Jaana Rehnström: Bigger Not Always Better, Especially for Women

Dr. Jaana Rehnström, Founder and President of the Kota Alliance, an organization fostering international collaboration for women-centered nonprofits, recently authored an article that struck a deep chord with me. Readers here at Philanthropy Women will also likely feel a strong resonance with Dr. Rehnström’s words.

Dr. Rehnström begins by summarizing the current status of gender equality in the world:

Dr. Jaana Rehnström, Founder and President of the Kota Alliance, discusses the need for funders to step up for women and girls if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. (Image Credit: Kota Alliance)

Gender equality has been talked about in Europe and the United States since the late 1800s. The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress in 1972, falling short of state ratifications by the original deadline. The CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) was adopted in 1979. The 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and SDG #5 commits governments to take measures to comply by 2030.

The UN has recognized the intersectionality of the SDG’s, and stated none of the other 17 goals can be fully achieved without achieving gender equality. Conversely, gender equality also depends on the realization of the other goals, in particular racial and economic equity and reproductive health.

She then discusses how women currently figure into the economy, and why women continue to be marginalized economically and socially. This marginalization continues, despite the fact that when women have economic security, the health status of the entire family improves, a statistic that is true across all societies:

Women entrepreneurship is central to economic equity for women. With economic security, the nutritional, educational, and health status of the entire family improves, in every society. There are differences in the types of businesses men and women engage in, however. Globally, women tend to establish companies in the retail and service sectors more frequently than men. They’re also more likely to start businesses with social impact.

In Europe, men make 93% of investments in technology companies. Also, people start companies based on what they know or master – the higher the educational level, the higher the financial returns. In societies where women’s educational attainment is lower than men’s, their companies will be more likely to be small-scale.

Women investors make up only 26% of investors overall. Investors (and their advisors) are mostly white men, who may find it easier to believe in the endeavors of people who look and think like them. Even women investors do not unequivocally support women entrepreneurs. Most of the investment sector, excluding social impact investors, are set on quick returns, which is much more likely in the tech sector as compared to the service or social impact sector.

How Capitalism Thwarts and Distorts the Economy

Dr. Rehnström deftly connects the international status of women economically to the ideas of capitalism that keep our energies constrained to the primary goal of producing more shareholder income:

Indeed, our capitalist mindset is programmed to think bigger is always better, but today we still over-consume, and our values need to change – only the social impact sector needs to grow.

She speaks of her own personal experience as a former physician in private practice, providing her own experience, and that of others like her, as a prime example of the value of maintaining smaller businesses which build their effectiveness on a low-risk, low-hassle model of employment and service or product provision.

I would maintain that small scale is not necessarily a negative, and not all small-scale business needs to scale up. If a woman can attain a comfortable income through her small company (hairdresser, caterer, psychotherapist, web designer – or in my own case, formerly a doctor in private practice), she may prefer not to scale up in order to avoid the risk, hassle, additional responsibilities and time of dealing with employees, perhaps remaining free to pursue other interests or manage more time with her family?

The Need to Fund With A Gender Lens

Regarding funding for all aspects of gender equality movements — from women’s health and reproductive rights to the wage gap to gender-based violence and everything in between, Dr. Rehnström says what is already so obvious to those paying attention:

There is still not enough of this work done in any country in the world. Do we really still need to convince anyone about the value of civil society organizations battling these issues? Small and startup organizations often have an innovative idea and a special heretofore unfilled niche, but the smaller the organization, the less capacity they will have to monitor, evaluate and report.

Funders need to provide extra money for these tasks, as well as instruction and mentoring so organizations can learn how to improve their programs and become more effective. So, whether you are an investor or foundation funder, supporting and investing in women-owned businesses and nonprofits is of utmost importance.

Sharing Power and Changing the Economy Requires Patience

In closing, Dr. Rehnström calls for patience — a key attribute for human kindness and steadfastness in relationships:

The results will materialize, and benefits will be seen not just for women but for society as a whole. But patience is key.

The problem with patience is that it is counter-capitalist. The “bigger is better” mentality also tends to assert that “faster is better” and that successful things have to happen at a certain pace. I am reminded of a donor I know of who, when choosing to no longer fund a women’s startup enterprise, quoted business guru Jack Welch’s motto that an idea only has potential for so long, with the implication that this woman’s startup was an idea that no longer had potential. That was about a year before her startup went through its largest growth spurt ever and began to trend toward long-term sustainability. But that donor had already lost patience and was ready to offload this grantee for lack of potential.

What Does this Mean for Funding Women and Girls in 2021?

We now know how much of U.S. philanthropy is specifically done with a gender lens as of 2017: about 1.6%. So what needs to happen to get us beyond being such a tiny fraction of interest to donors?

I believe we are now beginning to set our expectations in the United States for sharing power across income classes and making real gains for social justice. Here are some recommendations for how to take the agenda further in terms of funding women and girls.

1. Tax the Rich

Many experts have said it, but we’re going to say it again: tax the rich. We need to close the loopholes that allow billionaires to roam around the world evading taxes. As Oxfam says in this report, and I wholeheartedly concur, we must find a way to introduce a global wealth tax on billionaires that will be used to help finance the SDGs, all 17 of which are tied to continuing to make strides for gender equality.

2. Stand Up to Bullies

Bullies come in many forms. One might say that many were bullied into silence about Donald Trump until he was so extreme in his behavior that he endangered the lives of our entire country’s leadership at the Capitol by inciting violence there on January 6, 2021. On January 9, 2021, just three days later, all manner of corporations, nonprofits, media organizations, and leaders were suddenly vocalizing their negative feelings about Donald Trump and taking action to shut down his dangerous speech.

We need to do something similar in the philanthropy community. We need to stand up and say what we believe is unacceptable. For example, I received an email recently from a PR professional representing the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. They wanted to tell me about a new initiative of CZI — $1.3 million in new funding for young men and boys of color. I wrote back thanking them for the information and asking them if there was a similar or perhaps even larger effort being funding for young women and girls of color, since we would like to announce about that.

For me, this is a small but important new way that I am standing up for what I believe in as I communicate with powerful constituencies in philanthropy. Maybe they will listen to me, maybe they won’t. But the point is that I am no longer going to accept the status quo of putting women and girls in the “not as important” category in philanthropy. If you have examples for how you are going to fight the bullying effects of capitalism or patriarchy in your life, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

3. Encourage Anti-Capitalist Business Models

This comes back to Dr. Rehnström’s point that not every business needs to keep growing until it becomes a huge conglomerate. We need to open up to other models of economic growth including those that have strong social sector benefits. For example, business models that prioritize environmental sustainability should have more ways to integrate into the economy, with tax rebates and other forms of receiving financial distributions to compensate for their social good. Business models that prioritize both environmental sustainability and gender equality should be given even more support to integrate and be successful in the exchange of goods and services.

We also need to allow employees to participate in company governance and receive a fair share of the proceeds for their labor. Right now, models like Amazon are reducing wages and benefits in striking ways, and we need a government response that discourages stripping these jobs and encourages safe and sustainable workplaces and fair wages to build back the middle class.

Link to Dr. Jaana Rehnström‘s original essay on Conversations.

More information on Dr. Jaana Rehnström and the Kota Alliance, can be found here.


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About Philanthropy Women

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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