Add Women and Increase the Bottom Line? The Trouble with the Add-On Approach
Today, Nicholas D Kristof wrote a very irritating op-ed in the New York Times. It has bugged me all morning. I am kind of surprised to hear him make his politically reactionary argument in support of increasing women’s numbers on company boards. After all, he has done some very important journalistic work on the trafficking of women and girls. So yes, I am surprised about his piece today, but then again I probably shouldn’t.
Kristof tells us that the most recent World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report shows that out of 136 countries the United States ranks only at the 23rd position regarding the status of women. This is even one position lower than last year. Kristof also informs us that compared with international standards the United States performs particularly poorly in terms of wage equality and in the number of women in legislative office. He also highlights that only 18 percent of board members are women among Fortune 500 companies. Kristof remarks: “At this rate, it’ll be after 2050 before women hold half of board seats.”
I agree with his dire assessment and I appreciate his consistent reminders about the great need to improve the status of women and girls here and elsewhere. The ongoing and relentless marginalization of women in society and culture worldwide, including in the United States, is an abomination.
Indeed, in this country there is tremendous pressure on women and girls to fit into the taken-for-granted standards of androcentrism. To mention an almost harmless case in point: nowadays even women and girls are supposed to like baseball and so they do. Hence, many of my students look puzzled when I tell them that it’s androcentric to show male sports on TV in public and private spaces and to promote it as we do at SMU. After all, don’t we love our athletes regardless of gender? Since we are expected that we do and many among us really do, should there be any doubt that baseball gets the most money at most universities or colleges in the United States? No, of course, not. After all, what can we do when our women athletes don’t make the same amount of money, or at least not the same hoped-for amount of money! See? That’s why we got to invest in our baseball players….
In the face of the relentless androcentric domination in societies everywhere, Kristof’s voice is usually a breath of fresh air. But there is a big problem in this particular op-ed of his.
Today, he makes the point that gender equity is not a value in itself. Here is how he phrases it: “[T]he main reason to add women…isn’t just equity. This shouldn’t be seen as a favor to women but as a step that would be good for all of us.” In fact, it’s good for business.
And Kristof tells us the details writing: “In business, there’s abundant evidence that inclusion of women in senior positions is linked to better results. Catalyst, a research organization, found that the companies with the most women board directors earned a 26 percent higher return on invested capital than the companies with the least women.”
So Kristof is in favor of gender equity because it’s good for the profit margins of Fortune 500 companies such as Walmart, Exon, or Apple?
Is this what feminism has come down to?! To help companies make a greater profit by including women? But what would he say if the research company had found that women decreased the bottom line? Would he agree that the exclusion of women is justifiable because it’s good for business? What a fallacious argumentation he advances in this op-ed!
In other words, Kristof subscribes to a liberal white middle-class status-quo oriented understanding of feminism. It seeks to add women to society without making a case for change and without looking at the interlocking structures of domination. This kind of add-on approach does not aim for the elimination of all structures of domination but it simply seeks to add women to this or that position because it’s fair or, as this op-ed outlines, it increases the profit margins of corporations.
Kristof thus seems to suggest: “Give women power so that they can do what men have been doing.” He does not analyze the troubles of gender as an opportunity to make connections with other exploitative and oppressive powers in society such as race, class, or immigration status. He seeks the equity of certain kinds of women and asks to add them to the board of directors so that these powerful women, too, can help corporations increase their profit margin. But what about the millions of other people who do not sit on these boards here or anywhere else? How will they benefit from an increasing number of women on boards of companies that aim to increase their profit margins and do not pay their female and male workers a fair salary?
In short, Kristof’s op-ed piece represents classic status-quo thinking. It accepts the current ways of organizing society, the economy, politics, and religion. It is certainly insufficient in transforming human societies to a more just place for all people, especially women and girls.
I had hoped for more from Nicholas D. Kristof.