woman holds Nike shoe
Nike’s track record on worker’s rights raises the question as to whether the Girl Effect is a “brand-led movement” or a movement to re-brand Nike. (Fastcompany.com)

November 21, 2015

Nike’s Girl Effect and the Privatization of Feminism

by Megan Tobias Neely, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the WPS Editorial Committee. Her current research is on gender and work in the financial services industry. She can be reached at mtneely@utexas.edu.

This commentary is a response to Maria Hengeveld’s paper, “Girl Branded: Nike, the UN and the Construction of the Entrepreneurial Adolescent Girl Subject.”

In 2009, Nike launched the Girl Effect, a “brand-led movement” targeting the alleviation of poverty among girls worldwide. The initiative advocates for investing in adolescent girls to create future workers and stimulate economic growth. For those who associate the Nike brand with anti-sweatshop movement protests over labor standards the Girl Effect may seem counterintuitive. Indeed, Nike moved to eliminate child labor in its factories only fifteen years ago, and the poor working conditions at Nike factories remain a concern for activists today.

Activists here at UT-Austin have taken up this issue. Our chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops demands the university to rethink its $250 million dollar contract with Nike. Last April, former Nike worker and worker’s rights activist Noi Supalai spoke on campus. She described how in Thailand—where women constitute a majority of garment workers—workers face unrealistic expectations for production, round-the-clock schedules, months of back wages, and little time to care for their families. Supalai led a worker’s union to negotiate improved conditions; however, Nike never responded to their requests.

Nike’s track record on worker’s rights raises the question as to whether the Girl Effect is a “brand-led movement” or a movement to re-brand Nike. In the winning paper for the 2015 Audre Rapoport PrizeMaria Hengeveld astutely argues that the Girl Effect only serves to legitimize Nike’s reputation and image by obscuring its own role in creating poverty while it rebrands itself as a proponent of human rights and gender equality. Hengeveld calls attention to how the campaign suggests simplistic solutions to alleviate poverty in the Global South that fail to consider how companies like Nike contribute to creating a global economy that exacerbates poverty among women and girls. By blaming gender inequality on the girl’s communities and placing the burden of alleviating inequality on the girls themselves, Nike does not offer viable solutions to patriarchy, explains Hengeveld.

The problem with Nike’s approach to girls’ empowerment, according to Hengeveld, stems from its neoliberal ideology that places the market as the appropriate avenue for promoting liberty, opportunity, and equality. Although the Girl Effect may have positive outcomes for individual girls, Hengeveld demonstrates how campaigns like Nike’s do little to alleviate poverty among women, because the employment available to them is low-paid and insecure.

Scholars like Radhika Balakrishnan and Jason Hickel, who spoke at the Rapoport Center’s recent Inequality & Human Rights conference, echo Hengeveld’s concerns. Balakrishnan has argued that women’s empowerment in the workforce cannot be achieved without improving conditions for laborers generally. Hickel (2014) too has examined the contradictions of the Girl Effect in which “women and girls are made to bear the responsibility for boot-strapping themselves out of poverty that is caused in part by the very institutions that purport to save them” (p. 1355).

Indeed, Hengeveld explains how Nike’s corporate agenda contributes to a neoliberal system that exacerbates poverty and inequality worldwide, with disastrous consequences for both women and men. An in-depth investigation of these consequences is the next step in Hengeveld’s research: Earlier this year, she interviewed 25 women who work for Nike in Vietnam about the factory and living conditions they face.

The solution to improving these conditions, according to Hengeveld, does not lie in resolving inequality between men and women workers in the Global South but in changing a neoliberal system that rests upon the disenfranchisement of the poor. As Hengeveld contends, “in practice, equalizing the labor standards, market access and wages of women in Nike’s factories with their male counterparts will hardly be emancipatory or liberating if male workers are not protected by decent job protections, collective bargaining rights and living wages” (p. 12).

While I agree with Hengeveld, I fear that campaigns to improve labor standards overall will not necessarily empower women unless addressing gender inequality is a central goal. Garment work is devalued precisely because it has been deemed “women’s work,” which is crucial to understanding the shortcomings of Nike’s gender campaign. Moreover, as Joan Acker (2004) argues, “gender is embedded in the structuring and ongoing practices of globalizing capitalism” (p. 23). Thus, finding a solution requires an analysis of how gender structures the exploitation of these workers in the first place. In particular, an intersectional lens can shed light on how garment work is gendered, racialized, and nationalized.

For example, in 2013, the deplorable conditions of garment workers came to the world’s attention when a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,138 workers and injuring 2,500 others. Yet mainstream media coverage of the disaster paid little attention to the fact that women comprise 80 percent of Bangladeshi garment workers, who face precarious working conditions and unsustainably low pay.

In fact, women compose a majority of garment workers throughout the Global South and are at the frontlines demanding change. Ethnographers Leslie Salzinger (2003) and Melissa Wright (2006) demonstrate how corporations portray these women’s labor as pliable, temporary, and surplus to devalue it in the pursuit of capitalist profit. Thus, gender, race, and poverty are deeply connected in global capitalism.

Yet, liberal feminists maintain that employment will liberate women by providing them with more bargaining power in their families and communities. Nike’s Girl Effect is part of a resurgence of neoliberal feminism (also called transnational business feminism), which contends that the best avenue for women’s empowerment is through the private sector. This movement has gone global through campaigns led by U.N. Women, the World Bank, and the IMF to promote economic opportunities for women.

Socialist and women of color feminists, however, have long contended that greater participation in paid employment does not liberate women, because capitalism has been contingent on the exploitation of women of color and low-income white women (see HartmanHooksDavis, and Nakano Glenn). Transnational feminist scholars like Esther Chow and Aihwa Ong pioneered intersectional scholarship on global capitalism, identifying how it constructs hierarchies according to nationality, race, class, and gender that perpetuate inequality.

While paid labor may, to an extent, improve some women’s status in society, it may also subject them to precarious and risky working conditions inextricably tied to their position as women of color in the Global South. Moreover, it is the devaluation of women’s labor that makes the profits of corporations like Nike possible. How might recognizing this lead to more effective campaigns to empower women in this neoliberal era?

Project & Publications Type: Human Rights Commentary