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 Our Voices

Small Business Owners Need To Shift Their Attitude Towards Maternity Leave

My son was born when I had been running my business for almost four years. I was not going to walk away from it so that meant finding a way to navigate my own maternity leave. I had a business partner, which gave me some needed flexibility. The legal time allowance for mat leave was irrelevant given I was the boss; I had to figure out how to make it work.

What my own experience taught me was the value of flexibility. If I hear anyone complain that the one-year maximum for maternity leave permitted in Canada is overly generous, I have to keep myself from attacking. It’s particularly hard to hear a woman say that she doesn’t like hiring women of child-bearing age because “then you have to deal with them having babies.”

Recently, a woman with two school-aged children said this. Sadly, she’s not the only narcissistic ignoramus who thinks that way. The truth is, taking a year maternity leave is terrific for everyone. It’s wonderful for the new mother and baby, of course. But it can also be an easy opportunity for your business to expand its skill pool.

Consider the challenge of accommodating mat leave in positive terms

People who wanted to work with us saw “filling in” for a mat leave as an excellent resume builder. Usually, they had slightly less experience than the person on leave, as most with equal experience won’t make a lateral move for one year, unless they’re out of work and really seeking permanent employment. Then you risk losing them mid-contract if something better comes along. But for someone more junior, filling a mat leave provides new, increased responsibility and exposure. We had terrific interim hires, and broadened our circle of supporters for those who moved on.

Once or twice, a new mom decided not to return. That gave us the opportunity to train and test her replacement for an entire year. By the time we knew the job was open, we knew whether that person was a good fit. How often do you get to audition someone for a year before offering a permanent position?

Allow flexibility that will keep women in the workforce — and help everyone function better

Your business can accommodate more flexibility than you realize. That’s where having a positive attitude starts. Let go of thinking that employees will take advantage of flex options, and you’ll discover just how much flexibility you can build into your business — and how appreciative people will be in turn.

Step one. Ask your employees to tell you what is important to them. They might ask you to put a comfy chair in the washroom so a woman can pump milk comfortably. Or to come in at 10 and leave at 4 for six months, which might enable a woman to return to work sooner or shorten her commute time dramatically. Or, take two hours at lunch so a woman can go home to feed her baby.

Many women on mat leave want to remain involved and engaged with work, and may also need to earn more than employment insurance (EI) pays during their leave. I always encouraged people to take the maximum amount of time off allowed but in the early years of our business, we were too small to top up EI, making it hard for some to afford the time off. Job sharing can be a brilliant solution when the employees propose it. I’ve seen situations in which two women, recognizing their similar situations, set up a job-sharing arrangement that lasted through the births of five children. One had a baby, then the other. It went back and forth for years and worked for everyone — including the business. Though neither earned a full-time salary, they both maintained their experience and currency in the workforce.

View mat leave as an investment in yourself — and your business

My own mat leave was successful for a few reasons. I lived close to work so I could go home at lunchtime. I returned to work three days a week until my son was six months, then four days for the next six months. I could also afford to hire a nanny as I had a partner who worked. My income was modest at the time, and I paid Emily my entire salary, which matched the rate for full-time nannies.  I viewed employing her as an excellent investment in my business and myself. She cared for my son five days a week, which meant that during the one or two days I was home, I could work or take a nap or make dinner — all in a relatively relaxed frame of mind. That helped me perform better as a mom and a business owner. On the days I worked in the office, she brought the baby to me twice a day, allowing me to nurse for 13 months. That was important to me and helped me create balance and feel good about it. When you’re building a business, sometimes that type of investment will help you be successful on both the home and work fronts.

Create family-friendly policies to make a workplace family

Because of my experience and positive attitude towards flex options, women in the office who wanted to have children knew we would be open to their requests for accommodation. Others benefitted as well. We established a policy that gave every employee 40 hours of personal time off a year, no questions asked. Parents could use the time to be with their children for illness, class trips, doctor appointments — without having to dip into vacation time, or worse, lie and call in sick. Other employees could use their personal hours for doctor’s appointments, moving days, or even recharge their batteries by taking in a movie. No one had to ask permission to take the time; everyone used it, as they needed it.

We also instituted a phone call policy that supported parenting. Anyone, at any time, would be interrupted by a call from a child, or the school. No questions were asked except, perhaps, do you need to go home? As a result, parents were more relaxed and the atmosphere was welcoming to kids. They sometimes hung out at the office when they had a stomachache (though nothing more serious). They dropped by after school and curled up somewhere to do homework or nap. They played with the office dogs – and there were a bunch of them, but that’s another column.

The office wasn’t overrun with children. No one complained because we normalized and integrated children and parenting into our workplace practices. For those who didn’t have children, “the kids” simply became part of our culture. We witnessed children being born to co-workers, watched them grow up, invited them to watch the Santa Claus parade as our office had the perfect perch, and eventually even gave some of those kids their first summer jobs. They did good work, too. Real work, and we paid them fairly. We were proud of them. Our company did what we could to make the divide between work and home easier, more fluid. We didn’t just talk about work/life balance; we did what we could to help people achieve it. Now some of our “work kids” have children of their own, and they tell stories of when their moms or dads worked with us, how they loved coming into the office, and how special they felt. That makes an impression on employees, a pretty nice one, I can assure you.

The approach and attitude worked when we had four employees and when we had 40. It allowed us to retain a superbly talented and committed team of professionals. People wanted to work with us for many reasons, but this was among them. No one left because we were unwilling to try to accommodate change, and everyone knew that they might be the beneficiary of that attitude, so everyone worked to help each other. We had full-time and contract workers who moved across the province and across the country and continued their association with us because we were determined to make flexibility successful. Today, electronics makes it easier to do than it was in 1986.

I’m going to continue to focus on flexibility in a future column by shining a light on policies that help keep women in the workforce that also create the best, most productive workplace for everyone. Stay tuned for my thoughts on vacation time (hint, two weeks is not enough), sick leave, caregiver leave, sabbaticals, telecommuting….


Our Voices

Self-Employment Programs For Women Need Improvement


A couple years back, I sat in a room full of women executives in pantyhose as keynote speaker Dr. Sherry Cooper (former Chief Economist and Executive Vice-President of BMO Financial Group) profoundly shifted my perceptions about women’s self-employment.

Like many who throw around words like “incubator” and “accelerator,” I viewed the narrative around growing numbers of female entrepreneurs as a sign of progress.

That day, Dr. Cooper’s Powerpoint featured a chart that showed that while the number of female entrepreneurs is on the rise, the income of women entrepreneurs is pitifully low compared to the average income for Canadians.

Having been an entrepreneur myself, I know that the romantic ideal of entrepreneurship does not always align the reality. Think about the majority of female small business owners you see in your daily life. The wife of the couple that runs the convenience store on the corner. The lovely woman who runs that little flower shop. Chances are she’s just scraping by. You read it on her face.

In Canada in 2011, the average income for women was $32,100 (compared to an average of $48,100 for men).  Single moms in this country have a net worth of about 17,000.

Dr. Cooper’s chart made me wonder if promoting entrepreneurship is really a useful strategy to help lift women out of poverty?

The Canadian Women’s Foundation invested $4.5 million in economic development programs from 2009 to 2014 to help women begin moving out of poverty. One stream this of funding is dedicated to women’s entrepreneurship. Chanel Grenaway, The Foundation’s Director of Economic Development,  helped shed some light on the question of whether entrepreneurship is a sound strategy that addresses the needs of women living in poverty.

The short answer (spoiler alert)  is that women on low-incomes do indeed benefit from self-employment programs. However, the impact of these programs are are profoundly influenced by the real limitations women living in poverty face.

Limitations to Self-Employment Programs for Poor Women

Access to Capital:

Women living on low-incomes  have a hard time securing loans. Lack of solid credit history or risk-aversion makes it harder to launch a business idea. Even if they could access funds, women who are at risk of  homelessness or hunger see dipping deeper into debt a as something to avoid at all costs. Consider the fact that 82% of the women who participated in The Canadian Women’s Foundation’s self-employment programs name ‘housing’ as a core need.

Business Vision:

It is a common dictum that the key to success is to “do what you know.” Yet, in the case of women, a great cookie recipe, a knack for jewelry making or childcare experience is not likely a recipe for economic sustainability.  How do we encourage women to move beyond what they know to develop scalable business ideas in high growth areas?


Women living on low-incomes are beyond over-extended.  It’s hard to dedicate time to building a business if you can’t afford childcare. The truth is, most women in these circumstances are “job-patching” which means they’re working multiple part time jobs to make ends meet. This precarious-work  model has a disproportionate impact on women, who largely oversee childcare responsibilities. In this context, creating a business becomes an “off the side of the desk” project which just doesn’t make the grade when launching a new business.

So, what can help make self-employment a viable pathway for women to move out of poverty? Here are some preliminary ideas Chanel Grenaway shared with me based on her tenure at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

Tools to Dream Bigger:

Women need tools to help them develop businesses ideas beyond the familiar. Grenaway puts it best when she says “we need to help women dream bigger.” This strategy requires what she calls, “thinking beyond jams, jellies and sewing.”

Grenaway says that the process of growing female entrepreneurs needs to start early. Girls, she says, need tools to see themselves in new ways. For Grenaway believes this means that girls and young women need mentorship, job shadowing and education programs that can eliminate the gaps in their own thinking.

Policy Levers:

Grenaway insists that there’s a need to reform policies that profoundly impact woman’s capacity to move out of poverty. Lack of access to affordable daycare makes it nearly impossible for women to navigate their way out of subsistence living. Also, precarious “just in time” work schedules have an enormous impact on low-income women. Women need predictable, stable incomes to plan to return to school or start a small business.

Benefits Beyond Business:

Ultimately, Grenaway believes that programs like those funded by The Foundation help grow women’s personal assets. Women don’t always become successful business owners as a result of participating in the programs funded by The Foundation. The evidence does show, however,  that these programs help women living in poverty build the confidence they need to pursue more education, start another business or enter employment. These skills are often called “soft” skills, but there’s nothing soft about them. As Grenaway puts it: “If we aren’t going to build these kinds of skills for these women, then who will?”