Feminism, for all its issues and baggage, is all the rage with big businesses these days. From the release of women-centric ad campaigns to pro-equality products and apparel , it seems like top executives just can’t hop on the pro-feminist train fast enough. But are these businesses endorsing changes for real — or are they merely co-opting feminism as a marketing ploy?
The answer from me is not a strict yes or a no, but more of a suggestion to look more closely. Because while many companies are making actual, quantifiable changes to help achieve gender equality in their workplaces, a great deal have merely co-opted the movement as a way of grabbing the limelight, if just for a brief moment.
Probably the most immediate — and now infamous, thanks to a certain Wall St bro — example of this kind of fake corporate feminism is the case of the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street. The statue was erected as a part of a campaign to encourage companies to increase the number of women on their boards. Within days of its being erected, it was hailed all over the Twittersphere and the media sphere as “ a remarkable evolution for Wall Street”, with some even going so far as to say that it was “the turning point of gender equality in corporate America.” .
Not to be ever the cynic, but while the interest sparked by this statue is no doubt good for the feminist movement overall, it’s still just that — a statue. It might evoke some warm fuzzies, but it’s not too long before the much colder reality of the world settles in.
So let’s examine the truth about ”Fearless Girl”. The two companies responsible for her installation McCann New York (an advertising firm) and SSGA (an asset management firm) have a paltry three and five women on their executive leadership boards, respectively. In the light of that reality, the installation of such a non-threatening version of the female form by two massive, male-dominated companies who, in all likelihood, have no real impetus to change things, feels more patronizing and farcical than inspiring. How does that honor women’s equality or the struggle of feminism in the slightest?
Now, bear in mind — I’m not saying men are the only offenders when it comes to blatantly exploiting the feminist brand. Women are just as capable, if not more so, of displaying the exact same shallow corporate feminism that male executives are so keen on doing.
For an example of that, look no farther than former CEO of Thinx Miki Agrawal. Thinx, a period underwear company, was seemingly founded to be a feminist utopia. It’s pretty easy to see why it was seen that way — the company quickly branded itself with feminist values and has a uniquely chatty, millennial-friendly voice. Its products seemed pretty feminist too, which have expanded from ultra-absorbent, moisture-wicking underwear to dancer-friendly, period-proof bodysuits and now organic tampons and reusable applicators.
But behind the scenes is a different story altogether. Many former employees speak of the company’s hypocrisy, with catty clashes between Agrawal and her team, and employment policies that undervalue and exploit the majority-female team, most of whom have said they take up to $30,000 less than their industry worth. On the jobs website Glassdoor, six of the nine reviews currently posted are decidedly negative, calling Agrawal “a time bomb and a liability”. As one particularly biting review reads, “The team encourages self-advocacy, and as long as you work hard and consistently wave your ‘freak-flag,’ you can go from an entry level team member to someone who gets to work closely with the Trump-like CEO, in a matter of months”. This also doesn’t appear to be a case of GlassDoor exaggerating the negatives — according to sources, ten people have left the 35 person company since January 2017.
And Agrawal, if it isn’t clear already, is hardly a feminist beacon. She ran into major trouble with the online feminist community when she gave an interview to The Cut in which she stated that she didn’t relate to being a feminist until she started her company because “[e]very time I thought about the word feminist, I thought about an angry, ranty… girl”. She also distanced Thinx’s “accessible” feminism from that of “those spoken-word poets.” While one can argue that it’s easy to exploit that kind of public media stumble, Agrawal’s also had major behind-the-scenes blips. As one anonymous employee put it, “it is kind of hard to hear people be like, ‘She’s my feminist hero!’ when I’ve seen her call a former employee a ‘bitch’ before in a meeting.”
Agrawal is now stepping down as CEO, though she remains the brand’s “SHE-E-O” (whatever exactly that means). But it’s easy to see how the damage wreaked by the company’s faux feminism has already been done.
So to the male and female executives trying so hard to co-opt feminism, here’s a better idea: you want to celebrate women? Actively hire women, and pay them as much as their male peers. Treat them fairly, mentor them, educate your male employees on these issues, and see that their workplaces are safe. Don’t give feminism and gender equality mere lip service — make it a company policy, instead. Ultimately, it’s actions, not words, that will make all the difference.