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Transformative Ideas

Progress or pinkwashing: Who benefits from digital women-focused capital funds?

(Photo by Vanessa Lee / Unsplash)

Along with crowdfunding, biometric cash assistance, cryptocurrencies, and mobile wallets, another growing digitally enabled source of capital is women-focused capital funds (WFCFs). These funds target women-owned, women-led enterprises, femme and non-binary entrepreneurs, and aim to level the access-to-capital playing field.

That’s the good news. However, a newly released study in Small Business Economics on WFCFs suggests feminist investors, policymakers, and entrepreneurs need to be asking more questions before resting their feminist boots. Professors Barbara Orser of Telfer School of Management at University of Ottawa, Susan Coleman of Hartford University, and doctoral student Yanhong Li recently examined the market positioning of 27 funds in the US and Canada. “We were curious to learn if women-centric investment pools, such as WFCFs, aim to alter exchange processes to support justice and gender equality. At the end of the day, we found that the majority of funds focus on fixing women. Few seek to address structural or institutional impediments,” said Orser. “The bottom line is that among the funds that we examined, only a minority sought to counter structural barriers associated with women entrepreneurs’ access to capital. Most were positioned to facilitate individual wealth creation.”

The study found that this kind of pinkwashing is most likely when funds are created as add-ons to mainstream programs and services, rather than as a central element of the organization’s mission of supporting women and non-binary femmes. In addition, few of the funds displayed third-party assessment or an audit of the fund. Opaque accountability and an absence of independent evaluations were common. This means we cannot always be sure that the funds set to advance women-owned and led ventures actually get to them.

According to the researchers, most WFCFs fall short of supporting a feminist agenda to address institutional and market barriers. The team concludes that, depending on the investment, some WFCFs challenge while some simply perpetuate bias and reinforce structural constraints that impede women entrepreneurs by not actually changing investment due diligence and approval orthodoxies. 

The study offers feminist investors insights to consider before assuming that all funds serve an inclusive economic agenda. This study also alerts LiisBeth readers that there are an increasing number of differentiated WFCFs, so it is wise to shop around—and keep your feminist boots walking.

To download the study (for free), click here.

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Related Reading

Allied Arts & Media Feminist Practices

The Art of Change

Feminist Art Conference 2014, OCAD University, Toronto

The process for art-making can boil down to something like this: Make art, get feedback, make art better. Sounds easy, right? It wasn’t for Ilene Sova. In 2012, the Toronto artist-activist was painting portraits of women who had disappeared in Ontario for her Missing Women Project. She wanted to talk about the hard issues she was tackling in her art—patriarchy, misogyny, systemic racism, violence against women—but there wasn’t a group of fellow feminist artists to turn to, at least not a formally organized one.

Sova put out a call for submissions and volunteers and got a rush of responses, including from people in Kenya and Colombia. On International Women’s Day in March 2013, she launched the first Feminist Art Conference (FAC), a multidisciplinary event that brought together artists, activists, and academics of different gender identities, ages, nationalities, and feminisms so they could show their work and use it to spark discussions around important feminist issues.

The conference sold out in two days, attracting 120 participating artists and 150 attendees. “Clearly what I had been missing in my own social practice was something that others in our creative communities were also yearning for,” says Sova. FAC’s subsequent annual conferences have been equally as successful, especially the 2017 event that happened the day of the Women’s March.

‘Ashaba’; No human can look at her directly by Karen White explores unseen oppression. By covering her face while staring straight at the viewer, the artist makes us feel both complicit and engaged in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism.

 Art That Moves

Feminists have been long fed up with the fact that women’s art continues to be undervalued, underrepresented, and often completely ignored. The feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls have been calling out the gender and racial inequality in the arts since 1985 when they picketed the Museum of Modern Art in New York for featuring only 13 women out of 169 artists.

That inequality persists today. Female visual artists earn just 65 percent of the annual income of their male peers, according to a 2018 report by the Ontario Arts Council. Since 2013, women have only accounted for 36 percent of solo exhibitions at Canadian galleries; it’s dramatically less for non-white women. Gender disparity also exists in the performing arts space, which FAC attempts to redress in their events.

FAC has heard all the reasons why feminist work is often shut out of commercial spaces and public institutions. It’s not mainstream or universal (i.e., not male). It’s too angry and personal (i.e., too female) to be good. No one (i.e., men) will buy it. FAC’s response? Carve out spaces to showcase intersectional work that might be deemed taboo elsewhere, for instance, on topics such as rape culture, transphobia, racism, ableism, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, media representation, cultural appropriation, environmental degradation, and Islamophobia. Nothing is off limits. FAC featured a graphic novel about trauma and abuse, Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee, which contains such difficult subject matter that FAC added its first-ever content warning.

Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee explores themes of trauma and abuse by drawing the viewer into the narrative.

According to Sova, people attending FAC events say they are really touched because the art reflects current social issues that affect them. “This creates a very impactful experience for those viewing art or experiencing a performance,” says Sova.

After hosting four conferences, FAC changed its name to the Feminist Art Collective to reflect its expanding mission. It now hosts artist residencies on the Toronto Islands. And its next event—the Feminist Art Festival, March 5 to 7, 2020, at OCAD University—will include a reception, conference, performances, film screening, makers’ market, and a two-week exhibition featuring the work of visual artists.

The Art of the Action

Since day one, FAC has operated as a grassroots organization run entirely by volunteers. Currently, the core team consists of 30 people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Carissa Ainslie, who took on the coordinator role after Ilene Sova became the Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Painting and Drawing at OCAD University, describes their current organizational structure as non-hierarchical. “We try to be intersectional in terms of who we’re including in the conversations that we’re having,” says Ainslie. “Ensuring that everyone has a voice at the table is really important regardless of what their experiences have been.”

FAC’s biggest challenge is finding the time and money to put on events, particularly without a physical office or paid staff. It didn’t help that the Ontario government slashed arts sector funding from $18.5 million to $6.5 million earlier this year but, before that, FAC did not have much success getting grants as their conferences are so unique they don’t “tick all the eligibility boxes.” Instead, they’re exploring other options such as sponsorships with companies that align with their values.

For now, FAC relies on in-kind donations for printing services, food and beverages for receptions, and space rentals (OCAD University is a signature partner and hosts the festivals as well as committee meetings). Ticket sales (with pay-what-you-can options) and their annual Made by Feminists market at the Gladstone Hotel also brings in funds.

Despite budget constraints, FAC continues to grow. Submissions for the 2020 festival were up to 187 from 130 in 2017, coming in from Australia, South America, Europe, United States, and Canada. Ainslie says the political landscape has changed since their last conference in 2017 with the #MeToo movement encouraging people to talk openly about sexual harassment and gender inequality.

A voting committee of 11 people (artists, curators, activists, community members and academics) will select the final artists to participate at the festival, through a selection process that considers social justice issues, intersectionality, the collective’s mission and, of course, the strength of the art itself rather than the artist’s professional record.

Not Missing, Not Murdered by Amanda Amour-Lynx features the shirt the artist wore the night she was sexually assaulted. Photo: Black Umbrella Photography, Rebecca Tisdelle-Macias

With FAC serving as a spring board, past participants have gone on to show or perform their work in other venues and countries, collaborated with artists they met at FAC events, and even started conferences (see Black Futures Now and M.I.X.E.D) as well as a literary magazine (Living Hyphen).

Says Ainslie: “The world is a bit ridiculous and I hope people can come together and have some good conversations. We try our best to support the artists the way we can. We can’t always do that with funds but we can by creating a space where artists can build their CV and present work that may not be welcome anywhere else. We just want the best for all the artists involved.”

The Feminist Art Festival runs from March 5 to 7, 2020 in Toronto. Get your tickets here

LiisBeth is all womxn-owned/led.  works to promote entrepreneurs, creatives and innovators in the feminist economy. If you appreciate our work, please consider becoming a donor subscriber. [direct-stripe value=”ds1554685140411″]




This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startup Toronto.

Related Articles

Transformative Ideas

A Better Way to Be Better

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

Businesses operating within the framework of 21st century capitalism can and must be a force for good, says Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE) and professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

“Big companies are the ones who have either created or perpetuated many of the pressing social and environmental issues we face today,” she says. “If we are to see significant change, we need them on board.”

Yet, despite more than a decade of amped up efforts on corporate social responsibility (CSR), the impact has been negligible. And evidence shows Canadian public and large corporations, in particular, are lagging behind those in other countries in the CSR area.

In her new book,The 360° Corporation, Kaplan says it’s because they have been going about it the wrong way. We spoke to Kaplan, to find out what they missed.

LiisBeth: You’re best known for your work on innovation and how gender impacts the economy. Why a book on corporate social responsibility?

Sarah Kaplan: This is a project I’ve been working on since before I founded the Institute for Gender and the Economy. The timing happens to be pretty good. A few weeks ago, the Business Roundtable (an association of CEOs from leading US companies) announced that they were going to prioritize creating value for all stakeholders versus just focusing on shareholder returns. Women, gender minorities, LGBTQ+ are increasingly viewed as important stakeholder categories that many corporations are paying attention to.

What is the book about?

(Getting) business leaders to think about social and environmental challenges as central to their business as opposed to it being seen as an add on, something they do off to one side of their desk. It’s time to get past the “CSR candy sprinkled on top.”

And how do we do that?

Think differently about what to do when investor and stakeholder interests don’t easily align. Often when faced with this situation, decision makers default to constructing a business case to figure out a win-win solution to break trade-offs. You get this. I get that. We all get something. Not what we wanted. But it’s as good as it gets.

This can work, but what happens when investors and stakeholders find themselves not just miles, but worlds apart?

In those cases, win-win just isn’t possible. At least not right away. Even attempts to innovate with known variables may not lead to the breakthrough required.

In this case, I encourage companies to hold and value this seemingly intractable tension as a one-of-a-kind transformation opportunity. The idea is to get decision makers to start thinking about the challenge as they would a research and development opportunity. They need to ask what kind of productive experiments could be designed, in concert with stakeholders, over time, to develop something that could not have even been previously imagined. I am asking companies to think of social responsibility and social innovation like any other disruptive R&D project—one that requires long-term uncertain investments with unsure but potentially magnificent payoffs.

That sounds great for companies with deep pockets. What about startups? Smaller enterprises?

A great example of a small company that has successfully integrated social change is McCarthy Uniforms. They figured out how to leverage a social issue—gender equality—as a business transformation opportunity, in fact, as their turnaround strategy.

McCarthy sells uniforms and, like other companies in that space, only sold uniforms that fit a man’s body. By paying attention to a growing conversation around gender equity, they noticed that lots of women wear uniforms. Due to lack of options, women were being forced to wear men’s uniforms that did not fit well. Not only was it uncomfortable, this also often created safety issues. So, they added “female fit” lines of products. And they started creating a social responsibility report, which included gender equity information. They applied this knowledge when they were bidding with school districts and other people needing uniforms. They’re winning their bids because they are including that kind of information.

Embracing stakeholders and seeing them as essential to your day-to-day business and engaging with stakeholders can actually help you find sources of differentiation and benefits that you hadn’t even anticipated.

What role do activists play in motivating companies to take social and environmental issues seriously?

Well, there’s a couple of ways that activists are really, really important to this equation. The first is they can increase the pain for corporations. When Greenpeace started blocking the ships that were carrying drilling equipment up to the Arctic, the visibility really increased public relations and logistics costs. When Shell abandoned their Arctic drilling activities, they said, “Well, it didn’t have anything to do with the activism. It had to do with the cost benefit. But, of course the activism was shaping the cost benefit.

I have talked to sustainability people in various companies who say, “Don’t tell my boss this, but I actually appreciate the activists because they help me make my case inside the company.” Activism can play that role.

The second role that activists can play is to work to get on the inside, and take a seat at the table in those decision-making meetings. Take ACT UP, which I talk about in my book. Their protests got them a seat at the table where researchers were deciding on drug testing protocols for AIDS drug testing. The activists come with a different point of view, different experience, different knowledge.  In this case, activists were able to help the re searchers understand the most effective ways to do the trials and get the trials to be fair, more just, more accessible.

That said, there is a big tension between being in the conversation and being seen as selling out. It’s a very difficult tension to manage. I think it mirrors the same tension that the corporates have when they’re actually paying attention to the stakeholders (“But you’re hurting the bottom line.”) I think the activists should more often see themselves as potential players at the table in this conversation. And in turn, corporations need to be open to, and invite in challenging, uncomfortable and diverse points of view.

What was your biggest “aha”?

I came across some really interesting research that suggests that people who rely on the business case are precisely the people least likely to act when a business case is made to them, because in order to act on these things, there has to be a certain level of moral outrage.

The business case actually mitigates against moral outrage.

What the business case does is justify the existing status quo. It leads to complacency as opposed to outrage. We need business leaders to think about how we can change the status quo versus perpetuate it. The point is not to make the business case. The point is to find new ways to do this work. If you start with the business case, you’re only going to get incremental solutions. That was the biggest aha for me. The business case is getting in the way of action—not to mention innovation and transformation.

What’s happening with the Institute for Gender and the Economy this year?

When it comes to working to achieve positive social change for gender equality, the biggest barrier is that people don’t know what to do and how to do it. So, to help people figure out the “how,” we are launching a series of case studies that are specific examples of what companies have done, which offer new models and templates. The second thing we’re doing is developing a Gender Analytics training program. We will be running prototypes early in the new year and hope to have the program available in the fall of 2020.

Sarah, thank you for all your amazing work to advance gender equity not only in Canada but globally.

Thanks so much for the interview!

Related Reading

The Seven Sins of Gender Washing

We are familiar with term green washing but how about gender washing? What does it look like? And what can we learn from the environmental movement about the pace and nature of change?

Read More »
Our Voices

Move Over #Girlboss–It's the #Feministboss Era

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

When we talk about how to advance inclusivity and diversity, we often default to identifying new ways of including those typically excluded to enter the dominant group’s tent. As colleague Dr. Barb Orser would say, this is known as the “Add X (insert your word here____________ i.e., women, LGBTQIA2S, people of colour, newcomers, etc.) and stir approach to diversity and inclusion.
Given mounting evidence that decades-plus worth of “Add X and Stir” efforts are yielding disappointing results and, in some spaces, even creating rifts, we need to start thinking differently.
If we really want to see a world that has successfully addressed all 17 of the the United Nation’s 2030 sustainable development goals we are going to have to do a lot more than advance a Nike-esque “Just Do It” empowerment mindsets for women. We have to re-imagine fundamental, meta-level social operating systems–like neoliberal capitalism itself.
This is where the feminist economy and its protagonist–the feminist entrepreneur, or NEW breed of womxn entrepreneur–the #feministboss-comes in.
What is the Feminist Economy?
The feminist economy is a kaleidoscope of startup and established organizations and enterprises that live and innovate at the intersection between feminism, social justice, and business.
It’s not all about bookstores or zine publishers anymore, either.
It cuts across sectors and is comprised of fearless startup founders, enterprise owners, non-profit leaders, plus collective, association, activist and cooperative directors of all genders who collaborate and expressly launch gendered products and/or services that challenge norms and advance both gender and social justice. But much more importantly, this community of relatable radicals think about business as a canvas for finding ways to challenge and reshape norms, indicate resistance, and create alternative interpretations of what is possible in our world.
Introducing the #Feministboss
For feminist entrepreneurs and innovators, #movethedial style reform efforts and #girlboss empowerment narratives, while helpful in building personal confidence and advancing gender equity to a point, simply don’t go far enough. Nope. This community gets what humanism actually means, and leverage their individual privilege (if they have it), passions and business acumen to fight for deep systems change that brings an end to gender-based oppression.
This #feministboss pluralistic, global community doesn’t just tinker or wear cool feminist t-shirts.
These mavericks show up and take risks politically, mine 200 years of feminist scholarship, conscientiously tackle emerging theories, and study social movements and activist organizations (In addition to feminism, think Idle No More, Slow Food and the Arab Spring) for insights they can leverage in the context of building a model, social justice values-led enterprise.
Because feminist enterprises exist on the fringe, often without venture funding, corporate or establishment ties, they have the latitude to push the boundaries—with both hands.
Sure. They might have also read Lean Startup by Eric Ries. But they are more likely to have found a more values-aligned path by reading Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy or Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World when thinking about startup design, finance, and strategy.
They also routinely draw on feminist community of practice to learn what’s working–and not working when it comes to next gen inclusive operational practice and governance ideas. They engage with feminist media to share insights and findings—because there is no feminist executive program (yet!). Their companies create economic value—but also serve as social justice labs. They work hard and take on additional risk in order to put into practice feminist values, futures, scholarship, and best practices in an economy that continues to reward in outsized ways kyriarchal compliance (patriarchy + intersectionality = kyriarchy).
According to our most recent LiisBeth survey, the majority of feminist founders and business owners connect with the visionary definition of feminism articulated by feminist writer, bell hooks. It’s based on love for all humanity and the planet.
So where am I going with all this? As argued so well by Dr. Dori Tunstall, OCAD University’s Dean of the Faculty of Design (the first Black dean of a design school in North America), during her keynote at the 2018 Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum,diversity and inclusion practices, as we know them today, are not only not enough—her story shows us how many of these efforts are unnecessarily colonial, primitive and fragile.
On this day, International Women’s Day, I invite you to consider the feminist economy, your own relationship with feminism, and how to liberate and put into practice 200 years of theoretical development in business.
We are not getting to where many people of all genders feel we need to be on this issue.
Part of the answer is in being bolder. We need new stocky, radical ideas. We can find them by engaging the leaders and innovators in the feminist economy.
Perhaps it’s finally time to make feminism a “safe word” in the world of business and innovation. Instead of marginalizing its scholars and its practitioners, it might be finally time to name, fame, and embrace the movement’s wisdom.

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Additional Articles

Activism & Action Our Voices Systems

The Seven Sins of Gender Washing

As someone who wholly embraced and participated the environmental and sustainability movement in the early 2000s (to the point of founding the World’s only Platinum LEED-certified dairy), the opportunity to hear Naomi Klein speak on the state of the environment and environmental debate in Canada on Oct. 17 at the University of Toronto was something I just couldn’t miss.

In her talk, Klein cited many troubling facts, but the most burdensome of these was that after 50 years of environmental activism and effort, as a society, we still struggle to make meaningful progress.

Even with scientific evidence and now actual lived experience of the impact of growing levels of green house gases on the planet, and even after the signing of the 2016 Paris Agreement, environmental activists like Klein remain skeptical. While 55 countries representing 38 per cent of the world’s emissions agreed to implement plans that will “limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change,” Klein argues that the targets are already at risk. Several countries continue to approve large scale industrial projects that will make this achievement mathematically impossible, she notes. Canada for example, played an important role in convincing leaders of the need for even tougher measures, yet recently approved an emissions increase of 43 per cent for the Alberta Tar Sands’ new fossil-fuel-based pipelines. In practice, this will increase Canada’s emissions well beyond the target set in Paris.

Furthermore, environmental watchdog organizations, like UL Ventures (formerly TerraChoice), an independent global science safety company, continue to call out case after case of greenwashing. The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 to describe instances in which a company, government or any other group promotes green-based initiatives or images but continues to operate in ways that damage the environment. In fact, according to UL, 95 per cent of green products assessed today are guilty of greenwashing.

While we are patting ourselves on the backs for our day to day efforts, Klein suggests, we as a society are not doing nearly enough. Yes, we can change lightbulbs, buy green products, build LEED-certified buildings, and ride our bikes to work in the snow. But it turns out that in the face of continuued approval of large scale, fossil fuel based industrial projects that serve capitalist, corporate and national interests, these individual efforts represent but a few colourful grains of sand on a 150-mile beach.

The environmental movement has learned it is up against something much bigger than political will. It’s up against the reluctance of us all, and especially of those in power, to give up our 21st century way of life.

Common Ground: From Greenwashing to Gender-Washing

While listening to Klein, it occurred to me that the gender equality movement (known more commonly as feminism) is a lot like the environmental movement.

The literature in both fields indicates similar causal roots (unequal power dynamics, capitalism run amok, neoliberalism), and both are deemed exploitative in nature. They are both wicked problems that require intersectoral solutions. Each domain is full of third-party certification opportunities to help consumers separate the curds from the whey (LEEDS, Green Globes, ISO 14001, WEConnect, and Buyup Index).

Taking this idea further, many similarities can also be seen in the ways that corporations and even governments pay lip service to these two philosophies to turn a profit, or a vote.

In 2009, TerraChoice developed its list of the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing”, which became a widely-used taxonomy to categorize common types of greenwashing activities. The seven sins are: Hidden Trade-off, No Proof, Vagueness, Worshiping False Labels, Irrelevance, Lesser of Two Evils and Fibbing. Categorizing practices like this helped consumers to recognize and understand different types of greenwashing activities so they could make more informed choices.

The seven sins list was indeed useful during my days as a sustainable enterprise entrepreneur. And so, I thought it might be similarly helpful to develop a “Seven Sins of Gender-Washing” list to help us all better identify gender-washing practices. The term “gender-washing” describes organizations that try to sell themselves as progressive on the gender equity front, when in reality, they are not.

Here goes.

  1. The Sin of Re-Skinning – A company that attempts to “look” like its work environment is currently gender progressive by ensuring its company website, annual report, and advertising copy has lots of women in the photos. It uses positive gender speak in its corporate communications, and content marketing output, yet when you check out the gender composition at the top it is 80 per cent, or worse, 100 per cent men.
  2. The Sin of Worshipping False Progress – Where corporations create special “We Love Women Who Work Here” days; buy tickets to women empowerment lunches for female staff; appropriate initiatives like the UN’s “HeforShe” campaign for commercial gain; or give to Oxfam’s “I Am A Feminist” campaign as part of a marketing campaign, yet internal organizational policies and day-to-day gender-biased cultural practices remain fundamentally unchanged.
  3. The Sin of Distraction – A claim suggesting the company is pro-gender equity, but upon digging deeper, you find the claim is based on a narrowly defined initiative without concern for the larger, more important issues. For example, in 2011, Walmart trumpeted its new Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which involved a commitment to source $20B from women-owned businesses. Sounds good, however, this amounts to just 5 per cent of its overall expenditures. And, Walmart was already buying from some women-owned firms. The initiative came on the heels of a class action suit launched against Walmart by its 1.5 million female associates for its allegedly discriminatory practices.
  4. The Sin of Corporate Inconsistency – Where distant head offices write, implement and impose gender equity and inclusion policies, and promote this as progress, but their branch plant or satellite operations in other jurisdictions don’t follow suit and are not help accountable for doing so.
  5. The Sin of Positioning Basic Compliance as Leadership – Companies that tout government-mandated policies—like pay equity or parental leave—as gender-progressive initiatives; or Ontario organizations that send out press releases announcing they “have done away with dress codes” (meanwhile dress codes have already been deemed unacceptable by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 2016).
  6. The Sin of Irrelevance – A case where a company promotes the fact that 65 per cent of its employees are women, however they are all on the factory floor, are mostly hired as part-time workers with no benefits, and have no representation in senior management let alone on the board.
  7. The Sin of Only Counting Heads – A case where a company trumpets the addition of two new female board members or the promotion of a female manager to VP to change the ratio, not the culture. Sometimes, “non-trouble makers” or like-minded women who won’t challenge the status quo are chosen by design. This does nothing to change the culture or support inclusion. Appointees we hope to see serve as changemakers become mere headstones at the board table, and their ability to create change for all genders in the company is amputated-usually at the voice.

When it comes to the seven sin taxonomy, many may argue that perhaps these initiatives are not really sinful at all, but demonstrations of positive intent. The phrase, “Let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good,” comes to mind. As a colleague of mine said, “At least they changed the pictures on the website—it’s a start isn’t it?”

Once again, we can learn from our environmental movement counterparts. Yes, some organizations, keen to be perceived as market leaders in the gender equity space, might put the cart before the horse—a “fake it till you make it” approach—advertising where they want to be, and not where they are today. Sorry, but that still makes it gender-washing-until their policies and results catch up with their claims.

Do Organizations That Gender Wash Eventually Improve Authentically?

Furthermore, evidence from the green space shows that few companies ever actually move (willingly) beyond their greenwash-oriented status. Why? Turns out “the perfect” is not the enemy, it’s the business case decision-making framework.

To help organizations understand what being stuck in the short-term business case loop looks like, the sustainability field developed something called “The Maturity Curve”. Different consulting firms have customized different versions, but the core idea is the same. Becoming a truly environmentally positive enterprise is a journey. Points along the curve articulate the pros and cons from one state to another. It can help decision makers see that some returns take a long time to be realized.

If we apply the maturity curve concept to the gender equity space, it would look something like this:



As the chart illustrates, the reason companies in the environmental space actually never move past the compliance or market opportunity levels is because short-term returns are possible at those levels. Consumers eager to vote green with their dollars buy the products based on the ads, the green coloured package and superficial claims. Both believe they have done their bit.

Organizations that do want to make a substantive difference need to move up the curve. However, as you move up the curve, so do costs, and returns take more time to realize. Maturing takes investment. As we know, not all quarterly-earnings-oriented organizations can stomach a long return horizon. As a result, only a small percentage of organizations make the leap to the next stage of commitment.

This also speaks to the fact that that there is a limit to what we can truly expect from large corporations and institutions when it comes to changing the world. Few will ever, if at all, reach the fourth stage, unless these goals were part of the founding vision in the first place.

From Gender Washing to Gender Equity, to Action

So what does our understanding of green washing and role of companies in helping to drive environmental change tell us about the pace and nature of change we can expect in the gender equity space?

For starters, we can remind ourselves that real, deep social change happens at a glacial pace and is inherently complex. It involves changing institutions, culture, underlying, interlocking systems like capitalism and culture, versus just the products we buy or companies we work for.

We can also learn that individual efforts, such as “buying your way” out of a significant and fundamental social problem, make us feel good, but don’t do nearly enough. We must move from being consumers to becoming citizens again. As citizens, we can and should re-engage at political levels, read, think critically, stand up (on the street if need be, not just while sitting on your couch using Twitter), speak our truths, get uncomfortable, and take the time out of our days to contribute meaningfully to an intentional larger movement.

As Klein said two weeks ago, to really make a difference on these kinds of problems, we need an  intersectional collective, activist effort.

In her view, just as the colonialists saw their colonies and their natural resources as their own larder for growing their personal stature and fortunes at home, society has for too long viewed women as an inexpensive resource to exploit. Women have been used as “spare parts to fill in, versus lead[ers in] our economy.”

In short, we need to end our dependence on the extractive economy to save the planet, and similarly end our exploitation of women to advance society. And we need active, engaged and informed citizens, not consumers, to get there.

Now that would truly change everything.


Related Readings and Articles:

Entrepreneurs by Choice; Activists by Necessity” by Cynthia MacDonald




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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