Women's Empowerment in the Global South - Multinational Corporations Doing the Right Thing?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“It’s tricky to question something as apparently socially responsible as women’s empowerment initiatives - but the true challenge is now to move beyond the low-hanging fruit of women’s economic empowerment programmes to start to promote broader movements for bottom-up innovation, voice and learning that might make global corporations irrelevant.”  

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Women are bombarded with advice every day on how to behave, dress, and even speak, in order to become happy and successful. Lean in, as Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg suggests, and make clear what you want – but don’t be too ‘bossy’, that’s not popular with colleagues. Dress for success, say image consultants – but don’t wear bright colours or ‘distracting’ patterns, say career counsellors. Make sure you get credit for your work in teams, some academic gurus advise – but of course be supportive of colleagues at the same time, say others. 

Corporate feminism is an industry that now reaches around the world. Supranational organizations like the United Nations enable women’s empowerment advisers and consultancies to reach out to the millions of women living in poverty or reliant on the income of men. Women in the Global South are especially subject to exhortations to become more economically engaged, and therefore more independent. Multinational corporations are playing a key role in this process. After encouraging women in the Global North with the financial resources to participate in high level consumerism, many multinationals have now extended their reach into regions such as West Africa and South Asia, with the aim of empowering women there – through production initially, presumably with the intention of enabling consumption in the future. 

Should we celebrate this? Is it corporate philanthropy, an example of global corporations doing some good for a change? This is, as always where corporate interventions into the basic fabric of social and cultural lives are concerned, a simple question with a complex answer. There are three key issues at the centre of it. 

First, why are these programmes developing at this moment? The obvious answer is that women’s ‘empowerment’, even feminist forms of empowerment, are trendy. Social movements for women have become commodities easily marketed, traded and paraded. This includes women’s empowerment as a socially responsible business ‘product’, which neatly fits with objectives of gender equality. This in itself is not a bad thing, of course, but commodification always needs to be questioned.

Second, what do these programmes actually achieve? The jury remains out. As with so much corporate responsibility activity, actual on-the-ground success, in terms of women’s increased income, better working conditions, and wellbeing, is difficult to capture and difficult to corroborate. A handful of empirical independent academic studies have shown that when corporate-led women’s empowerment programmes are successful, it is when they aim not just for productivity, but at a holistic package encompassing women’s economic, social and political empowerment.

Finally, are the programmes relevant and welcome to those being subjected to them? The idea of being ‘subjected’ is important. To what extent can women, the named beneficiaries of such interventions, change how programmes are designed and operationalized? Evidence suggests that stakeholders’ voice, especially in the Global South, is too often silenced, misinterpreted or ignored. Programmes that are deemed a ‘success’ are often limited to small samples or very particular contexts, and are usually those where participants are most compliant. In other words, the term ‘success’ is often misconstrued. Only taking account of ‘what works’ in a narrow instrumental sense neglects local knowledges which can challenge the very assumptions we make about the nature of ‘women’, ‘men’, ‘power’, and the role of global corporations.

It’s tricky to question something as apparently socially responsible as women’s empowerment initiatives - but the true challenge is now to move beyond the low-hanging fruit of women’s economic empowerment programmes to start to promote broader movements for bottom-up innovation, voice and learning that might make global corporations irrelevant. 

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