Categories
Transformative Ideas

A Better Way to Be Better

Moving beyond either/or. 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!


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Don’t miss this

You can catch Sarah Kaplan speaking about her new book on Thursday, September 26, 5:00 to 7:00 PM at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Register for the event here.


Additional reading

To find out how Canadian CEOs compare to their US counterparts when it comes to enacting corporate social responsibility, read Kaplan’s op-ed in The Globe and Mail, published on September 16.

Plus, go back and read our 2016 conversation with Sarah Kaplan:

https://www.liisbeth.com/2016/09/12/conversation-gender-capitalism-expert-sarah-kaplan/

 

Categories
Sample Newsletter Uncategorized

Dispatch #22

instead-of-either-%2fopr-i-discovered-a-whole-world-of-and-goriia-steinem-my-life-on-he-road

VIEWPOINT

Last week, The Economist released “The World in 2017“, its annual collection of opinionated predictions for the year ahead. This 31st edition advertised forecasts from some personalities of note, including Justin Trudeau and member of the Russian female protest group Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina. It also includes predictions from George Clooney. (Oooh la la! I hoped his prediction came with a photo!)

In last year’s edition, The Economist predicted that 2016 would “be summed up in three words: woes, women and wins”. The woes referred to the worsening situation in Syria. The wins noted were sports and tech-related. And, the part about women referred to the impact of women coming into powerful roles for the first time, like Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House (the 2016 cover featuring future world leaders didn’t even include Donald Trump-they assumed she would win), Janet Yellen’s work at the Federal Reserve, and how Angela Merkel will respond to the migrant crisis.

Turns out they were not entirely wrong in their prognostications -except for the Hillary Clinton part. Looking back, the 2016 edition was also light on predictions regarding the future for 50% of the planet’s population, women and girls. In fact only one out of the 100+ predictions that related to the role and state of women and girls on the planet; ­A piece on the importance of educating girls. In the world’s poorest countries, still, only 20 percent of girls complete Grade 8 education.

The 2017 edition, however, is markedly different. First, it includes not one but seven predictions out of 100+ that speak to the fight for gender equality, including one with the actual word “feminism” in the title. And second, the predictions related to the advancement of women this time are more about broad social shifts, versus an emphasis on a handful of individual women-in-power ‘firsts’.

Social and culture gender-related predictions noted include the increasing acceptance of a fluid approach to gender, the rise of “nuanced feminism”, 2017 as a breakthrough year for women in the boardroom due to quotas and public opinion, and the advent of “marketplace diversity and inclusion”. Andi Zeisler describes in We Were Feminists Once how companies have increasingly used feminism in their advertising to sell us stuff while their overall company leadership and policies continue to show they are at their core, un-feminist, or worse, unwoke”. In a similar way, this same trend is being seen across other areas of diversity and inclusion.

Out of the seven predictions related to gender equality, a piece worthy of both further note and criticism is “A Feminism for All” by millennial writer Louise O’Neill (also the author of Asking for It, a novel examining gender and sexism). First, it’s great to see feminism included in the predictions at all. And we agree with O’Neill when she writes feminism today is for “women of all races and religions, it’s for transgender people, it’s for men, it’s for straight, gay people and everyone in between.” We also agree with O’Neill’s idea of “nuanced” feminism, which says feminist issues are complex and not given to simple answers. However, with her emphasis on how individuals embrace feminism today,  O’Neill misses the opportunity to underscore that feminism is not just a mindset; it’s also about actively working for change, and in particular, systems change. We found that oversight disappointing.

If feminism is about working for deep-seated social change, then it will require much more than a countable increase in the number of “woke” fan girls (or fan guys, and everyone in between) posting selfies of their feminist selves. I guess one could argue that this is at least a start, but for feminism to truly matter, it will eventually need people who are prepared to really dig in, unlearn media’s skewed representation of feminism, relearn the movements’ real history and roots (including it’s issues i.e. white feminism), read everything they can about feminist thought leadership today, and engage meaningfully in efforts to power system and institutional change.

But then again, posting a selfie is easier.

Overall, as a long-time Economist reader, I was pleased to see these topics make the 2017 prediction list. And I hope the curators are as close to right about their forecast as they were with their 2016 list.

As for George Clooney, sadly, there was only a small illustration of his head beside the article, mostly written by someone else.


dimnple

THIS WEEK ON LIISBETH

This week, we interview Dimple Mukherjee, founder of Whole Self Consulting, an advocate for the benefit of women-only spaces, and creator of the Bindi Parlour experience.  The Bindi Parlour is described as a “girls night out at home”, an idea we thought was timely given the approaching holiday season.

We loved Dimple’s very personal, and grassroots story about how she came to entrepreneurship. We hope you do as well. You can find the article here.


eileen-scully-founder%2frising-tide-curator-52feminists-com-1

52FEMINISTS

Sometimes you just gotta love Twitter.  For without it, I would not have been introduced to so many fabulous feminist entrepreneurs over the past few months who by chance, saw our feed and decided to reach out because of common ground.

Who is this fab woman? Meet Eileen Scully, an accomplished woman in tech, founder of The Rising Tides, a diversity and inclusion consultancy based in Connecticut, and creator of a fabulous sideline website called 52feminists.com.

The website profiles at present, 52 feminists and the list is growing.  I asked Scully why she started this initiative. Scully explained in an emailed response that “In July 2016, it began to feel as though so much of the progress we had made towards advancing the rights of women were slipping away. Every day I work with businesses helping them achieve gender parity, but I needed an outlet for the social and political aspects of women’s equality. 52feminists is a platform to expand the definition of what is a feminist, through the stories of ordinary people. Each week features a different feminist on each of our feeds, and to our subscriber base.”

To check it out, visit 52feminists.com and submit your profile! You can also join her twitter feed @52feminists.


equality

DO QUOTAS HELP OR HINDER?

Check out Sarah Kaplan’s (Director, Institute for Gender & the Economy, Rotman School of Management) timely new research brief “The Debate About Quotas” where she explores both sides of the gender diversity quota debate.  The brief notes that “Policy makers and organizations have been working toward achieving gender diversity for many decades, but progress has been slow and is perhaps even stagnating.”

Are quotas the answer? Learn about the pros and cons here.


THE CANADIAN WOMEN’S MARCH ON WASHINGTON

It was freezing cold Toronto’s City Hall on Wednesday, December 11, but we showed up anyway.  The occasion? A photo shoot arranged by Toronto march organizer Marissa McTasney (Founder of Moxie Trades).  The purpose was to join other communities around the world doing the same–showing support for the Women’s March on Washington event planned for Sunday, January 21st, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th POTUS (President of the United States). To see similar photos from around the world, use #whyimarch. You can also watch “Why I March” declarations here.

To check out the Metro News article on the gathering, click here. Yes, and by the way, NONE of us are soccer moms (they are making a correction).

The January 21st event promises to be a historical event by all accounts. All across Canada, and around the world, women (and men) are preparing to participate in the march as a show of solidarity for diversity, equality, and inclusion. To find out about a march near you, visit http://canadianwomenmarch.ca/local-marches/.  To get a seat on one of the buses departing from Toronto for Washington, visit http://canadianwomenmarch.ca. Tickets are $150.00 per person.


sophia-robot-2MEET SOPHIA

LiisBethian Vicki Saunders (Founder, SheEO) sent us a link to this incredible article titled “Selfless Devotion” by Janna Avner on why engineers are giving robots “feminine” personalities. And what this says about how femininity is perceived in our society.

Janna Avner is a creative technologist living in Los Angeles who recently co-created Femmebit, a yearly digital new media festival celebrating women artists. Janna graduated from Yale in 2012, and is currently a gallery director who curates shows, exhibits paintings, and writes as much as time permits.

In the article Avner provides us with insight in the humanoid development space.

Avner writes “Sophia,” created by Hanson Robotics, is one of the several fair-skinned cis-appearing female prototypes on the company’s official website. She possesses uncannily human facial expressions, but though she may look capable of understanding, her cognitive abilities are still limited.”

Further on, Avner also notes “Looking at female humanoid robots shows me what the market has wanted of me, what traits code me as profitably feminine. Like a Turing Test in reverse, the female bot personality becomes the measure of living women. Is my personality sufficiently hemmed to theirs? This test might indicate my future economic success, which will be based on such simple soft skills as properly recognizing and reacting to facial expressions and demonstrating the basic hospitality skills of getting along with any sort of person.”

Believe me; it’s worth the time read.  Thanks, Vicki!


CAN’T MISS EVENTS
  • Does your plan for 2017 include launching a social enterprise? The Community Innovation Lab has just launched their 2017 Social Enterprise Accelerator program. This early stage, co-ed incubation and training program will run from February 2017 to June 2017 and aims to support and enrich the learning experiences of social entrepreneurs in Durham Region, Northumberland, and the Kawarthas.  Learn more here. And to apply click here. Only 25 spaces are available.
  • Women on the Move presents “Entrepreneurship on a Shoestring: Where to Spend your Marketing Dollars, Wednesday, January 11, 2017 from 1:00-2:30pm.  Register here.
  • The Institute for Gender & the Economy presents Sallie Krawcheck, Co-Founder and CEO, Ellevest Digital Investment Platform; Chair, Ellevate Network; former CEO of Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management; former CFO, Citigroup; Author, January 12, 5pm-6pm, Desautels Hall (Second Floor, South Building) | map Rotman School of Management, U of Toronto, 105 St George Street.  Tickets are $36 and include a copy of Sallie’s book “Own It: The Power of Women At Work“.
  • Feminist Art Conference (FAC) is a hidden gem of an event. This year it will be from Jan. 10 to Jan. 21, 2017. Tickets are free but space is limited. Register here. Note:  LiisBeth is also moderating a panel on Gender & Entrepreneurship
  • If you want something to look forward to in the New Year after the mad rush of celebrations and resolutions, consider joining Dimple Mukerjee’s 10 Day Morning Rituals Challenge in February 2017. It’s quite the ride, and there’s absolutely no right or wrong way to do it. You’ll connect with other like-minded people, and maybe even plant another seed for your wellness, just waiting to sprout and grow. Click on the link above to get a heads up when it gets closer.

 


That’s it for the December newsletter. And we are also taking a short break from our publishing schedule so all can enjoy the holidays.

We will resume our newsletter and monthly publishing schedule on January 17th, 2017. What’s ahead? We kick things off with a inspiring article by Margaret Webb about a group of “Bold Betties”  in Colorado, a rousing video interview with Dr. Patricia Green (Paul T. Babson Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies and Academic Director Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses and 10,000 Women) on feminist entrepreneurship, followed by an interview with Dr. Candida Brush (Babson professor of entrepreneurship and Vice Provost of Global Entrepreneurial Leadership) about the need for more relevant curriculum for women entrepreneurs.  In January, we also feature Katelyn Bourgoin, founder of a very cool online network of female entrepreneurs called Vendeve.  And of course, there will be much more.

In case you feel like a LiisBeth fix during our break, and in case you missed them the first time around, we recommend checking out our 2016 most-read articles (according to Google) by category:

Service articles:
1. Invasion of the Brain Pickers: 9 Ways to Deal with Requests for Free Advice, by Rona Maynard
2. How to Embed Feminist Values In Your Company, by Valerie Hussey
3. Why We Need Diverse Approaches to Start Up Incubation, by Priya Ramanujam
4. Bridge Over Tricky Waters: Love, Business and Good Governance, by Sue Nador

Activism:
1. When Those Who Lead Fall Behind, by Petra Kassun-Mutch
2. Who Erased Claudia Hepburn, by Petra Kassun-Mutch
3. Entrepreneurs by Choice; Activists by Necessity, by Cynthia MacDonald

And finally, for most read profile, check out  All Jacked Up, by Margaret Webb.

All in all, we published 55 original articles in 2016 plus 22 newsletters.

Regardless of web statistics, we are super proud of the work created by all contributors, illustrators, and freelance editors.  Big hugs to each and all. We will see more of their work along with the introduction of new contributors in 2017.

If you have not subscribed to LiisBeth, but have valued our work, please help us continue by signing up as a paid subscriber here.

In the meantime, dear readers, subscribers and LiisBeth website visitors, have a terrific holiday season.

See you again on January 17th. And as always, if you have comments, thoughts, story ideas or tips to share, please send them our way to publisher@liisbeth.com.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

liisbeth-publisher-sig

Categories
Our Voices

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

couch-at-abby-small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None,” she said.

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

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

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

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

And then their conversation drifted to asking themselves this question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Related Readings and Audio Interviews

Categories
Our Voices

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

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