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Practice Talk: “Innovation” and Corporate Uses of Feminism

April 28, 2017

This Tuesday from noon until 1pm, Matt Wisnioski will be presenting a practice talk “Power Tools: Empowerment, Innovation, and the Corporate Use of Feminist Values” for an upcoming presentation at the workshop Techniques of the Corporation (


Empowerment and empathy have become staple virtues of corporate mission statements and strategy. Facebook’s first tenet is “empowering people,” and the company offers users Reaction emojis to “show empathy toward one another.” The design firm IDEO describes empathy as an essential part of its human-centered design toolkit. Recently, columnist Thomas Friedman has argued that the next economic frontier will be “STEMpathy” jobs. From where did this emphasis originate? And, what does it reveal about the evolving meanings of innovation and innovators?

This talk explores how key tenets of today’s corporate best practices emerged in the intersection of feminist theory and novel forms of innovation expertise in the 1970s and 1980s. I anchor the analysis in the work and life of Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Kanter began her career as a sociologist of alternative communes and did pioneering work on the concept of “tokenism” in organizations. In the 1980s, she applied feminist analyses of power to become a leading innovation consultant through her company GoodMeasure, Inc. as well as the first woman editor of the Harvard Business Review. In her book The Change Masters, Kanter argued that successful innovative companies were those that created the most equitable cultures. She offered a widely copied set of “power tools” to enhance the decision-making of individuals and the innovative capacity of companies.

I place Kanter’s work on empowerment and empathy in the broader history of gender and capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to investigate how ideas honed in progressive social movements were appropriated, operationalized, and distributed in corporate environments. I also explore the contradictions of “feminist” values in a tech-economy that in demography and in culture remains dominantly male and masculine. Ultimately, I hope to understand the complex and understudied role of gender in visions of innovation.