by Powerbitches founder and CEO, Rachel Hills
A few months ago, Powerbitches member Jennifer Peirce said something so simple yet so profound that I’ve been thinking about it ever since. That in order for a business or organization to qualify as “feminist,” it needs use a feminist lens to define and tackle the issues it sets out to solve.
I’ve been thinking about it in particular lately because ties in so well with our events this month: our partnership with LYLAS Labs next Saturday October 12, which is all about creating feminist solutions to problems of gender inequality, and our diversity, equity, and inclusion masterclass this Thursday October 3.
Written down on the page, Jen’s remark seems obvious - of course a business that calls itself feminist should use feminism as a lens through which to understand the problems it sets out to solve. But it’s a criteria that rarely comes up in conversations about feminism and work, which tend to be more focused on women’s representation as founders, our access to funding, and the imagery and messages we use in our marketing.
It got me thinking about what I call the Five Degrees of Feminist Business, and how they connect to and build on each other.
Think of it like a video game you can “level up,” or like Dante’s nine circles of heaven and hell.
The First Degree of Feminist Business: Is this business owned by a woman, trans, or nonbinary person?
This is the level most conversations about women and business start and end at. Is this business owned by a woman? Hurray, it’s feminist! Let’s invest in it, buy its products, and celebrate it as a symbol of empowerment. Getting more $$$ to woman-owned businesses matters whether they are overtly feminist or not, because women receive less than 3% of investment dollars (and women of color a paltry 10% of that). But it’s a low, low bar to set if we’re talking about using entrepreneurship to pursue feminist ends.
The Second Degree of Feminist Business: Does this business talk about feminism in its marketing and external comms?
Ie, most of the feminist companies we hear about in social and legacy media. It’s nice to have people championing the cause. But feminist marketing can often seem like just that: a way to make an otherwise unremarkable product edgy and interesting. Talking about feminism is great, and one way to bring a feminist lens to any business, no matter what you’re selling. But it’s not the same thing as creating a feminist product.
The Third Degree of Feminist Business: Does this business or organization seek to challenge gender roles and expectations in some way?
This is the baseline that Powerbitches used when we put together our Feminist Entrepreneurs Roundtable in May. We’re excited by products and ideas that make life better for women and gender nonconforming people, rather than just sell to them. We’re excited by businesses and organizations that serve women that otherwise underserved, whether because of their race, sexuality, gender expression, disability status, or something else. And we love ideas that have the power to shift the way people think, feel, and act.
The Fourth Degree of Feminist Business: Does the business use a feminist lens to understand the problem it’s trying to solve?
In order to solve feminist problems, we first need to understand the root causes. That’s to say, we need to draw upon existing feminist research to understand the problem we’re trying to solve - as well as doing research of our own where there are gaps. So, to borrow from the topics we’ll be tackling at LYLAS Labs next week, if you want to solve the gender pay gap, first you need to understand the factors that contribute to women being systematically paid less than men. If you’re tackling the care burden, you need to understand the lived experiences of people with significant care responsibilities. And you need to look beyond your own experiences to consider how these challenges play out for people who don’t look like you.
The Fifth Degree of Feminist Business: Does the business or organization operate in a manner that reflects feminist values?
Does it pay its staff and suppliers fairly? Is its leadership team equitable across gender, race, and sexuality? How does it handle internal issues of workplace harassment bullying? Are its employees given room to have a life outside the company? There have been a number of high profile businesses that tick the boxes on the first four degrees, but have which fostered toxic and exploitative work environments. Building a feminist business isn’t just about what you’re creating, but how you go about creating it.
I hope these questions have given you some food for thought. And I hope you’ll join us at LYLAS’s Women @ Work Lab on October 12 and Powerbitches’ diversity and inclusion masterclass this Thursday October 3.