admit It

T.L. Cowan, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Toronto

What happens when companies appropriate the ideas of feminism to increase “diversity” and “inclusion” without giving due credit to feminism? According to T.L. Cowan, a professor of media studies at the University of Toronto and deep thinker on feminism, that theft pushes feminism to the radical edges, which stops the rich flow of ideas from feminist activists, scholars, and practitioners, and stalls actual progress on diversity and inclusion.

LiisBeth caught up with T.L. Cowan and her research colleague Prateeksha Singh at Verity, a women’s business club in downtown Toronto, to talk about Cowan’s new research project that focuses on how feminist entrepreneurs, scholars, and activists are influencing education and industry. For instance, she wants to know how feminist research actually reaches practitioners who can put those ideas to work.

Cowan, who was a former Yale University Visiting Presidential Professor, Canadian Bicentennial Visiting Professor, and Digital Humanities Fellow before joining the University of Toronto, was keen to get to know the feminist entrepreneur community in Toronto—and LiisBeth was all too happy to help out!

In turn, LiisBeth wanted to pick her brain about how feminism can shape today’s corporate agenda. Here’s our conversation.

LiisBeth: In political, social, and economic change circles, we talk about feminism. In corporate circles, we talk about diversity and inclusion. What’s the difference? How do these two realms intersect?

T.L. Cowan: I think the diversity and inclusion conversation would not be possible without feminism, anti-racist, disability, LGBTQ2S, Indigenous, civil rights, and other activist social movements. Quite simply, while of course it’s great to aim for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the “diversity and inclusion” framework is an example of corporate culture taking credit for these initiatives without citing the generations of social movement work that have shifted values and norms. So it’s like these new business models plagiarize activist ideas and practices without citing the movements or incorporating the analyses of power that inform this societal shift.

Diversity and inclusion policies and practices are not always uninformed or misguided but they are often more oriented to corporate metrics than to broader political or cultural change. In the worst-case scenario, it’s like taking the easiest possible route to a progressive-looking company photo for the website without accounting for the real work of being within and working across difference. However, in the best-case scenario, a diverse and inclusive workplace and work culture that is flexible enough to transform itself rather than expecting all the new “diversity and inclusion” hires to reproduce the existing company culture can be a very positive experience for everyone involved.

LiisBeth: Can diversity and inclusion professionals learn anything from feminism?

Cowan: I’d like to see diversity and inclusion professionals educate themselves on the long histories of feminism and other activist struggles within and beyond the corporate world and the labour movement. We have been fighting for a more just and equitable society, including employment justice and equity for a long time. These are not new ideas produced within a boardroom. These are ideas that have been generated from kitchen tables, community centres, and the streets!

One of the things that happens when diversity and inclusion mandates are annexed from feminist and other activist movements without citation and taken out of context is that those movements then become caricatures of an unpopular kind of radicalism. My friend, professor Jacqueline Wernimont, writes brilliantly about this in the context of academic culture, but her analysis is applicable here. She notes that the mainstreaming of some feminist principles without naming them as such is a “dangerous kind of appropriation … of many of the insights and practices of various feminisms but strips out their identification as such, thereby eliding the many ways in which feminists and feminist paradigms have effected change.”

Extending Wernimont’s argument to the corporate sphere, the “diversity and inclusion” framework is part of a general trend that “systematically subsumes” feminist work. She explains that “not only does this make the work of scholarly feminism invisible, once again writing women out of history, it also creates a vision of 21st-century feminism as what is left over, what has not been claimed by other now mainstream methodologies, merely the hysterical rantings of angry women (again).”

Another reality that happens when you formulate a diversity and inclusion policy or strategy without paying attention to the long histories of feminist activism is that you cannot benefit from the lessons learned within feminist movements. For example, the framework of “women and other underrepresented groups” in B Lab’s Inclusive Economy Metric Set does not attend to the ways that white women have benefited disproportionately from corporate feminism. There is a long history in feminist politics that allows us to understand how racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination against recent immigrants and Indigenous people do not function separately, but rather intersect and accumulate (see readings below). What this means is that decontextualized diversity and inclusion frameworks are least likely to benefit folks who are multiply minoritized by overt or implicit long-standing, traditional, systemic, and structural biases.

By the standards set in this document, a company could have a 100% white employee pool and still meet the challenge, as long as some of those white people were women, queer, disabled, or transgender. Or 100% male, as long as some of the men met some other diversity requirements. Head-counting can only get us so far in our goals for a just and equitable corporate culture and broader society. We actually have to account for how long histories of discrimination and the maldistribution of life chances (see Spade reading below) continue to shape even our ideas of diversity and inclusion.

A select list of further reading by T.L. Cowan:

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke University Press, 2012.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2010.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991): 1241–1299.

Enke, Anne. Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies. Temple University Press, 2012.

Hooks, Bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2015. (Especially, “Feminism: A Transformational Politic.”)

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, Calif.: Crossing Press, 2007. (Especially “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.)

Malhotra, Ravi. Disability Politics in a Global Economy : Essays in Honour of Marta Russell. 2017.

Razack, Sherene, Malinda Smith & Sunera Thobani, eds. States of Race : Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century. Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2010.

Spade, Dean. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Wernimont, Jacqueline. “Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives.” 7.1 (2013): Digital Humanities Quarterly.