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Feminism washing: are multinationals really empowering women?

‘#Unapologetic’ the new campaign by Matell wants to portray Barbie as a doll telling women and girls they can be anything they want with a focus on entrepreneurship. Takethelead

“Empower women”, “Girl power”, “#Unapologetic”. Feminist marketing campaigns are flying through the air, fresh out of multinationals’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies, claiming to be the new champions of gender equality.

Buy a pair of Nikes and discover how its “Girl Effect” campaign will “unlock the potential of girls” while ending poverty and war. Drink Coca-Cola and find out about its “5by20” campaign, which will claims that it will help 5 million women by 2020. In all modesty, multinationals suggest that such campaigns can help meet the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development goals.

The 2017 Nike campaign ‘What are girls made of?’ already focused on women.

Corporate charity has a long history, but there is something qualitatively new to the way in which corporations portray themselves today as contributing to solving public problems.

Whereas traditionally charity targeted areas outside the corporations’ core business – for example, cultural institutions – today’s CSR programmes are seen as being good for the public and good for corporate profits. They’re often integrated into a business’ core operations. Not surprisingly, contradictions abound.

Author and scholar Elisabeth Pruegl on the new development of CSR and neoliberalism feminism.

Promoting entrepreneurship

There are two ways in which companies are involved in advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. First are efforts that seek to empower women globally through entrepreneurship, such as Coca-Cola’s “5by20” project or Goldman Sachs’ “10,000 Women” initiative, which aims to provide business and management education to women entrepreneurs in 56 countries.

However, in a 2016 study of 31 of the largest corporate-funded women’s economic empowerment programmes, most participating companies reported that they sought “general impact” of this sort rather than changing their internal business practices.

‘Coca-Cola’s 5by20 Initiative: Water and women creating change together’.

This takes the form of creating and implementing their own initiatives in collaboration with public agencies or providing funding and know-how to existing development initiatives and organisations. This is the case with Procter & Gamble’s support for UN Women’s programme initiative on stimulating equal opportunities for women entrepreneurs.

A 2013 study of 170 such joint initiatives found “a total of $14.6 billion US in commitments pledged between 2005-2020 to support women and girls”. A full 35% of these initiatives had women’s economic empowerment and entrepreneurship as their focus, making this the most common theme.

Benefiting the companies while doing good

The second way in which corporations are active on gender equality and women’s empowerment is by integrating the issue into their core business practices, targeting their own employees, supply chains or marketing practices.

The focus on suppliers and employees often involves brand-conscious consumer product companies such as Unilever and Kraft, or garment-industry giants like the Gap. An example is the “HerProject”, which is run by the consultancy company BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) and includes companies such as Levi-Strauss, Primark, Li & Fung, HP, and Twinings.

The project connects multinationals with NGOs in countries where they have suppliers to deliver health-care services and increase health awareness among women workers. Styled as a win-win effort, the project benefits workers while also reducing absenteeism and turnover.

In India, Unilever’s Shakti Project claims to help women generate income while also advancing public hygiene and helping the company conquer difficult-to-access markets. It has established a network of close to 100,000 “Shakti Amma”, women who sell Unilever products to rural consumers in India’s villages.

It is again described as a win-win situation: rural women gain income while they help the company enter a growing market, and they help promote public health and hygiene as they introduce Unilever soaps to rural populations.

Promotion for the Shakti Project in rural India.


While these efforts at corporate social responsibility toward women bring resources and visibility to gender issues, there are contradictions.

First, companies focusing on women’s empowerment tend to approach the issue narrowly as entrepreneurship development and approach women individually. It is significant that only 27% of the public-private 170 initiatives in the survey cited above included women’s organisations, and only 9% of these organisations received direct financial support.

It is my view that businesses seek to steer clear of the oppositional politics of these organisations, which might include organising women and encouraging them to formulate their own demands about wages and working conditions.

Indecent working conditions

Ironically, voluntary codes of conduct and supply-chain initiatives such as the HerProject are far from being able to assure decent working conditions that meet international standards.

Many companies, and in particular those in sectors requiring labour-intensive assembly (such as garments and electronics), set up complex supply-chains in the 1980s and 1990s in pursuit of cost savings through cheap and flexible labour in the Global South.

Today, an estimated 80% of global trade is linked to international production networks of multinational corporations, that distribute work to small- and medium-sized enterprises, most of which operate in the informal economy.

A clothing textile garment factory/assembly line in Bangladesh (2011). Tareq Salahuddin/Wikimedia, CC BY

Women in global supply chains are typically positioned at the bottom of employment hierarchies and segregated into low-pay jobs such as garment or electronics assembly or packaging of horticulture products.

The impacts of businesses expanding their markets are finally not all beneficial. The “Shakti Amma” may gain income, but as they market Unilever’s products, they also displace traditional soap makers and introduce competition into women’s solidarity groups.

Moreover, businesses redefine the problem to be solved to fit their interests, in this case as a lack of soap rather than for example access to clean water, as a community in Kerala pointed out when rejecting Unilever’s advances.

Sexist and racist values

Finally, some companies may, voluntarily or not, carry certain sexist or racist values through the products or services they sell. For example, what should one make of the Unilever skin-whitening products that “Shakti Amma” sell?

Skin-whitening products have been popular with some consumers in India and other countries, but is also under scrutiny today for implicitly demeaning the dark natural complexions of many men and women. But as, scholars pointed out in a 2017 publication, “such CSR projects are blind to the racist and misogynist messages conveyed in problematic products”.

What should one make of companies styling themselves as advocates for women’s rights, while benefiting from the objectification of women workers and on unequal pay? And what should one make of the beauty industry embracing the cause of women’s empowerment while thriving on the suggestion that women are always in need of enhancement?

Unilever profits from products such as Fair & Lovely, a skin-whitening creme. Unilever

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