Gender Matters: ‘There’s nothing so practical as a good theory’

By Kate Grosser.

The centrality of gender issues to the global challenges of poverty, development and environmental sustainability, among others on the CSR agenda, and the normalisation of gender inequality, including sexual harassment (Trump election campaign) and violence against women, requires that we strengthen and extend feminist scholarship in our field. This is part of a wider agenda to enrich our work with reference to perspectives from the margins so as to inform increasingly inclusive, pluralistic research and practice. There is much evidence that such approaches can enhance legitimacy and effectiveness in constructive business-society relations. So how do we address this in our scholarship?

Is it just a matter of more research?
Well yes … and no.

Gender and CSR research has grown exponentially over the last decade and a half. Research focuses on corporate boards, workplace practice, supply chains, entrepreneurship programs, and community impacts, for example. Yet we still find few references to gender perspectives in mainstream CSR research. This situation is seen to result from the institutionalization of gender inequality within organizations, academia and society more broadly, including the marginalization of women’s voices and perspectives.

Gender research needs feminist theory
Important though these explanations are, in a recently published paper in Journal of Business Ethics with Jeremy Moon we explain limitations in gender and CSR research as deriving from a lack of systematic and explicit utilization of feminist theory. With reference to Feminist Organization Studies (FOS), we demonstrate the validity of Lewin’s (1951) claim that “There is nothing so practical as a good theory” by showing how use of feminist theory can progress our field, to the benefit of CSR research broadly.

Feminist organization theory underpins our work
With reference to a quarter of a century of scholarship on gender in organization studies, we show how both ‘women-centred’ and ‘gendering’ theories are implicit in CSR scholarship, informing very different sets of approaches. Theories centred on ‘women’ consist of liberal, radical and psychoanalytical feminist theories, which share the assumption that ‘women’s oppression is located in the condition of women’. Commonly found implicitly in CSR scholarship these perspectives tend not to differentiate between women but rather imply an essentialist and universal ‘woman’ and attempt to understand her subordination to ‘man’.

In contrast approaches that centre on ‘gendering’ include socialist feminism, poststructuralist/postmodern feminism, and transnational/(post)colonial feminism, which denaturalize assumptions within women-centred theory through engagement with relations of power. They show how ‘attempts to understand, and theorize about, gender and organizations’ have been ‘trapped by the assumption that organizational structures are gender neutral, when in fact they are highly gendered’:

Advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and control, action and emotion, meaning and identity, are patterned through and in terms of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine’, such that gender is an integral part of all organizational processes (Acker 1990, p. 146).

Thus, ‘gender relations, and its intersections with other systems of social inequality and difference, such as race, class and sexuality, are regarded as fundamental to contemporary organizations, to capitalism’ and to scholarship in our field.

Articulating these different perspectives enables us to ‘identify significantly different: accounts of gender issues; framing of the ‘problem’ with respect to gender and organizations’; methodologies; ‘and suggested solutions to these problems’. The different approaches lead to ‘agendas that range from fixing individuals and ‘‘reforming organizations; to transforming organizations and society; to transforming our prior understanding of what constitutes knowledge’’ in our field (Calas and Smircich 2006, p. 286)’.

An Integrated Theoretical Framework for the Analysis of Gender Issues in CSR
We highlight a variety of CSR theoretical approaches (ethical, instrumental, stakeholder, political, institutional and critical) and uncover feminist engagement with each. Then, drawing upon both FOS and CSR theory we develop an integrated theoretical framework for the analysis of gender issues in CSR. This ‘enables us to systematically map progress in CSR research on gender, to open space for new conversations, and to identify a number of novel directions for future research’.

For example, with respect to women-centred approaches, our framework enables us to identify an absence of liberal feminist perspectives, which focus on equal opportunities and non-discrimination, in ethical, political and critical CSR scholarship. ‘Research in such areas could shed light on what are currently rather marginal sets of questions about who leads CSR, for example’. We find a dearth of radical feminist perspectives guiding CSR research of any kind. Also, while the focus on ‘the value of ‘women’s difference’ (from men) adopted in much psychoanalytic feminist theory has been influential in ethical and instrumental CSR research’, it has an unexplored potential for other approaches, such as ‘political CSR’.

‘‘Gendering’ theoretical perspectives can facilitate a more detailed, nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the gender impacts of CSR practice at a societal level, rather than simply an individual level, across the CSR research domain’. ‘Further utilization of socialist feminist organization analysis can help us question and evaluate the influence of CSR on gender relations and gender equality regarding, for example, power relations, unequal pay, the gendered provision of unpaid care work and the normalization of particular kinds of masculinity’. ‘Significant research gaps and opportunities relating to the application of poststructuralist feminist organization theory to CSR are identified across the board. This approach facilitates exploration of whose voices are missing’, as authors and subjects of knowledge, offering potential to inform the development of more inclusive and pluralist research. To this end, further reference to feminist transnational/(post)colonial theory can ‘bring the varied perspectives of Third World women to CSR research’. Finally, ‘one of the most significant findings from our analysis is the lack of feminist theory/perspectives in critical CSR research. This gap offers important research potential that could make a significant impact upon the relevance, and application of critical CSR scholarship in terms of its ability to address inequality and poverty issues globally’. All three of the ‘gendering’ theoretical lenses can elucidate how CSR research reproduces or changes gender and other power relations.

Potential to transform our field
We conclude that explicit reference to feminist theory has the potential to open up a number of new research agendas that can help ‘counteract discrimination, gender inequality and the marginalization of perspectives that are in fact central to addressing the really big contemporary challenges in the CSR field, and for society’.

Kate Grosser is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Management at RMIT University in Melbourne, and a Visiting Fellow (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.

Pic by Christopher Dombres