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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


Activism & Action Systems

Confronting Gender Inequity And Inclusion in The Innovation Space

Many people seem to believe that innovation capacity is any economy’s secret sauce. The more of it, the better. According to many experts, achieving top tier results in the innovation race is as simple as focusing on getting more business owners and entrepreneurs innovating. In other words, it’s a numbers game.

If this is truly the case, then surely solving Canada’s innovation under-performance is a cinch. Just offer relevant support for ambitious, talented women in the innovation space and the number of entrepreneurs and businesses innovating could increase by 30 per cent overnight. The economic impact would be seismic.

Yet the $200-million-per-year innovation strategy now being touted on the conference circuit by Minister Navdeep Bains, which highlights many ways to drive more innovation output, says nothing about gender parity, let alone mentioning it as a big opportunity. Additionally, the documents circulating online about the initiative also gives no indication that it is even a priority.

Improving on Canada’s glacial innovation advancement record is an important pursuit but so far, this new plan isn’t hot enough to unleash its benefits, especially if it continues to leave female innovators chilly, and potentially out in the cold.

Are Today’s Incubators and Accelerators the Solution?

The Bains mandate states “expanding effective support for incubators [and] accelerators” as a key solution. But how well do today’s incubators and accelerators serve women?

Let’s take a look at an example up close.

One of the most prestigious, well-resourced, young talent–seeking incubators in the country, The Next 36, proudly announced on June 15 a new venture capital fund led by BDC Capital in participation with Globalive Capital and private investors. While this may sound like good news for innovation, one must ask why more money is being spent to support a program run by a 92 per cent male leadership structure?

A closer look at the organization’s leadership (as advertised on its website) finds that men make up six out of seven of its founders, 13 of its 14 board members, 13 of its 14 faculty members, and 19 of its 22 mentors. And the number of female innovators selected annually to participate in this elite program ranges from five to 11 out of a total of 36 per session over the past four years. Go a level deeper and look at seven of the companies that the current board members of The Next 36 work for as their “day job” collectively. The boards and senior management of these companies have just five women in a total of 48 positions (that’s just 11 per cent).

It doesn’t seem to get any better when it comes to the leadership of the principal partners involved in this newly announced fund. Government-owned BDC Capital lists eight men and just one woman on its executive team. Globalive Capital and Alignvest, both self-described “world-class” investment management firms, are made up of 100 per cent men in their partner ranks.

Gender inequality at work in this incubator is more than skin deep. Sadly, The Next 36, an idea with exceptional potential, is starting to look more like The Past 36 at a time when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a self-declared feminist, managed to achieve gender parity in cabinet in one fell swoop.

Moreover, The Next 36 example is not an isolated one. Here in Ontario alone, many regional innovation centres themselves acknowledge and report sub-optimal performance in the gender equality department with participation level ranging from a low of four per cent to a high of 25 per cent.

The innovation eco-system has a long way to go to meet Kathleen Wynne’s and Justin Trudeau’s standards of gender parity.

Back to Canada’s Innovation Strategy

If we truly believe gender diversity has a business case when it comes to realizing enhanced performance, then we must also believe that gender diversity matters in innovation policy.


LiisBeth has four ideas to offer:

  • First, government-funded incubators should be asked to pledge to achieve gender parity within management and mentor ranks by the end of 2017 and be given one year to get there.
  • Innovation policy should encourage and support the creation of autonomous, women-led, female founder–focused incubators and innovation programs. It’s nice to think a gender-blind approach is a pinnacle of form, but if we are honest we know it typically means a male-led and male-centred approach to a masculine culture environment that—by the way—also welcomes women. The research is clear. This works for some, but not many.
  • Unleash innovation at the margins by developing a complimentary demographic-based incubator strategy. Innovating something new and forgoing income to do it is scary enough, let alone trying to succeed in a space that doesn’t make you feel like you belong. Many talented innovators simply do not feel comfortable or motivated by being a part of a culturally or socially alien space, including Indigenous, trans, new Canadian, or age 50-plus entrepreneurs. It might be interesting to note that other nations seem to have figured this out. For example, Israel now has an ultra-orthodox tech incubator. If we want more business owners and entrepreneurs innovating in Canada, we cannot arrogantly insist that they all participate in an environment “we” think is best for them. A little support for demographically specific incubators would go a long way.
  • Finally, we should also require all private venture capital firms seeking government-matching funds to disclose their gender equity and diversity state, and submit plans for improving them within 18 months if they are below the water line. We all know this: equal access to capital is absolutely critical if we are to truly leverage our talented female and other marginalized innovators.


There is room for optimism. For example, the Bains Ministry’s recently published backgrounder states: “Only by mobilizing every sector of society to do its part will all Canadians have the opportunity to participate fully in an innovation economy.”

In addition, Bains’ mandate letter from the prime minister says expressly that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development is expected to “help ensure gender parity.” As his mandate marching orders—and common sense—dictates, Bains must work to correct a no longer acceptable gender gap in the innovation space.

How much he has taken to heart in this arena is unclear. Bains’ recent eight-minute speech at Canada 2020 covered the usual: the importance of tech; being kinder to failure; his father’s $5 self-made entrepreneurial journey; the value of universities; and how to become a global innovation leader. But there was nothing said on the issue of gender parity in the innovation space.

If Minister Bains wants to succeed where others have failed, and if indeed, winning at innovation is a numbers game, then fostering gender equality and broader inclusion overall are two significant opportunities that should not be overlooked.

Want to write to Minister Navdeep Bains to voice your opinion on his innovation strategy? He is looking for input. Details on how to contribute to the discussion have not yet been announced, but in the meantime, you can email him at