Abstract: Diversity as a Business Strategy, or How Liberal Feminism Saved American Capitalism in the Late Twentieth Century

Susan Yohn


This paper analyzes the relationship that developed between feminists and American corporate culture in the latter part of the twentieth century when anti-discrimination legislation and a need to diversify their employee profile led to collaborations between feminist activists/organizations and corporate employers. Motivated initially in the 1960s by a need to comply with new equal opportunity legislation and responding to changing demographics, corporations moved to hire and promote larger numbers of women and minorities. To address these new demands they turned to groups like Catalyst Inc., founded in 1962 to promote flexible work patterns for women who sought to balance work and family. Corporations contracted with organizations promoting gender diversity, like Catalyst, to initiate programs that would educate them about the barriers facing women employees and to help them increase and retain the number of women they employed. An examination of the process and results of this feminist "re-education" of corporate leaders suggests that corporate culture began this process chafing at having to comply with equal employment demands but by the 1990s had embraced affirmative action initiatives, albeit in a modified form and "re-branded" as "diversity," as critical to their business "bottom line." The growing number of women participating in the labor force coincided with economic expansion, increased productivity, and growing profits. Rather than standing outside or in conflict with corporate culture, liberal feminist ideas about work were increasingly voiced by corporate leaders as the two groups reconciled what had been seen earlier as competing cultural values.