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Investing in Women: How Corporations Use Gender and Philanthropy to Boost Profits

It’s a commonplace of global development and philanthropy that investing in girls and women is a smart investment, because their development returns dividends to the community and to their children. But speaking of investments and dividends frames these women’s lives as commodities to be used for someone else’s benefit–and often, large philanthropic organizations and corporate philanthropic initiatives receive far more than they give. Kathryn Moeller, an assistant professor of educational policy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tracks the ways that corporations use girls as an object of development, and in turn gain economic benefits.

In a talk about her book, The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of Development (University of California Press, 2018), on Monday, March 5, Moeller reported her findings from a “multi-site, multi-scalar global ethnography of the girl effect” that took her to the Clinton Global Initiative, the Nike Foundation in Oregon and one of its development projects in Brazil, and the World Bank, among other sites.

University of California Press, 2018

As Moeller conducted the research that became her book, she realized that major corporations and foundations were making “business cases” for investing in women of color in the third world that framed philanthropy as a capitalist venture. These projects, which often view women and girls as new frontiers for development and capitalist accumulation, earn social and often literal capital for their corporations, even while the corporations exacerbate conditions that make those same women and girls vulnerable.

Much of the logic of the philanthrocapitalist organizations Moeller researches depends on an “imagined third-world potential” as the solution to social inequities. In this racialized image, hardworking third-world women must be liberated from the profligate men who oppress them and waste their money on cigarettes and drink. In order for girls and women to achieve their potential, corporations must educate them and push back the age of childbirth so they can enter the workforce.

According to Moeller, this kind of liberation is limited to a woman’s earning potential, however, and often may not reflect what communities want or need. In this equation, women of color carry all the responsibility for solving structural problems of power, while their labor potential will “unleash capitalist growth for the corporations,” argues Moeller.

Moeller’s central case study was the Nike Foundation, who instituted their philanthropic project “The Girl Effect” in 2008. Nike had long been a target of anti-sweatshop campaigns, and found themselves in the middle of a PR crisis in the early 2000s when Vietnamese workers exposed the exploitative labor conditions in Nike factories. The Girl Effect aims to improve girls’ potential by educating them and developing entrepreneurship.

One of the projects Moeller observed was a program in a Brazilian favela intended to prepare high school girls for a career. At the start of the program, Moeller remembers that the girls said they wanted to be veterinarians, pharmacists, and more. The six-month program was largely focused on training women to be entrepreneurs or administrative assistants, however, and the girls’ desires were shaped accordingly. Ultimately, the program wasn’t successful, argued Moeller. The limited programming channeled the girls into low-wage jobs as ticket collectors or administrative assistants.

The Nike Foundation’s focus on quick results and attractive data marketable to other NGOs meant that in the end, girls weren’t able to overcome structural barriers to growth and get stable, lasting jobs. The project was not funded again.

However, the Nike Foundation continues to grow and profit. They have received grants from the World Bank, the UK Department for International Development, and others–meaning that the philanthropic arm of the Nike Foundation is being paid to do philanthropy. Data about the girls in the Brazilian school “became the means to unlock larger grants, change the behavior of other institutions, and expand corporate power and influence in the larger market.”

Moeller’s research suggests that educating and empowering women is not the primary goal of corporate philanthropic organizations. “The goal [with Nike] was always to gather information, brand it, and scale up,” argues Moeller. Additionally, philanthropic projects for women and girls often help corporations “mitigate short- and medium-term crises while expanding their long-term profits,” notes Moeller.

Unsurprisingly, Moeller’s work has been controversial, especially when it circulates through corporate boardrooms. She told the audience that during the publication process, the Nike Foundation sent her a list of “inaccuracies” in the book, although her research was meticulously gathered through observation and interviews with Nike Foundation employees.

The Girl Effect became its own foundation in 2015, shortly after the 2013 Rana Plaza fire in Bangladesh exposed how much of US companies’ supply chains still depended on sweatshop labor. This, Moeller argues, is no coincidence. Philanthropy targeted at girls and women often appears in response to a PR crisis, usually one exposing how a corporation is responsible for exploitative conditions in third-world countries.

Positioning girls and women as new frontiers for capitalist growth, Moeller argues, depoliticizes women’s demands for fair and just societies across the globe. It glosses over structural inequities while shifting the responsibility for change onto women and girls. And it allows companies to continue questionable business practices while redirecting the public’s attention to their philanthropic work.

In the winter of 2017, reports by China Labor Watch revealed poor working conditions and low pay in Chinese factories making the iPhone. In January 2018, Apple announced the start of a new partnership with Malala Yousafzai’s Malala Fund. Their plan? To educate girls in Latin America and India.

This event was sponsored by Imagining America and the Feminist Research Institute.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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