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Activism & Action Featured Our Voices

The F-Word: Why We Need to Embrace and Get on with Advancing Equality

What happens when groups who share common concerns are divided over the name of their mission but maybe not over the core principles? I’d say that distraction happens, drawing attention away from what is important. That’s what’s happening now, with feminism.

Many are uncomfortable with a label that seemingly reduces people to a single dimension. People are messy and changeable. Ideas are too. So how can a label accurately capture all that uncertainty?

We can’t let ourselves be distracted from important thinking and work

It’s time to remind ourselves, and each other, what feminism is mostly about, and why. Clearly, not every issue that falls under the umbrella of feminism will be of equal concern to all women, but the underlying principles of social, economic and political equality are far-reaching and improve everyone’s lives – whether female or male – across the globe.

Note here that I say, across the globe. Local politics are usually more robust than national politics because people feel they can connect – something that is hard to achieve, or even imagine, on a massive scale. We are more drawn to help a single child or family than a community of 100,000. So when I say global, I know that I risk losing people. But I am a pragmatic idealist. I believe that people are more the same than we are different. We all need love, food, and shelter. We all want to feel safe. We want to participate. I think that if you spoke to men and women anywhere, you would hear them expressing the same fundamental dreams.

I’m comfortable embracing the label “feminism” precisely because the movement it describes is uncertain and messy, and its priorities, ideas, and approaches keep shifting. But this is the core: feminism advances women’s equality through systemic change.

Today, some women like to proclaim that their personal actions are their form of feminism, and they’re not interested in activism or collective efforts. But these women fail to recognize that their individual expression or success comes on the back of a movement. Walking into your boss’ office, asking for a raise, because the guy sitting next to you is earning more for the same job — and winning that raise — occurs not solely because of your self-assertion or the largess of your boss, but because feminist action shone a light on the issue of unequal pay and because of the hard-won equal-pay legislation that followed as a result of that action.

Winning those rights and protecting them requires vigilance

Consider a young woman in North America who thinks she can wear whatever she wants and flip a finger at the status quo, only to hear a judge tell her in a rape case that she should have dressed differently, drank less, closed her legs during the attack. She must realize she shares a fragility of freedom with women around the globe. That freedom was shattered for women in Iran. Before the Iranian revolution in 1979, women in Iran were educated, had careers, fully participated in society, and dressed in much the same manner as women in North America. Then, with the assent of a repressive regime, women’s rights were severely curtailed. They were denied access to work, forced to dress according to a strict Islamic dress code, and relegated to the home and control of fathers, husbands and brothers. Now, that treatment of women in Iran is considered the status quo.

We challenge the status quo in various ways

Let me share a seemingly non-contentious “feminist” strategy to illustrate how meaningful change occurs to challenge the status quo — and how far-reaching it can be. Are you someone who enters a room in the summer and immediately makes sure the air conditioning control is set at 21 degrees C (70 F)? Or do you enter an air-conditioned public space with a sweater in hand, look around for the air vents and move as far away from them as you can?

If the former, you’re well aligned with many men. Why? In the 1960s, when central air conditioning had become standard, it was primarily men who occupied workplaces. Men wore suits, winter and summer; air conditioning allowed for this.

Now, many more women occupy those workspaces. Women frequently complain that public spaces are far too cold, keep sweaters and jackets on hand all summer, and even use space heaters to counter the air conditioning. This is 2016 and one of the biggest threats we face is climate change. Energy use is a key contributor, and over-using air-conditioning is a misuse of energy.

Heavily cooled space was normalized in the 1960s, but that doesn’t make it inviolate or right. I once owned a building where 40 employees worked. We considered the comfort of all staff when we set the temperature. I found that the best practice was to ask everyone to accommodate to a mid-point. The compromise of 25 C (77 F) was cool for some and warm for others, but no one froze and no one baked, and for many, the temperature was just right.

Despite our concerns about energy use, buildings are still over-cooled and here is an opportunity to recognize that rethinking what has become the norm advances more than just the comfort of some individuals. It recognizes that we have to change how we use energy. But it’s also worth recognizing that those least likely to challenge the status quo are those who established the status quo in the first place.

But the status quo we’re used to, as in the example of overly cooled public space, has no inherent meaning. It became a norm and people accepted it, or fought against it as if it were a truth. It’s not a truth. It’s a practice that simply occurred at a time when we didn’t know better. Now we know we can’t afford the misuse of energy or discomfort of half the workforce. So let’s look at what will work in today’s context. Let’s look at issues with fresh eyes, and not just in terms of the status quo.

Again and again, we encounter practices and policies that were designed for one demographic, and excluded too many others. Consider another. For a long time, most research into heart health was conducted on white males. What could it reveal about non-white men and women? Not much. Indeed, until recently, emergency response teams didn’t identify the symptoms of a woman having a heart attack, as they differed significantly from what a man experiences. All medical people could do with such male-centric research was extrapolate and make assumptions. The fascinating thing about assumptions is how often they’re wrong. We fail to recognize our own bias or the limitations of a theory.

What is feminism really about?

 So back to the F-word. If you look up “feminism” in several dictionaries, the definitions are virtually identical:

  • The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
  • An organized effort to give women the same economic, social, and political rights as men
  • Advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men
  • The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men.

While there are different types of feminism, there is a deep history that gives meaning to these definitions. It’s not meaningful or helpful to focus our discussion on the label, which keeps returning us to the fundamental question of whether women across the globe should be working towards achieving economic, social and political rights equal to men. Yet, too often, women get mired in arguing about who is or isn’t a feminist and why.

Rather than engaging in this distraction, let’s figure out what the real resistance to feminism is and where it’s coming from. That may highlight why the resistance is so strong. Don’t assume that the only resistance comes from men; women of privilege are often strong deniers of feminism. Economic, social and political equality for any group is only problematic if the group holding the power believes sharing is a zero-sum game, meaning if one gains then another loses. We have been led to believe that you’re either winning or losing; you’re an insider or an outsider. But that’s not actually how feminism — or the world — works; both are filled with subtlety.

When we embrace the idea that women’s success, achievement, and inclusion does not come at the expense of men’s, but, rather, enriches the whole, we find there is ample space for everyone. And that is what feminism is working towards. So don’t let the distractions derail us. Focus on what matters. And let’s work together to achieve inclusion.

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Activism & Action Our Voices

A Conversation with Gender Capitalism Expert Sarah Kaplan

Sarah Kaplan, Author, The 360° Corporation: From Stakeholder Trade-offs to Transformation
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