Web chat: Linda Scott

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Welcome to the Financial Times live web chat with Linda Scott, who features in our Ten Questions Q&A.

Linda Scott, professor at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and author of Fresh Lipstick, will answer your questions on Thursday 8th December 2011, between 13.00-14.00 GMT.

Post your questions now to ask@ft.com and they will be answered on the day on this page.


What is your view of the next generation of marketing students? How did the past decade change the priorities of marketers? What knowledge and skills should business schools focus on to prepare students for the realities they will have to face in the marketplace?

I ask this because the past decade seems to have brought many challenges for corporations. Their institutional legitimacy is often questioned. Talks about corporate greed prevail. Yet, as a parallel stream, you also see more inspired partnerships between NGOs and the private sector, as well as social movement companies which bring the social agenda at the core of the business. What is a marketer supposed to know to give good advice to corporations in this new context?

Ioana Grancea

Linda: Last week I attended a small conference on corporate citizenship held by Interbrand at Harvard University. The attendees were mostly the leaders of corporate foundations and top executives with responsibility for sustainability and social programmes. It was really interesting to see the sincere and obvious concern that these individuals had for the situation in America right now - how sympathetic they were to the issues being raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance.

Several important programmes were showcased, such as the Nissan LEAF and Verizon’s anti-domestic violence programme. The people in charge of these programs were passionate about them. One comment was made over and over during discussions, however: that social responsibility and sustainability must become part of the “DNA” of corporations and not just be “nice to have” add-ons.

The ethic that suffused this environment was jarringly different from the assumptions that seem to prevail in business schools. During the course of the conference, several of us who are engaged with business education had conversations where we expressed our concern about the disconnect. Though the top business schools all have “add ons” of their own now (professors of sustainability, courses in social entrepreneurship, and the like), the dominant stance is still a very old-fashioned and aggressive assertion of the primacy of gain. That is to say, there is still a prevailing ethic of greed. We all know that the current generation of students does not share that ethic but instead is demonstrably more inclined toward a pro-social approach. However, the environment of business schools tends to produce an odd sort of posturing behavior where the students will act as if they believe in “profits are first, the rest be hanged,” when in fact they do not believe that at all. This timidity in expressing their true feelings only perpetuates the negative, old-style attitudes. It’s a shame.

Has your alignment with the feminist movements’ goals caused any misunderstandings in what regards your mission? Feminism has a complicated web of meanings for the wider public, some of them not particularly useful for women themselves. Could you talk a bit about your views towards the subject? How do you see The Double-X Economy’s relationship with the ideological inheritance of feminism?

Ioana Grancea

Linda: Feminism is an evolving set of theories and practices. The prevailing feminism during the second half of the twentieth century was strongly influenced by Marxism and therefore profoundly anti-market. This thinking is now being upset by the first global gender inequality documentation in history, extensive databases prepared by the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, which tend to show that that the market-based industrial democracies have produced better conditions for women.

We still do not really know exactly what the causal factors are nor in which direction they run, but it is pretty clear that the conventional wisdom of a previous generation, which held that women’s oppression was the effect of industrial capitalism, is simply not bearing out. It is incumbent on feminists now to investigate, empirically and with an open mind, what specific features of the market democracies benefitted women and try to use that learning to help women globally. It is no longer responsible to cling dogmatically to the belief that capitalism is the reason for women’s oppression. The evidence does not support that stance and the urgency of the present moment demands a fresh approach.

The book I am now writing is intended to frame the issues very differently, to offer a new concept of the women’s economy that resists being squashed into cold war categories.

In academia, do you find it easier to raise money for research on women in ‘third’ world countries or ‘the developing’ world? I sometimes find that gender issues are considered more relevant by sponsors if dressed in ‘exotic robes.’

Gry Høngsmark, Denmark

Linda: This is an incisive question and points to a phenomenon I find very disturbing, one that is not limited to academia but is pervasive in the developed nations. It’s not so much that people want to see gender inequality in exotic terms so much as it is that people in the rich countries want to think they do not have a problem. And I must say this ostrich-like attitude is much more prevalent in the UK than in the US. There is a paralysing unwillingness to acknowledge the gender gap at work in every day practice in the Western democracies. Women, in particular, will acknowledge it privately to each other - and will exhibit a finely tuned awareness of gender hostility and real rage about it - but will not act against it, will not support each other, will not even speak about it in mixed company. It is very, very discouraging and disturbing.

In truth, if you look at the statistics on the conditions in the developed nations versus the developing nations, there is often less difference in the gender gap than one might think. I had this brought home to me also at the Interbrand conference. I made a presentation about The Double X Economy, in which I made the comment that gender inequality is held in place by violence - I noted that the stories of bride-burning and honour killings had become familiar but that violence against women hung in the air as an implicit threat in all nations. My presentation was followed by a group of women looking to create a new awareness effort against domestic violence in America. Though there was an openness about the pervasiveness of the problem that I don’t think you would see among a similar group in Western Europe, you could still feel the discomfort in the room and the stories about corporate executives denying the problem were disappointing to say the least.

What do you think business schools can do to help address the global financial crisis? Do you think they are part of the problem or part of a solution? Or both?

Catherine Dolan, UK

Linda: Business schools are part of the problem. This pervasive ethic of greed I mentioned earlier, as well as a general emphasis on finance at the expense of questions more relevant to the real economy (managing people, watching the supply chain and so on), tends to abstract business practice from the ethical and social challenges that are actually typical of daily experience. This attitude leads to the illusion that somehow business people do not have to balance multiple objectives and constraints all the time, as do ordinary people in their daily lives.

For instance, I need to be a good scholar, but also a good teacher, a good parent, a good spouse and a good citizen. Sometimes, I have to make tradeoffs and balance priorities in my quest to fill all these roles. No one would accept it if I chose to perform only one of them and then purposely behave badly on every other dimension of my life. Similarly, corporate people need to make money but they also need to please customers, motivate employees, support communities and protect the environment. Every real business person I know tries to accomplish multiple objectives all the time. The notion that there is only one dimension on which businesses must be evaluated, to the exclusion of all others, is dangerous and, ultimately, self-destructive.

Could business schools be part of the solution? Sure. But it would take the same kind of massive rethinking that the corporate world has been doing - and will have to continue to do - before anything really substantive changes. People are vested in ideologies within academia in a way that is not typical of the real world. My guess is that the business schools, despite recent fanfare to suggest otherwise, will be slow to change.

Dear Linda,

Nice to see you are answering queries. I am an agricultural scientist, working towards educating farmers to add value to their production to take it to market. We in India have a different set of problems as agricultural infrastructure is not present. What steps should I take to empower farmers, especially women?

Thanks and Regards,

Poonam Jayant Singh, India

Linda: Infrastructure is a major problem in India and around the world, for farmers, as well as schoolchildren, health workers, and many others. It is difficult to say, however, what would help in a particular setting without knowing more about the specific crop, the social situation and the presence / absence of other technologies, such as heating or plumbing or communications access. In a farm setting, women are usually employed to do the work but seldom either own the land or have control over the disposition of the produce. To empower them in such a setting probably requires some change in the social arrangements as much as a change in the infrastructure.

What are the challenges you face in getting access to talk to women from the emerging economies? What do you think motivates them to step out and work despite societal and familial resistance’s to that move?

Thank you,

Chandrika Parmar, UK

Linda: In most cases, I work through well-established NGOs on the ground, who make arrangements for me to talk to the women. So, normally, I do not have trouble getting access.

If you compare data between women in the developed world and women in developing nations, you often find a surprisingly different pattern regarding employment. Even in the most disadvantaged nations, the levels of employment for the women are sometimes much higher than in the rich countries. Yet the access to health and education is much, much lower. Behind these data, what you often see is that women are essentially treated as extremely disempowered labourers. No one is trying to keep them from working but instead people are pushing them out to earn money in any possible way. Yet the system itself makes it hard for them to get a fair wage or even to be employed in a formal job. So they end up in poorly paid, informal arrangements where they have no rights as either workers or as women. Worst case, they end up as prostitutes, domestics, or slaves.

So, it’s not always a question of their getting out and working against familial and social resistance. Sometimes it is a matter of continuing in school against family objections or refusing to marry or something like that. What motivates them to step out of whatever path has been prescribed? Sometimes they are not motivated. Often, they are afraid to break out, are terrified even to admit to themselves that there is a problem.

When they are motivated to change, I think they are often propelled by the same things that motivate women everywhere: the desire to breathe free and the hope that they can provide a better life for their children. When that sense of motivation is present, any small gesture of assistance will be used by that woman to the greatest possible advantage. For this reason, helping women has been shown to have enormous leverage. The yield can be a better life for her, but the long term payoff is in healthier, happier, better-educated children to build the future. This is why it is in everyone’s best interest to help the women of the world toward dignity and autonomy.

How did you start to get involved with the women empowerment work you do?

Canadian in Oxford

Linda: I had just published Fresh Lipstick before moving to Oxford. I felt I had learned a lot from doing the research on that book, about the ways that the modern economy had benefited women. I wanted to take advantage of being in Oxford by “globalising” my perspective. I had a theory that some of the market innovations of the 19th century in America could be used to help women in poor nations.

I was especially interested in Africa. I contacted Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon, and asked her if I could study Avon’s operation in Africa - because I knew Avon and similar companies had been hugely beneficial to women in early industrialising America. Well, she said yes! Then I managed to persuade my research partner, Catherine Dolan, to do the work with me. We approached the Economics and Social Science Research Council in partnership with the department for international development, to ask for a grant for the study. We were successful in the request and that work began a fruitful collaboration that has stretched to cover many projects. I feel blessed with this good fortune.

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