Where are all the feminist businesses?

International Women’s Day (IWD) – simultaneously a celebration of women’s achievements, and a reminder of how much more needs to be done. Now, almost exactly one year on from the start of a pandemic that has set women’s progress back more than 30 years in the USA alone, we wanted to explore how far working women feel gender equity has come for them.

Jessica DeVlieger

Global CEO

118 years ago the women of New York’s garment factories downed tools in their thousands and took to the streets to protest at their working conditions. With a rallying cry of “Better to starve fighting than starve working,” the women stayed out of the factories for nearly three months… and it took nearly three years for the changes they demanded and so desperately needed to be made.

Those women’s actions are the roots of today’s International Women’s Day (IWD) – simultaneously a celebration of women’s achievements since then, and a reminder of how much more needs to be done. Now, almost exactly one year on from the start of a pandemic that has set women’s progress back more than 30 years in the USA alone, we wanted to explore how far working women feel gender equity has come for them.

The pandemic’s consequences for working women are devastating

A year ago, thanks to a booming labor market working women were riding high and early 2020 government data showed that women outnumbered men in the US paid workforce.

12 months on, and the pandemic consequences for working women are devastating. Women’s labor force participation has been set back to levels last seen in 1988. 5.4 million women have lost their jobs since February 2020. Over 2.1 million women have disappeared from the workforce entirely. For every working father who lost a job, three working mothers did.

With that data as context, we spoke to over 1,500 women working in jobs across the entire socio-economic spectrum – from those earning less than $50,000 a year to those earning more than $250,000 a year.

Our conversations revealed that, 113 years after the garment workers took to the streets, working women with low incomes still feel more disenfranchised than any other group of workers in America.

Women earning less than $50,000 a year are 15 to 30 percentage points behind other people in feeling heard at work, feeling their opinion counts, feeling meaningfully recognized, feeling included, and feeling their company is on their side.

They are also 15 to 30 percentage points behind in believing their company challenges gender stereotypes and mindsets; celebrates women’s achievements; and forges positive visibility of women.

Of working women earning less than $50,000 a year, only 26% are aware of International Women’s Day and 59% agree that the day is for someone like them. Compare this to women earning $150,000+ a year, 54% of whom are aware of the day and 79% of whom agree that the day is for someone like them.

There is a feeling of invisibility, of disappointment to “only show high powered women” and not ordinary, regular women who “haven’t done anything special to be recognized for.”

And while what we heard was sadly not surprising, it’s certainly more poignant given that this year has been, in many ways, “the year of the essential worker”. Despite the rhetoric, “the clapping for carers” it’s these often “front-line” workers that still feel disenfranchised.

Right now, women need activism

Over the years, we’ve seen change-making and purposeful activism from companies.

Ben & Jerry’s has been built on a legacy of activism and was at the forefront of corporate reactions to the social justice protests of last summer, calling on its American customers to “dismantle white supremacy” and “grapple with the sins of our past”. Similarly, Patagonia has founded its business on activist approaches, which have included demanding that customers “Don’t Buy this Jacket” to indicate its distaste at the rampant consumerism of Black Friday.

But when I think about the voices of the people we spoke to I wonder: where are the companies leading the fight for women?

Some argue that the housewives of the 1930s Meat Riots were the godmothers of radical consumer activism. When meat prices spiked during the Great Depression, the women of Detroit launched a boycott that changed America and was the foundation for modern consumerism. Companies were forced to follow.

Today I wonder, which are the companies that have the permission to lead change, not follow? To get out ahead of this conversation, just as Patagonia did for climate change and as Ben & Jerry’s did for social justice.

There are some businesses doing important work in this arena, for example Essity / Bodyform’s work de-stigmatizing women’s health conditions, and Rhianna’s Fenty. But, really, this isn’t about creating better brands for women – this is about brands doing better by women, especially those brands for whom low-income women are their core stakeholder.

Right now, there is an open opportunity for companies to lead this change. To recognize the evolving needs, and desires, lived experiences and human truths of these women – and to drive change with them and for them. Which company will take it?

C Space is proud to be an equal opportunity employer: In the USA: 69% of our team is female; 61% of our Client Services roles at Director, VP level and above are filled by women and 67% of the Executive Team is female. In EMEA, 63% of people at Director level and above are female.

With that said, we understand that this important work is never done, and we continue to strive for progress – with a number of programs, policies and measures in place across the board to further equality in our business.