Girl Incorporated. Corporate Empowerment Programmes for Women Workers: What Drives them and Who Benefits?
The past two decades have seen a surge in partnerships between multinational corporations and women’s rights organizations professing to empower women and girls in the Global South. This trend – dubbed ‘Transnational Business Feminism’ (TBF) by feminist political economist Adrienne Roberts (2012) – has generated a lively debate amongst feminist social scientists around the ideological characteristics, limitations, benefits and effects of these alliances, and the extent to which they signal the ‘co-optation’ of certain feminist strands. This dissertation identifies and addresses three gaps in the TBF literature, namely: the perspectives of influential feminist groups participating in TBF projects; the effects of these initiatives on their beneficiaries in the Global South; and the rise of supply chain focused TBF projects targeting women workers.
A contribution to this debate, this dissertation examines the logics, functions, and effects of worker-focused TBF projects from the perspectives of those who design these projects in the Global North, and explores the effects of such projects on two groups of women workers in the Global South. What lies behind the rise in supply-chain focused TBF partnerships? How do feminist professionals who design and promote these projects make sense of the impact, limits, and ideological implications of their work? How might the experiences of some small groups of beneficiaries illuminate the broader politics of TBF? These are the main questions animating this dissertation.
A qualitative case study methodology is used to answer these questions. The selected case studies are the New York based United Nations agency UN Women, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) in Washington DC, and the partnerships of these organizations with fashion corporation The Gap (Gap) and the household goods company Unilever.
Data has been gathered through: in-person and online interviews with feminist professionals in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom; group interviews with Gap workers in India, and phone interviews with former Unilever tea workers in Kenya. Additional interviews were held with feminist professionals at CARE International, Women Deliver, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and the UN Global Compact. Textual data has been obtained through the websites, social media pages, promotional literature, and annual reports of the organizations under study, Freedom of Information requests at the European Commission and court records capturing workers testimonies. I have gathered additional data by attending multiple TBF-related webinars and conferences.