Feminism's brand is losing its luster.
According to a recent poll by Refinery29, more than half of all millennial women say they don't identify as feminists. Why? They feel the movement has been taken over by activists and turned into something that's more about making men inferior to women. They say that it focuses too much on nitpicking the tiniest politically incorrect commentary instead of empowering women to be their best selves.
Clearly, if the soon-to-be largest generation cannot identify with the feminist label as it is understood today, then something needs to change.
Feminism that works
There are two ways to think about feminism: perception and action.
It's the difference between feminism the brand and feminism the reality. How we perceive ourselves to be and what we actually do.
For example, J Crew recently partnered with Prinkshop on a series of boys' T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "I am a feminist too." The shirts were a massive hit, sold out immediately and garnered wide applause. But some customers objected to the idea of using kids as political billboards, and still others turned on the brand based on Prinkshop's pro-choice stance on abortion.
It was a brand exercise and a conversation starter, not a real catalyst for change.
On the flipside, consider what Meika Hollender, founder and CEO of Sustain Natural, has accomplished by just being herself. Sustain Natural is a women-focused sexual health company and Meika, as a passionate and outspoken advocate for reproductive issues, has injected her personal beliefs into everything the company does, from its product range, to its messaging ("Think with your vagina" is a tagline), to the fact that Meika participates personally in activism and campaigns in Washington for women's rights. Her company also gives 10 percent of its profits to women's healthcare organizations and sources fair-trade latex and organic cotton for its products, with an eye toward environmental sustainability.
She has conviction. She shows up. And her actions drive her brand.
Here are some concrete steps that brands can take to embrace and promote this new kind of action-driven feminism.
Bring men into the conversation: Starting with our own workplaces, we must create the kind of environment where women can thrive and succeed. This means addressing everything from pay equality, to equal achievement, to support for working mothers. Empower male employees to be part of the solution for making this happen.
Support, don't compete: In our everyday interactions with girls and women, uplift and support rather than compete and judge. Create a ripple effect within your circles by mentoring the next generation and driving unity and change through togetherness and leadership.
Embrace the momentum: Get behind organizations that are working to fundamentally improve the quality of life for women. There are many to choose from, but I've recently been moved by V-Day, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls, started by Eve Ensler, creator of "The Vagina Monologues." We have to capture the momentum of #MeToo and the Women's March to fight for human rights and equality for all, especially marginalized communities like trans women and women of color.
It's not all about ROI: The women's suffrage movement didn't happen overnight, and this new kind of feminism won't either. This is not a seasonal campaign, but calls for a complete commitment over time. This requires a different kind of investment, which is incongruous to most marketing initiatives and can be challenging for many companies to support. It's about investing the time, not focusing on returns.
As the suffragette motto goes, "Deeds Not Words." Talking about a problem can help inspire change, but only action can make change happen in the real world.
It's time to move past perceptions and focus more on actions.
Ultimately, in order to earn any right to these ideals, brands need to make feminism a value rather than simply a badge. We need to uphold the tenets of feminism within our brands and businesses, empowering support, consistency and fairness every day and encourage all employees to do the same.
Feminism at its core is about equality, and by focusing on action today we can help create that equality for all women. Now that's a brand I can get behind.