Laurel Steinfield, Bentley University – Multinational Corporations and Women’s Economic Empowerment

On Bentley University Week:  When big corporations try to do some good, some question their motives.

Laurel Steinfield, assistant professor of marketing, discusses the paradoxes that come when big companies try to help.

Laurel Steinfield (DPhil, University of Oxford) is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Bentley University. Her research focuses on social stratifications, including gender, racial, and global North-South hierarchies. As a sociologist, transformative consumer researcher and marketing professor, she studies how these stratifications interact with marketplace dynamics and how resulting injustices may be transformed.

Multinational Corporations and Women’s Economic Empowerment

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In my work with multinational corporations and their initiatives on women economic empowerment, many of these efforts aim to bring women entrepreneurs into value chains, help women gain access to finance or develop skills. For example, Walmarts’ Empowering Women Together was an incubator program to help smaller women-owned businesses connect to Walmart’s consumers.   

Although some applaud this work, many companies with social impact initiatives face accusations of pink washing or white washing. While these accusations may highlight deeper problems, this is an opportunity to look deeper and expand our analysis of what influences corporate programs. Behind the corporate marketization efforts, marketing tactics and metrics that measure the empowerment of women, there are people who genuinely want to help. 

But pre-existing adversarial relationships established between corporations and civil society, including academia, results in two paradoxes: A market-logic paradox, where society treats with disdain the profit-orientation of corporates, while simultaneously celebrating the funds and marketing power these profits enable; and a legitimacy paradox, which calls into question businesses’ attempts to promote social impact efforts, although these self-promotion tactics are needed in order for cor porates’ work to gain legitimacy. 

Corporations’ forays into empowerment and social impact have resulted in unintended consequences.  In our research with Walmart, standardized ethical audits and efforts failed to consider the gendered household dynamics of women artisans in certain African countries. These threatened to disrupt the business model and caused financial crises. 

While a critical academic perspective is necessary,  constructive criticism and bridge building within corporations and their social impact initiatives would advance the benefit from the insights that scholars might bring. Society demands that we put to rest our adversarial approaches and start to engage in meaningful and constructive dialogues with each other.

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