If you are interested in corporate social responsibility work, caused-based marketing, efforts by multiple stakeholders to advance the empowerment of women, gender research, or the application of feminist theory – read my latest article: 1, 2, 3, 4. I declare…empowerment? A material- discursive analysis of the marketisation, measurement and marketing of women’s economic empowerment.

In essence…

This article offers a counter example to the many criticisms voiced toward corporations working on women’s economic empowerment (WEE) initiatives. It does so through using Karen Barad’s theory of intra-activity to illustrate the entanglements of multiple human and non-human elements. It offers both a historical perspective to explain the origins of the criticisms, and a pragmatic perspective of what is going on behind the scenes as actors within corporations seek to enter the WEE space.

The Criticisms and Resulting Paradoxes MCN Actors face in Entering the Women Economic Empowerment Domain

Women’s economic empowerment (WEE) is a subset of empowerment efforts, with a more narrow goal of enabling ‘”women to have access to material resources and means of earning an income to improve their own and their families’ livelihoods”. While it often works in tandem with larger empowerment goals (e.g., giving women equal rights, voice and decision making power), WEE can (problematically) at times be disconnected from these larger causes.

WEE has increasingly become a key element in many corporations’ pursuit of creating social benefits. Yet the entry of corporations, particularly multi-national corporations (MNC), remains contested. MNCs have historically been cast by some academics and civil society members as perpetuators of poverty and the disempowerment of women, while contemporary critics view MNCs’ entry into WEE initiatives as forms of pink or white-washing.

The vestiges of pejorative renderings have result in two paradoxes that MNC actors must navigate: 1) a market-logic paradox, in which society questions and treats with disdain the profit-orientation of MNCs, while at the same time celebrating the resources (funds, marketing) that MNCs’ profits enable; and 2) a legitimacy paradox, which calls into question businesses’ attempts to promote WEE efforts, although these self-promotion tactics are needed in order for MNCs to gain legitimacy to be working within the development space.

This article explains the origins and effects of the pejorative perspectives and the paradoxes. Drawing from historical documents, research with Walmart and insights from other corporate actors who formed the Global Coalition of Business for Women Economic Empowerment (GCBforWEE), I call into question the basis of the paradoxes. I do so by exploring three key tactics that are often at the center of criticisms: the marketisation (using market-orientated policies to gain access to resources), measurement and marketing of (WEE). These 3M tactics are used by corporation actors but also by academics and civil society members who ironically look down upon their usage by MNCs. I unfold the complex realities that lie behind the 3M tactics, including the intra-activity of non-human things (e.g., documents), intangible elements (thoughts, feedback loops) and various actors (MNCs, validators, academic and civil society members critical of MNCs) involved. This article tells the broader story of WEE.

Leveraging a Missing Feminist Lens: Making Sense of WEE through Karen Barad’s Theory of Intra-activity, Entanglements and Diffractive Thinking

To see the complexities of these paradoxes, and the dynamic webs of things advancing the marketisation, measurement, and marketing of WEE requires a more comprehensive perspective. Karen Barad’s feminist theory provides this needed scaffolding. Barad argues that the world emerges through the intra-activity of “human and non human, tangible and intangible, material and discursive” entanglements with one another. By studying these entanglements through diffractive thinking or by adopting different readings of data, one can identify ‘cuts’ made in perspectives – such as the ‘cut’ that illuminates the mistakes or disempowering acts of MNCs while ignoring the good that people within MNCs are trying to do. In essence, diffractive thinking asks a person to consider “What things do we make visible versus invisible, and how does this in turn produce differences that shape our emerging world?” These cuts inform discourse, that is, what is possible to be said. Barad recognises that these cuts and entanglements carry forward to shape ongoing and emerging intra-activities, as the market-logic and legitimacy paradoxes attest, yet they also mingle with other entanglements, such as MNCs’ pre-existing policies and practices.

The Intra-activities of Marketisation, Measurement, and Marketing of WEE

Barad’s theory allows me to reveal the multiple entanglements of human and non-human, tangible and intangible things that shape MNCs entry into the WEE space and that informs actors’ activities. These include:

  • historical documents, goals and academic articles that cast MNCs in a pejorative light yet that also opened the way for the marketisation, measurement, and marketing of WEE;
  • validators, awards, and stories of success that legitimise MNCs’ WEE efforts;
  • pre-existing practices and systems, ideas, people, and created platforms within the MNC that thwart or enable WEE efforts;
  • commitments, metrics, and soundbites, factoids and myths (e.g., 70% of the world’s poor are women) that induce agency, direct attention, and inspire others within the corporation to be involved in WEE efforts;
  • human transparency to create a ‘sense of authenticity’ that could fight against the paradoxes and perspectives of MNC deceptive actions;
  • feedback loops, safe spaces, and knowledge centers to connect people, things (reports, how-to models, definitions, evidence, ‘best’ practice guides), and intangible elements (motivations, ideas, observations) together, enabling the ‘learning, doing, and going’ process of MCN actors’ forays into WEE.

Take-aways for Researchers and Practitioners

Practically, my article calls for researchers and practitioners to recognise how the ‘cuts’ they make in their data, stories, articles, and documents can create (in)visibilities that can leave a debilitating legacy. The cuts made in the WEE literature has created “perceptions of differences between actors (advocates versus corporations), motives (altruistic versus profit, self-promotion), and outcomes (authentic empowerment versus deceptive (dis)empowerment)”. Our practice of citing existing literature means that these cuts build off of and add to historical and on-going entanglements, and can thwart the entry of people and things that could help WEE progress.

The article accordingly stresses that we need to recognise the ‘We and I’ in the intra-activity: the perspectives we as researchers or practitioners hold, the documents we publish, the projects we undertake, and the positions of power we exercise feed into the intra-activity. The questions we must ask are ones rarely voiced:

What interests am I/are we championing through things (ideas, documents); and in so doing, what are I/we and (non)human things drawing attention to and away from?

Are the resulting entanglements constructive or destructive to advancing WEE?

In essence, the article calls for more bridge building work between multiple stakeholders, recognising the important opportunities MNCs – with their motivated people, ideas, new perspectives, systems, reach and resources – can bring to WEE interventions, and the critical insights that civil society and academic community members can bring to prevent unintended consequences – such as the disempowerment of women – from arising.

To get to this point, however, will require critics to look beyond the monolithic MNCs to which an accusatory finger of white or pink washing is pointed, to see the humans who are operating with the best intentions, but who are still learning how to navigate the WEE space. This is a process of learning, doing and going. A willingness to engage, share, and learn is needed if women empowerment is to be advanced.

Read the original research article: Steinfield, L.A. (2019). 1, 2, 3, 4. I declare…empowerment? A material-discursive analysis of the marketisation, measurement and marketing of women’s economic empowerment, Journal of Marketing Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2019.1699850

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Laurel Steinfield

Laurel Steinfield

Laurel Steinfield (DPhil, University of Oxford) is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Bentley University. Her research focuses on social stratifications, including gender, racial, and global North-South hierarchies. As a sociologist, transformative consumer researcher and marketing professor, she studies how these stratifications interact with marketplace dynamics and how resulting injustices may be transformed. She has published in numerous journals including the Journal of Marketing Management, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Consumption, Markets & Culture, Journal of Product Innovation Management, as well as in various edited books, and is on the advisory board of Transformative Consumer Research in addition to GENMAC (Gender, Markets and Consumers).

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.