Where’s The “Feminist” in Social Finance?

Where’s The “Feminist” in Social Finance?

A quick Google search of “feminism” and “social finance” yields disappointingly few results. Why aren’t feminists interested in social finance, I wondered, and why doesn’t the social finance movement engage directly with feminist ideas?

First of all, there’s an important distinction to make. Social finance with women as investors or beneficiaries (often called gender-lens impact investing) is different than social finance or social investment approaches that use feminist principles in how they operate. One definition is focused on outcome, the other on process.

That’s not to say gender-lens impact investing can’t be a feminist endeavour. The recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article “The Rise of Gender Capitalism” argues the opposite, noting that gender-lens impact investing is not about investing in women as though they are “commodities” or abandoning the feminist movement and its anti-capitalist roots. The authors, Sarah Kaplan and Jackie VanderBrug, make some excellent points – particularly the importance of helping women gain access to capital, promoting workplace equity and supporting products/services that improve the livelihoods of women and girls. They also emphasize the importance of designing with, rather than for, women and assuming that capitalism operates with a default systemic bias against women.

We know that social finance is about both politics and economics, and even the most abstract of tools implicate the daily lives of individual people – including women. I’d like to deepen Kaplan and VanderBrug’s analysis and start to bridge the dialogue between feminist economics and social finance in the following ways:

Feminism Isn’t Just About Women

Integrating a feminist perspective in social finance doesn’t just mean “adding women in” – it means rethinking an entire approach based on equity and justice. The definition of feminism provided by bell hooks, a famous feminist theorist, states that feminism is a “movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression”. Third wave feminism, starting in the 1990s, has placed particular emphasis on the final part – oppression more broadly. This includes oppression based on class, race, sexual orientation, citizenship status and disability to acknowledge that women aren’t confined to a single category, and identities often intersect.

So, what does this mean for social finance? Social finance tools – everything from social impact bonds to impact investing – can apply a feminist perspective to think about long-term impacts.  One of the best questions to ask to start thinking more equitably is “Who benefits – and at whose expense?”

The ‘Personal is the Political’ – Really

A useful framework to apply a feminist perspective is to consider the impacts at the personal, social and political (or systemic) level. How might an impact investment affect the lives of women or marginalized individuals, even if they are not the intended beneficiaries? Similarly, how might it affect marginalized groups and their access to opportunities on a more systemic level? Does this approach to social finance emulate paternalistic or colonial thinking? The unintended consequences are particularly important to consider.

Feminist frameworks help to bridge the personal and political, thinking on both the micro and macro scale about the potential to connect social finance and social justice.

Deconstructing Capitalism – In Whose Interest?

Social finance tools are often positioned as an alternative to traditional charitable models of social service delivery. Interestingly, feminists have always been at the forefront of critique about unsustainable relationships between charities/social movement organizations and their funders. INCITE!’s landmark feminist text The Revolution Will Not Be Funded – a book I highly recommend – coined the term “non-profit industrial complex” in reference to the professionalization of the social sector and the rampant duplication of services.

Feminists will be the first to admit that the traditional charity model of social service delivery isn’t working – it’s often paternalistic, offers Band-Aid solutions without a thorough analysis of the root causes of inequality, and is unsustainable.

However, feminist economics also recognizes the inherent male bias in a capitalist framework that relies on the marketplace to address social issues. Capitalism relies extensively on the unpaid labour of mothers and caregivers and the low-wage labour of many caring professions (teachers, nurses and counselors, among others) that are largely feminized. As a result, feminist economics often argues that the success of markets relies on exploitation of marginalized groups. This is where a feminist economics perspective on social finance can be both promising and productive: by supporting a type of “conscious capitalism” that prioritizes equity.

What kind of feminist principles would encourage the movement to organize differently? Here’s a start:

  • Building consensus organizationally
  • Prioritizing marginal perspectives
  • Distributing resources with a redistributive ethic
  • Applying reflexivity as an organization to understand potential biases
  • Being transparent about power and decision-making
  • Playing the “long game” – working with equity as the end goal

What would a “feminist social finance” movement look like to you? What feminist principles would you apply in your daily work?

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