What Defines a Feminist Business?

Currently, we don't have a way to define a business as feminist. This draft, below, is an excerpt from a longer chapter. I'm offering it here as a first step in the conversation about how to define a feminist business. We'll develop and polish this idea together. 

My graduate school professor who couldn’t even imagine the existence of a feminist profit-making business was not alone in this challenge.

Lots of people struggle to imagine what a feminist business would be like.  This despite the fact that feminists businesses are — and have been — all around us.  Businesses defining themselves as feminist have been around for at least half a century.  Emerging in the 1960s and 70s, feminist bookstores, food co-ops, homeschooling centers, auto body shops, doula networks, and more were trying to find ways of making money and supporting themselves by selling goods and services in the marketplace, while also promoting feminist values, while also creating a more feminist collective environment in which the members could work, grow, and feel safe.  Feminist businesses were the original social enterprise.

Despite their existence and success in real life, feminist businesses still seem implausible to many people. 

Even if you have a pretty good understanding of what it means to be a feminist and what feminists believe, it’s hard to imagine how these values would translate into businesses that would make a profit. That’s partly because feminism has often (always) been working against “business as usual”. Feminists understand that much of conventional business works only because companies are able to use sexism and racism to exploit marginalized people who have less power. 

When folks do imagine feminist businesses, they think of the crotchety pair at the helm of “Women and Women First”, the bookstore featured in the sketch comedy Portlandia. At “Women and Women First” the owners are so doctrinaire in their feminism and anti-capitalism that they can’t find a way to serve customers in a profitable and politically purposeful way.  Feminist business is unimaginable to them.

The challenge of imagining a feminist business isn’t helped by management scholarship. Very few studies focus on real-life feminist businesses and there's not much feminist theorizing where scholars aim to identify what would make a business “feminist”. 

Notably, Susan Koen’s 1984 research looked closely at four feminist business / service organizations— a bookstore, a restaurant, a health services center, and a magazine.  Her discussion of the features common to these workplaces yet different from conventional business offers real-world proof of how feminist businesses are distinctive.  Patricia Yancey Martin (1990) offered a theory-driven list of ten dimensions that would mark a business as feminist, helping to identify conceptual categories.  I used both of these works, as well as my own knowledge of the literature on organizational identity, to proposed the seven dimensions that follow. 

 

Seven Dimensions That Define a Feminist Business

The perfect aligned, fully-realized feminist business would have 7 key features:

1. Feminist Leaders and Members: Individuals in all roles within the company who are practicing feminism and actively learning about feminism.

2. Feminist Organization: Structure, processes, and culture that aim to reflect feminist values and support feminist practices (e.g., collaborative democratic decision making, flatter and more distributed authority, wellness & sustainability oriented, etc.) 

3. A Feminist Intent:  A collectively defined, shared, and explicit feminist ideology (aka theory of change) about how the organization is making a difference in the world.  This ideology would link the company’s identity and actions to each other.  

4. Feminist Ownership & Governance: A structure where ownership, stewardship, and direction are shared along feminist principles, where the owners/ stakeholders themselves practice feminism.  

5. A Feminist Product or Service:  Something made and offered by the business that helps to improve the situation of women, girls, and people in a feminist way; that challenges dynamics of oppression, that offers non-exploitative alternatives. Marketing that advocates feminism.

6. A Feminist Revenue Model:  A net-positive (i.e., non-extractive) plan for raising, deploying, generating, and distributing financial and non-financial value and impact (all company resources) so that all stakeholders gain fairly when as the company succeeds (e.g., employees as well as investors, customers as well as employees). Think of triple-bottom line companies, and Regenerative Businesses.

7.  Connection with the Feminist Community: Open interaction with other feminist groups and individuals, checking in for encouragement and support, contributing whenever possible.

These seven dimensions cover the key elements (and of course not everything) that can distinguish one kind of organization from another. 

 

Knowing what to count and how to count it is challenging.  

I haven’t yet developed ways to assess a company’s feminism on these specific dimensions in more detail, in a way that would create a scale that measures what’s more and what’s less feminist. Just to measure conventional organizations, management scholars have a jungle of definitions and scales for each dimensions.    (There are several hundred different ways to measure organizational culture alone).

For all seven dimensions, we’re still figuring out the sub-elements that compose them and how they might be measured. 

(For perspective on the difficulty of this task, consider that B Labs have taken over 11 years to establish the definitions and measures of a B Corporations. They started in 2006 and are still evolving their criteria. ) 

Even more challenging is that we don’t have a single definition of what’s feminist — there are many feminisms. And, we don’t have any roadmap, ladder, or pyramid thing that shows levels of feminism advancing from basic to sophisticated, self-focused to global.

We don’t know yet, for example, how to measure something as simple as the level of an individual leader’s feminism. There actually (still) isn’t a well-established sociological questionnaire or psychological scale that helps us identify what beliefs are more or less feminist, or that establishes the sophistication of a person’s feminist understanding.  

That said, worrying about an accurate and precise measurement strategy takes us off on a tangent.  (That kind of measurement is an objectivist, patriarchal plot anyway.)

 

We care about defining feminist businesses not because we want to score and measure them, but because we want to understand where and how to grow as feminist organizations.   

I’m proposing these seven defining dimensions not so that we can “accurately” or “precisely” measure a company’s feminism along some scale that researchers and experts devise. The purpose of these dimensions is, instead, to help focus our efforts as we evaluate our companies and as we imagine what our companies could become.  

This exercise invites us to evaluate and reflect on the organizations we're building. The process can give companies a fuller sense of what they need to consider as they grow to be more feminist and have a stronger positive influence on the world.

 

These Seven Dimensions That Define a Feminist Business
offer us a framework for discussing and assessing a company. 

Take a look at this circle, below. Radiating from the center point is a line for each of six* dimensions that stretches to the circle’s perimeter.   The center point is “none” and the point on the perimeter is “a whole lot”.  

With a rough sense of where a company falls on each of the seven dimensions, using a scale from “not much” to “a whole lot”, we can see how big and widespread a company’s feminism is, or isn’t. 

six of seven dimensions.JPG

 

Using two well-known menstrual products companies as my models, I’ve sketched out how I (roughly) assess how feminist each company is.

Company A is mapped out in pink. 

  • The company’s leaders and co-owners identify themselves as feminists, and the members all espouse feminist values. On this first dimension, the company is “a whole lot” feminist. 
  • As an organization, Company A uses a co-leadership model among the top management team, and a team-based, self-directing model among the members as a whole. Company A is “somewhat” feminist in its organization
  • With regard to ownership and governance, it is mostly owned by the founders and two large investors, not the membership as a group.  Still, it’s a B Corporation, committed to a triple bottom line. So, Company A is “quite” feminist on this dimension. 
  • Company A’s products are eco-friendly, body positive, and affordable. I think they’re “a whole lot” feminist.
  • Its revenue model aims to distribute value to all stakeholders, including the local community. The company focuses on reducing waste and increasing sustainability (to be less extractive). It contributes its non-financial and financial resources to help others, so overall it seems “a whole lot” feminist.
  • And, the intent of Company A is “a whole lot” feminist — its goal is to transform the way the world things about women’s bodies.  

Given the amount of space covered by these dimensions, Company A looks “a whole lot” like a feminist business. 

company A.JPG

 

Now consider Company B, another menstrual products business, mapped out in blue. 

  • Company B’s leadership says its feminist, but doesn’t seem to act that way.  Members support the feminist intent of the company, but we don’t know if they identify as feminists. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, Company B’s leadership and members are “somewhat” feminist. 
  • Organizationally, Company B is a hard-driving, fear ridden hierarchy. “Not very” feminist.
  • Similarly, the company is owned and governed by the CEO and two corporate-y investors (I.e., not social entrepreneurs).  “Not very” feminist.
  • Company B’s products, however, are “a whole lot” feminist. Body positive, period positive, eco-friendly. 
  • With its revenue model, Company B seems to be trying to share value with partners/ suppliers, and to become more sustainable, so it’s “somewhat” feminist.
  • And, Company B’s espoused purpose is to change how the world sees women, so its intent seems more than just “somewhat” feminist.

Looking at the graph of these dimensions, we can see that Company B is feminist in some ways. 

company b.JPG

 

The graphs are useful for showing us a big picture of each business, and they’re especially useful in comparing one company to another.   Compared to Company A, Company B somewhat less feminist, especially on the ownership/governance and leadership dimensions.

[[ * I noticed after I started drawing the graphs that I’d missed the seventh dimension, the Connection with the Feminist Community. Although embarrassed at my lapse, I wasn’t really surprised that I forgot to graph this dimension — it's the most radical one, and the most feminist.   Also, very few for-profit organizations even think of themselves as responsible to and in relationship with a specific community.   I’ll hold this topic for a fuller discussion in a later post. (Also, I’ll need to find a circle graph with seven rays and not six.) ]]

 

How much does it take to be defined as a Feminist Business?

A company doesn’t have to reach some pre-defined threshold on all seven of these dimensions to be considered feminist. Any company that is working to become more feminist on these dimensions can call itself feminist (or be seen as feminist by others), with the understanding that feminism is more about practice and action than about meeting some outside researcher’s static criteria.  

 Of course, a company aiming to be feminist shouldn’t have any features that blatantly contradict feminist values and beliefs (e.g., the majority shareholder shouldn’t be Simon Legree, and the product should not be polluting the earth). 

How do these dimensions work for you, for defining a company’s feminism?

Some people may find these criteria surprising. They may want to focus on visible features, like the number and representation of women. They might define a feminist company as one where 51% of the company is owned by women, or where women as 51% of the top leadership team. 

(Of course, the idea that having many women means that the company is feminist is problematic. “Women” and “feminists” aren’t the same thing. Many women are not feminists. Many people who aren’t women are terrific feminists.) 

Folks might also want to require that a feminist company make products for women or girls.  But, I don’t want want to exclude companies that produce gender-neutral or universal products and services. There are too many companies that serve other focused populations that could, if so inspired, use their business to practice and promote feminism.  I think the definition of a feminist business is, and should be, more complex and more comprehensive that either of these two criteria.   

For now…

The invitation here is for any company to consider where it lands on these seven dimensions, and then grow from there. 

Having seven dimensions to the definition helps to offer more pathways for companies to grow more feminist. Companies owned by men or not-yet-feminists, companies with conventional shareholder owners, companies with traditional hierarchical management structures, companies that emphasize sustainability and not (yet) gender justice, companies still figuring out how to distribute profits more fairly, and especially companies who don’t yet see themselves as responsible or responsive to the feminist community can all find their place on these seven dimensions, and recognize where they have opportunities to grow. 

Let me know what you think!

August 19 draft

 

 

 

References

 

Koen, Susan. (1984) Feminist Workplaces: Alternative models for the Organization of Work. PhD dissertation, University of Michigan.

 

Martin, Patricia Yancey. (1990) Rethinking feminist organizations. Gender & Society 4:182-206.