Rising Inequality and Political Backlash

By Kate Grosser.

Widening income inequality has become the defining challenges of our time. Not only has this issue been highlighted in recent years by the IMF, the OECD, and the Economic Policy Institute, Washington, among others, but it is at the centre of much analyses of the causes of Trump’s US election victory, including Dirk Matten’s great blog on this site last week. The gap between the rich and poor is reportedly at its highest level in decades in advanced economies. While this trend has been more mixed in emerging markets and developing countries, pervasive inequities remain, and it is increasingly recognized that inequality impacts negatively upon growth, sustainability and political stability.

Contesting the Equality and Gendered Value of “Creating Shared Value” is an urgent task

So what does this tell us about our success in ‘Creating Shared Value’? It would seem we urgently need to pay a lot more attention to what we mean by ‘shared’ and, in particular, to how corporate practices impact upon inequality at all levels of society, across all stakeholder domains, and in the wider economy and polity. Notably the IMF confirms that gender inequality is strongly associated with income inequality and that this holds for countries across all levels of development. Thus we live in particularly challenging times for gender equality. How are we going to address these challenges more effectively?

Corporations have been shown to rely on gender and other forms of inequality as a resource, exploiting women’s low pay globally, and especially in supply chains in developing countries for example, and relying upon invisible and unpaid care work, done mostly by women, to sustain workers and organizations. However, it is also true that business has the power to make changes that can impact huge numbers of women, as well as men, in positive ways through new business models and new approaches to responsible business. Yet, corporate claims to be advancing equality MUST be investigated and evaluated by feminist scholars, and others working on different forms of inequality, in collaboration with the so called ‘beneficiaries’ of CSR, to assess progress in this regard.

Emerging research on CSR, gender, and other forms of inequality – what are we learning?

Among the growing research outputs on inequality issues and CSR, including those addressing gender, development, and indigenous studies, many have raised questions about the nature of shared value. They have also frequently suggested ways forward on this issue, including the need to listen to, and act upon, knowledge that comes from the ‘margins’ of our field, and of mainstream society. However, while such research in CSR is more critical than ever, the impact of this work, in terms of research and practice, will depend to a large extent on levels of interest among CSR scholars in addressing inequality in our midst. A quick review of feminist scholarship for example, reveals that this routinely develops alongside, rather than as part of, mainstream theory and research, such that it is effectively ignored, its implications overlooked and its insights missed (e.g. Shanley and Pateman, 1991). In our own field Janet Borgerson (2007) finds that feminist ethics has been consistently overlooked, misunderstood, and improperly applied within business ethics. In our new edited collection on Gender and Responsible Business: Expanding CSR Horizons (Editors: Kate Grosser, Lauren McCarthy and Maureen Kilgour, Greenleaf 2016), Laura Spence points to low citations of feminist research, even that by the leading professors in our field such as Ed Freeman. Craig Prichard (2013) proposes that ‘uncitation’ does not prove that a paper is of poor quality, but rather that it is separated from the ‘dominant co-citational coalitions’ of a particular group of powerful scholars and journals. He suggests we seek out uncited papers to find new areas of importance to our field. In sum, advancing CSR research on gender and other forms of inequality will require all of us to:

  • Support and mentor those who write from the margins of our field, including women academics from a variety of backgrounds and parts of the world
  • Explore, support and cite scholarship on inequality and CSR, including feminist research;
  • Contribute to investigation of how masculinity dominates CSR research, discourse, organization and practice; and how inequality and neo-colonialism shape our field.
  • Bring the issue of rising inequality centre stage in business and society research of ALL kind

New voices on inequality and CSR

Our new book forms part of the growing literature which aims to bring new voices and perspectives to CSR. Contributions come from people in business, NGOs, as well as academia. Many chapters bring to the foreground the intersection of gender inequality with race and class inequality in global value chains and production networks. One of the strengths of these contributions is that they not only reflect feminist critiques, but also feminist engagement with CSR, including examples as to how we can do more to interrogate and improve CSR impacts with respect to equality. For example, Sofie Tornhill’s chapter provides a rare glimpse into on the ground experiences of the women ‘beneficiaries’ of corporate women’s empowerment programs. She ‘asks what do corporations do when they “empower” women?’, and finds much to be desired in the lived experiences of the women ‘entrepreneurs’ in a South African township enrolled on Coca-Cola’s 5by20 initiative.  The women in this research help us identify how we might better support gender and CSR program recipients in the future. Felicity Butler and Catherine Hoskyns report on a fair trade partnership between The Body Shop and a local sesame producer cooperative in Nicaragua that paid for care work done in the home to support the business, resulting in demonstrable benefits for women involved, and for gender equality, despite the wider institutional challenges. Elizabeth Prugl’s chapter explores how we might challenge the rise of neoliberal feminism via CSR, with its focus on individuals, and return our attention to the pressing questions of structural inequality. In line with a new focus on wellbeing inequality, as opposed to just economic inequality, other chapters extend the boundaries of CSR to interrogate Corporate Sexual Responsibility (relating to the use of strip clubs and pornography as part of business transactions, or on business travel), hegemonic masculinity, sexist culture in the gaming industry, reproductive technologies, and corporate philanthropy supporting work on violence against women. Issues of sexual harassment, such as that boasted about by Trump, perpetuate inequality and are key to a CSR agenda that extends to human rights.

Beyond the myth of “shared value”

To avoid wasting the crisis of Trump presidency as Dirk Matten suggests, we must move beyond our comfort zones and ‘business as usual’. Significantly more research is needed that specifically addresses the relationship between CSR and rising inequality in advanced economies, as well as globally. Focusing here has the potential to increase the relevance and usefulness of our field. In addition to challenging the role of private corporations in the governance of society, and the advance of privatization, we might focus more on: corporate taxation; investing much more in social infrastructure and the care economy, and fostering new forms of democracy in our own field, to name just a few. While, growing inequality is by no means the only cause of the current political backlash in the US and elsewhere, not for the first time in history, this comes with rising levels of explicit sexism, racism and xenophobia. If language is performative we are in danger of things getting worse for many people, and the myth of shared value, presented as a positive outcome for all, must be interrogated, contested and exposed more widely than Crane et al. (2014) suggest, because the data on inequality globally testify to the fact that the current system is not sharing value so much as it is extracting it. Moreover, this extraction is gendered (as well as racialised and classed) in important ways. The US election result reveals that we ignore this challenge at our peril.

Kate Grosser is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Management at RMIT University in Melbourne, and a Visiting Fellow in 2016 with the VELUX Chair in Corporate Sustainability, Copenhagen Business School. She researches gender and CSR, feminist organization theory, political CSR, feminist movements and CSR, culture and sustainability. She is on Twitter @KateGrosser and recently published a collection on Gender and Responsible Business: Expanding CSR Horizons (Editors: Kate Grosser, Lauren McCarthy and Maureen Kilgour, Greenleaf 2016).

pic by Greenleaf.