Sexism in the CSR Academy: time to get our own house in order?

Posted in: Education, Gender equality, Women

CSR is concerned with fairness, justice and responsibility. Yet are CSR academics achieving this when it comes to gender equality in their own workspaces?  To mark International Women’s Day, and as part of a month on the blog where we aim to #PressforProgress on gender parity, we publish here a self-described ‘feminist-eyed view’ by CBOS Associate Laura Spence. As one of the few women professors of business ethics in the UK, Laura provides an insightful personal reflection on the way that gender issues are addressed in CSR scholarship.

 Laura’s post is taken from a collection of essays in Gender Equality and Responsible Business: Expanding CSR Horizons. Lauren McCarthy, one of the collection’s co-editors, comments, “Now is the time for everyone working in our field to use whatever resources and influence they have to speak up about sexism, to make gender visible, and to radically re-position CSR practice and theory as truly inclusive”.


Though data on the CSR field specifically is hard to come by, Van den Brink and Benschop (2012) have shown clearly that in an academic context, the promotion rate of women is lower than that of men across academic disciplines. From my many years of observation, this appears also to be the case in CSR, despite there being a very strong, vibrant presence of female early career researchers. That is not to say that we don’t have women full professors; we do, and compared with some science fields we are awash with them. Occasionally there is pretty good gender parity at CSR events. For example, at one international workshop of senior scholars in the related sustainability field in 2014, I noticed that there were way more women than men. I decided to check the numbers exactly, only to dis-cover that there were still more men than women at the event, but the near-parity of genders gave the illusion that there were a majority of women; an impression confirmed by others. Interesting, that we are so used to seeing a male majority that equity starts to look like imbalance in the other direction.

I have also found that women are highly visible in the professional academic bodies, offering service to the CSR community through being on executive committees of the Social Issues in Management Division of the Academy of Management, and others. Yet as a scarce commodity in senior roles in academia, women are disproportionately called upon to sit on committees and to mentor both staff and students; all with the expectation of being sympathetic and helpful, in keeping with the anticipated practices of the female gender (see Fletcher, 1998). I myself confront this regularly, having tried to champion both mentoring and promotion-support for junior female colleagues, not to mention complaining formally and informally when a professorial recruitment panel was full of white men. As a result I am asked regularly to fulfil these tasks which have little if any formal recognition attached to them, but in which I personally believe.

 So it seems that while CSR is a field in which some women can and do prosper, there remains a bias against giving voice to women at the higher levels of academia and business and in the most prestigious environments. One of my pastimes is to look at lists that crop up within the CSR field: lists of keynote speakers, recommended reading for teaching courses, bibliographies, panellists at conferences, editorial boards, shortlists for professorships, that kind of thing. These make surprisingly interesting reading. In a field which really does have a good range of top scholars of both genders, time and again the majority (sometimes all) of the people in the list are white male (Marshall, 2007 concurs).


Equality in CSR scholarship?

Happily there is more research on feminist and gendered perspectives to CSR than is often realized. But why does it continue to have such a relatively low profile, obfuscated by the mass of research which ploughs on along the same old lines? A striking example is the feminist-inspired work of R. Edward Freeman, a titan in the CSR field, whose research is among the most cited globally. A very simplistic Google-scholar search shows that books by Freeman are cited in the 1,000s. Yet Freeman’s jointly edited book, Women’s Studies and Business Ethics (Larson and Freeman, 1997), is hard to track down at all from Europe, and registers 20-odd citations on Google scholar. There is interesting and relevant feminist literature in the body of CSR and business ethics work, but it lacks visibility and scholarly impact on the wider field. Thus there are only limited indicators that gender studies and feminism are entering the mainstream in CSR, and they are still often marginalized.


Speak up!

So, what can be done? Now that I am comfortably mid-career—and perhaps a feeling of security influences this—I knowingly and purposefully try to use the voice which I have by virtue of some kind of status, to speak up! For me this means to be ready to point out as many times as it takes when there is masculinist bias creeping in, when feminist approaches are obfuscated, when gendered language is being used, to try to bring in a feminist perspective when it is missing.

Stoic resignation, shoulder shrugging or wry smiles won’t change things, nor will the acts of women alone. In terms of the roles women play in the field, the popular idea of identifying everyday sexism is something we could perhaps try to do more proactively, to keep nudging an increase in awareness of gender and women’s contributions to our field. We should actively notice the work of women. Never miss a chance for giving constructive feedback or supporting and promoting a female colleague’s good work. If you have some power, never accept a male-only panel or editorial board, or such like. If you can’t personally influence such things, never let them pass without comment at least and preferably complaint. At the very least, use survey and feedback forms to make your feelings known. Just as the suffragettes promoted deeds not words, a kind of academic activism might be needed. I would encourage the use of the weapons and armoury of academia, the spoken, written and broadcast word, to maximum effect. So we need to see more publishing across the panoply of journals and books that puts gender and feminist perspectives to excellent use. Feminist approaches should also engage with the mainstream, in order to make it impossible to airbrush them out. In short, we need to foster more tempered radicals until they are radical no more, because the world around them has changed.


Extracts from Spence, L. (2016) ‘The obfuscation of gender and feminism in CSR research and the academic community’ in Grosser, K., McCarthy, L. & Kilgour, M.A. (eds.) Gender Equality and Responsible Business: Expanding CSR Horizons. London: Greenleaf/Routledge. Extracts kindly reprinted here with permission from Routledge.

 Laura Spence is Professor of Business Ethics at Royal Holloway University of London, and an Associate Member of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society at the University of Bath. She researches on small business responsibility, modern day slavery and feminism.

Lauren McCarthy is Lecturer in Strategy and Sustainability at Royal Holloway University of London. She is currently researching toxic masculinity in corporate value chains, and online feminist activism.


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Posted in: Education, Gender equality, Women


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