The Feminist Economy: How Women Are Reshaping Business

western-gulf-region-male-female-international-business-team-businessman-businesswoman-city-conference-meeting-travel-convention-industry_4hicfawlg__F0000.pngHistorically, feminism has a difficult relationship with business based in Marxist and generally anti-capitalist critiques. Over the past decade or so, however, female-centered businesses have been transforming what it means to call a business feminist. Whether it’s an emphasis on ethical production to building women’s independence and confidence, the new feminist business model is crossing industries to innovate on older, oppressive economic models that kept women down.

Women’s Business School

The number of women attending business school has been growing in recent years, but overall they’re still greatly disadvantaged, both applying and attending at much lower rates than men. Factor discrimination against racial and sexual minorities into those numbers, and MBA programs look overwhelmingly white and male. This ongoing disparity was the impetus behind the development of Sister and its associated Feminist Business School.

Founded and directed by Jennifer Armbrust, Feminist Business School draws on second wave black feminist ideas to build feminist literacy to interrogate the relationship between money and power. Further, by digging into our fundamental beliefs and behaviors, Armbrust aims to rethink how women do business, rather than just introducing them to traditional business practices. When we ask if a business can be feminist, then, Armbrust’s educational resources, including her “12 Principles for Prototyping A Feminist Business” can help us answer that question.

Be Good, Do Good

One of the guiding principles of businesses today – whether or not they stake a claim to feminism – is the idea that to succeed, you have to do good work in the world, not just produce a quality product. Take Ben & Jerry’s as an example; best known for their adventurous ice cream flavors, in October 2017, the company signed a contract with Migrant Justice, promising proper working conditions on supplying milk farms and economic relief to farm workers.

Companies that take radical steps of this sort aren’t just interested in good press, but rather understand that their business must embody their values. Feminist companies take this principle more seriously than most, though, starting from their values and building on them.

Let Your Body Lead You

Mainstream business operations have little use for the body – they disregard its needs, sexualize it, or otherwise contort and transform the body to meet market needs, rather than serve the physical form. Feminist businesses, however, are rooted in Sister’s first principle, “You Have A Body.” This principle calls on business developers and owners to put the needs of the body first, which is certainly easier said than done.

Many mainstream brands are stepping away from the older style of model casting, to embrace a diversity of body images, including Aerie, Old Navy, and Modcloth. This is typically the result of placing women in positions of leadership, as well as part of activist backlash against the photoshopped bodies seen in most advertisements.

Emphasize Transformational Practice

The last point on Sister’s list of principles is that “A business can be a model for a new social & economic order” – but can business really reinvent the wheel? A look at feminist history, particularly through the lens of the feminist bookstore movement, can help us understand what it means to enact this kind of transformation.

Though there are only about a dozen feminist bookstores left in the US and Canada today, until the mid-1990s there were over 100. Many of these bookstores began as volunteer-run organizations, functioned as a collaborative network, and often evolved to embrace a model of collective ownership. Unfortunately, collectives have declined alongside feminist bookstores, but a changing orientation to business in general could bring them back. At their very core, collectives are a different kind of social and economic order, built on joint decision-making and shared responsibility.

Businesses today have the ability to look at the remaining bookstores, such as Charis in Atlanta, GA, for guidance on what it means to establish a new social and economic order. In business for over 40 years, the bookstore is committed to social justice work and provides free programming to the community. The store’s continued existence – even in the deep South, its diverse board of directors, and its integration into the community, including a recent move to the Agnes Scott College campus, make it a stand-out model of economic transformation.

Feminist businesses don’t have to be in conflict with the broader economy, but rather, they should seek to reshape it from the inside. That includes participation in MBA programs, membership in major industry organizations, and the willingness to experiment. That’s how businesses become change-makers, rather than participants in the declining status quo.

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