Living gender empowerment

Post date: Jun 13, 2014 2:37:29 PM

It’s been some time since my last post. The project mentioned last here has certainly kept me busy until now, but not busy to the degree that I could not write a piece for my blog.

I had a baby in August last year, which meant that I had been ‘wrapping up’ temporarily since about June/July 2013, and returned to work (slowly revving up the engine again) in March this year, 2014. My little boy is fast approaching the 1-year mark, and I can’t believe how quickly time passes. It is incredible how much these little things learn in their first year – I couldn’t be a prouder mum.

Having kids has also clarified some things even more than before: it’s not all about us. How selfish are we! We run around, constantly, trying to balance work, home, economic stability and chase life’s little luxuries – whatever they are. Of course, we matter. But we can matter even more in what we do for others, not just for us. I knew all this before, but I have been ‘living it’ much more since having a baby. All of a sudden my own needs are secondary. I also realise the network around me, who depends on me, at home and at work. Not that I’m important, but I do find that time has become my most precious commodity these days. If I could double up time, I’m not sure I would.

I decided to return to work after 6 months. With some further annual leave that had accrued from the previous year, this brought me back to my office when my boy was just over 7-months old. In some ways I was lucky to have had these 6 months. London mothers are notorious for not taking a lot of maternity leave, which already indicates to some degree the local demand of childcare. Childcare costs have recently been reported to exceed average monthly mortgage repayments in the UK . This gets me thinking about the ‘business of children’. Considering the recent boom in the UK (London in particular) in the property market, childcare is another property boom!

We were lucky, very lucky. My mother was so kind to stay with us for the first few months, allowing me to focus on returning to work. My sister, who lives in another European country, gets childcare for free – can you imagine? A colleague of mine recently pointed out how we, in the UK, are benefitting from the childcare system of other countries, as the provisions made elsewhere free up resources that are taken up here. This is certainly the case for us: without ‘generous’ childcare systems abroad, my mother would have had to take care of a lot more grandchildren and could not have helped us in the way she did. However, this means that she is working ‘for free’. In fact, I am working for free in so many ways. We have help, yes, but there is still a lot to do in terms of household management. My husband also contributes. But maybe he does not do quite as much as me.

Why am I divulging way more about my personal life than you would normally read in a blog? Well, considering my role in the PRME gender equality working group, I have been reading, writing, and thinking a lot about gender equality in marketing and consumer research these days. Who am I to talk about gender equality? Conceptualising, theorising, even critiquing – all these are easier than living it. There is such a thing called ‘easier said than done’. But I’m not doubting my position to talk about gender equality because I may not live it; gender equality is a concept that seems bigger than me. It permeates all our lives, our practices, our spaces. We are not equal, nor do we want to be. We are different, but should not always be. Equality, I have learned over the past few weeks, is not about theorising, but about acting.

Let me bring this conversation back to marketing and consumer research: we can talk a lot about how advertising images may or may not be sexist. But during the time that we are having this debate, hundreds and hundreds of other images are produced that are equally conflicted. And, I’m hugely reducing marketing to advertising here: what about the kind of products designed for men and for women. How do these establish markets that are entirely unequal? Just go back to our example of the property market vs the childcare market – how are these valued differently? And, am I not completely privileged to be talking about these things, when I am employed, have a home, have childcare and have ‘a life’? What about women in the developing world?

What empowers women? And is there a link to marketing and consumer research? I would argue there is. Think about what empowers you, whether you are a woman or not.

I have seen a growing momentum of initiatives that focus on the improvement of women’s lives across the globe; let me give you some examples:

- Power Shift 2014: the Oxford forum for financial inclusion for women has taught me that women’s empowerment is connected with access to finance. I am not an accountant, nor a financier, but I have learned that economic capital is still a gender privilege – far from equal. In some places, women do not have access to ‘ownership’ – they are not legally permitted to own; they cannot have bank accounts; and, if you are looking to start a business that does not have a proven record of return on investment, it is fairly unlikely you will get any capital. This also means, that if you decide to run a property business, as opposed to a childcare business, these values are taken into consideration when applying for funds. In what world is this fair?

This means, that in the first place, in order for women to produce or consume, they must have access to capital, in whatever form (in kind or in funds). The ExxonMobil ‘roadmap for promoting women's economic empowerment’ provides a framework that has outlined some of these issues. However, it is important that awareness is generated on grassroots level – THIS MEANS EVERYONE! We have a chance to make a difference – please, sign the petition here and take a stand!

- When I think of how I manage my daily chaos, I think of my mobile phone. As much as it let’s me take pictures and films of my family, I could not be without it these days. It does not have to be a mobile phone, but access to communication is essential. Well, this is another privilege – in many countries, women are not allowed access to a phone, making it difficult for them to co-ordinate or manage their everyday dealings. Women are said to be bad ‘managers’ – maybe the lack of control that is given to them is one reason for this. Once again, ExxonMobil and the United Nations have confirmed that access to communication technologies is important for women’s empowerment.

But, already at this point, I am starting to think that this is not just an issue for the developing world; other people in developed countries face similar challenges, quite simply because they do not know about the power of communication. Of course, all this has to do with education:

- Women’s education is essential in their empowerment: ranging from health and sexual education, to simple literary education (I am already empowered by being able to write this blog piece!) – and onwards and upwards from there. Quite simply keeping young girls and women in education is a challenge in many countries. How privileged am I, considering my years of education… the differences are unthinkable.

- And, lastly, I recently read a definition of empowerment being women’s ability toleave the house if she has to – I would add, by choice, not by obligation. Women often cannot leave their home, as it is not safe. On the other hand, women in other contexts often had to leave their homes to work and contribute financially to the family income. In fact, here is a link to education, as young children are often forced to leave school to work. Hence, women often cannot leave their homes, or have to, but the choice is quite simply out of their hands. All this has huge implications on childcare, and all of a sudden we are not finding ourselves a million miles from where I started.

The issue of the valuing of production and consumption as gendered has been the crux of this system. Of course, cultural values and traditions play a role, both historically influenced by men rather than women. In a sense, we need to empower women to take control of the development of their cultures and traditions, as they have thus far hardly been recognised in this system. Hence, marketing, market systems and consumption have been significant throughout this process.

As much as is terribly wrong in the developing world, I cannot stop thinking that we have not come as far as we may think in the developed world. Women’s work is still undervalued and often ‘free’, women are still paid less than their male counterparts in paid employment, and women are still not represented institutionally, structurally, and culturally – and this includes media and advertising – to a degree resembling reality. We need to work on our own mess as well as helping others who are in much worse positions than us. This is a huge task that is well beyond my own powers. Hence, who am I to talk about gender equality? Let me turn this around: who am I NOT to talk about gender equality? How can I allow myself to not see what is happening to women across the globe?

The issue of ‘gender equality’ and empowerment as bigger than me, also results from my own lack of knowledge of what these terms actually mean. Some would say we can find them in action, as we can see in the examples above; others would say we cannot neglect women’s strategic silence (Parpart, 2010), as survival in certain contexts depends on silence. I can relate to this: am I in a position to give women voices, universally? Can I even understand the consequences of this, from my own context, that is so different, yet also similar? Or should I aim to empower women in other ways, to help themselves? I don’t know, is the answer.

Across the empowerment and gender equality debate, I can’t see men’s responsibility in this. Reports consistently claim that empowering women means entire communities are empowered. Surely, these ‘communities’ include men. Then, surely, it is men who should also recognise their responsibility in striving for women’s equality. How come then, that any event I go to these days is dominated by women?

I am worried that empowerment initiatives are mainly directed towards empowering women to manage all the activities – or practices or roles – they have been traditionally expected to perform. This, to me, follows a sense that women are responsible for gender equality; women can have it all, family, work, security – but they have to do it all too. Empower them, give them products and services (link to BCG report), and this will empower them to do it. If women are responsible for ‘actioning’ gender equality, does this mean they are responsible for inequality? Surely not!

If we have a think about where and how gender inequality originates, we are likely to start our search in histories of cultures or institutions, and find the development of hierarchies, based on power structures. Women were excluded from most of these histories, institutions and power structures – how can they be responsible for inequality? And, men are inheriting the positions in these cultures by default – how can we blame them? They may not even know that they are part of cultures that are unequal?

We need to re-think gender equality in terms of gender relations that are formed by men and women in various contexts and positions. There is no one universal ‘equality’ we can theorise and pursue, but rather each context produces its own power structures where (in)equality needs to be considered. What is important is THAT it is considered. This also means not only working for equality in developing economies, but thinking about institutions such as childcare, education, household duties, etc. as gendered responsibilities that have thus far contributed to inequality. How can we overcome this?

It means that each organisation, including the Coca Colas, the Exxon Mobiles, universities and educational institutions, and private lives at home, need to be re-negotiated in terms of equality. As mentioned before, ‘living’ gender equality is often easier said than done. If we were to all open our doors and remove the silences (Ryan-Flood and Gill, 2010) that form part of our own lives and institutions, we would see how far away we all are from equality.

Let’s do it, I’m all for it.


Parpart, J.L. (2010). Choosing silence: Rethinking voice, agency and women’s empowerment. Ryan-Flood, R., & Gill, R. (Eds.), Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, London: Routledge, 15 – 29.

Ryan-Flood, R., & Gill, R. (Eds.). Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.