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The business of women’s empowerment

‘Empowering women’ appears to be the latest business and global policy innovation. One recent example of this is the White House’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP), launched this year by Ivanka Trump. Women – or as Trump terms them “the most under-utilised resource in the developing world” – are increasingly being considered as instrumental to business success. The ‘empowerment’ lobby is founded on reciprocal gains to business and women. Unilever’s Shakti project supports women in Indian villages to become entrepreneurs while simultaneously providing Unilever with new market opportunities. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In manual encourages women to invest in themselves for personal and corporate gain. Meanwhile, Trump’s goal of enabling women to ‘prosper in the workforce’ promises benefits to employers and labour.

As economic growth is often (problematically) regarded as foundational to development, it is perhaps unsurprising that transnational companies are joining with NGOs and global governance actors to sell the idea of business success as a way of achieving women’s empowerment and especially in less economically advantaged regions. On one view, these interventions by high profile women and leading corporations serve to highlight the continuing subordination and exclusion of women from many aspects of economic life. A less benign interpretation is that we are witnessing the rise of what Charlotte Rottenberg calls ‘neoliberal feminism’. Far from providing any critique of the structural causes of inequality, this new form of ‘feminism’ puts the onus on women to develop their entrepreneurial selves for corporate advantage. Moreover, the selling of ‘empowerment’ in distinctly market-oriented terms to women in some of the most economically-poor regions of the world does nothing to challenge an economic system that has created such deep-seated inequalities in the first place.

Underpinning these corporate-led women’s empowerment initiatives is the conventional wisdom that companies exist to maximise profit for investors. Whether it is the win-win model of the lean in movement or women’s entrepreneurship programmes designed in partnership with transnational corporations, women’s empowerment takes place within the context of current business models. The instrumental treatment of women in these initiatives is an entirely logical consequence of the corporate pursuit of ‘shareholder value’. In looking to further maximise returns for investors, it is unsurprising that companies and business leaders have embraced the idea of women representing fresh ‘talent pools’ who can help contribute to even greater levels of economic success. 

My unease with the corporate-led women’s empowerment movement is that it appears to be built on an entirely false premise. Much like the tale of the emperor’s new clothes, there is a fundamental problem in projects that are based on the notion of ‘shareholder value’ (even implicitly): this is not what the law requires company leaders to pursue. As the late Lynn Stout put it, there is a ‘fatal flaw’ with the idea that company law requires the maximisation of shareholder wealth – it ‘simply isn’t true’. Company law compels a director of a company to act in the company’s interests. Admittedly that begs the question of what those interests may be particularly because the law has chosen to recognise the creation of a company as an artificial legal person. The closest we get to anything resembling ‘shareholder value’ is the duty in section 172 of the Companies Act 2006 that tells a director that he must act in the way he considers, in good faith, would be most likely to promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole, and in doing so have regard (amongst other matters) to a range of considerations including the likely long-term consequences of any decision, the interests of the company’s employees, and the impact of the company’s operations on the community and environment. ‘Shareholder value’ has filled the vacuum of what the corporate purpose should be because the interests of transnational capital have been allowed to prevail – not because this is what the law requires. The danger with women’s empowerment programmes which see no need to unsettle the underlying structural barriers to equality is that they simply provide further endorsement to ‘shareholder value’ being the only legitimate corporate motivation.

Far from being disheartened by the dominance of ‘shareholder value’ as the presumed corporate objective, revealing that it lacks any clear doctrinal justification allows critical company lawyers to name it for what it is: a normative choice favouring financial capital. If companies are serious about empowering women, they might begin by addressing three important concerns.

First, companies need to explicitly recognise their dependency on (often women’s) unpaid caring labour. Not only do companies benefit from this labour through the socially reproductive work carried on in the home to allow others to devote their paid working time fully to the company, they also benefit from the additional, unpaid efforts by workers in the workplace. Both forms of unpaid labour are gendered. Nancy Fraser’s ‘universal caregiver’ model suggests that the world of work could be redesigned radically if we began from the premise of assuming caring responsibilities and building our working patterns around this.

Second, whilst the interest of transnational companies in developing women’s empowerment projects in low-income countries acknowledges the highly uneven distribution of the benefits of globalisation, it is difficult to see how the corporate solution – offering paternalistic opportunities for women to participate in a market economy designed by the world’s richest countries – will advance equality. Such an impoverished response lacks both imagination and insight. It presumes that there is only one way in which the world can be ordered socio-economically and ignores entirely the gendered nature of economic power.

Third, there is a clear need to replace the idea of ‘shareholder value’ with a corporate purpose that is not based on the systematic disadvantaging and marginalising of certain groups in favour of financially advantaged investors. As Lorraine Talbot argues, “creating value for shareholders is not compatible with creating an economy that delivers for people”.

Women have become increasingly central to policy and economic initiatives since the most recent global financial crisis. In the world’s poorest regions, women’s empowerment has typically taken the form of inviting women to help companies reach new markets under the guise of becoming entrepreneurs. In richer nations, the empowerment lobby has focussed more closely on increasing the number of female business leaders and showcasing the efforts made by other women who have succeeded in ‘leaning in’. The unease I feel towards these women’s empowerment projects stems from their failure to address the destructive and gendered outcomes of the relentless corporate pursuit of ‘shareholder value’.  If companies are sincere about ‘empowering’ women, they might begin by reflecting on and tackling their own disempowering practices of low pay, precarity, and undervaluing of care.

Roseanne Russell is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol Law School

Image Credit: Engin Akyurt from Pexels