Carol Liao is a professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at UBC and the UBC Sauder Distinguished Scholar of the Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at the UBC Sauder School of Business.
Female business founders received only 2.2 per cent of the US$85-billion invested by venture capitalists in 2017 – abysmal, unless you spin it as an improvement from 2016 (even if the improvement is only by 0.3 percentage points). Board diversity in Canada is slowly improving, too – but the numbers remain in the teens, and at these rates gender parity isn't going to happen in my children's lifetime.
As we #PressforProgress on this International Women's Day, it is important to ask: In what ways do corporations entrench gender inequality, erect barriers for women's participation in labour and fortify masculine norms of governance?
International Women's Day gives us an opportunity to reflect upon the gendered history that underpins the rise of big business, pooling of capital and concentration of power in the world. This history reverberates in the principles that guide regulatory development, and affects the decisions corporations make every day – directly and indirectly influencing the ways in which issues are identified as problems, how these problems are solved and whose interests are protected.
Feminist discourse has helped identify systemic disadvantages women face when climbing the corporate ladder – such as the glass ceiling, the glass cliff, and motherhood penalty, to name a few. Traditional characteristics of leaders are unconsciously considered different from our socialized idea of the female gender, and multiple studies have shown that people hold implicit biases against women in leadership roles. These biases persist across gender lines, with both men and women alike judging women more harshly than men, exposing internalized forms of misogyny.
Diverse feminist perspectives have developed throughout history, at times with conflicting viewpoints and goals. Some common traits of feminist theory draw upon notions of equality and ethics of care. In the context of corporate law, these include challenges to the singular focus on short-term profit to the detriment of long-term economic, social and environmental sustainability.
Feminist legal theory offers a reminder that Canadian boards must consider a broad array of stakeholders in their corporate decision making – not just the interests of shareholders but of employees, creditors, consumers, government, communities, and the environment – and ensure corporations act as good corporate citizens. Feminist perspectives challenges the self-interested shareholder concept and aligns with social finance movements and broader conceptions of impact and value. It also critiques the disproportionately negative effect corporate power has had on women, particularly on racialized and Indigenous women, and women in Third World countries.
The "tone at the top" and who comprises "the top" also matters. An intersectional understanding of lived experiences and social categorizations (including gender, race, class, sexual orientation, age, religion, disability/ability) are highly relevant in the context of power structures and different forms of privilege.
Feminist perspectives focus on the use and distribution of power, and consciousness-raising is a necessary component. Awareness of power imbalances in the boardroom, and in the day-to-day functioning of corporate activities, are critical in reform efforts. Now, along with #MeToo, #TimesUp, and other social movements, gender is becoming a complex and potentially evolving issue within corporate culture and the future viability of companies.
As industry leaders weigh in, and the transfer of capital moves into the hands of women and millennials, the seismic shift toward a new era of corporate sustainability is looming. The next few decades mark a critical period in domestic and international corporate reform as businesses begin to adapt to worldwide pressures for greater sustainability and changing consumer demands. The corporate sustainability movement is in its nascent years, but far more global in nature than "business case" corporate social responsibility, and is growing at a formidable pace.
Putting businesses on a more sustainable path will require the participation of all factions of society, and all genders. On this International Women's Day, it's time for an unapologetic call to redesign of existing power structures and internal power dynamics that are leading our world into crises.