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Opinion: How to ensure 'gender lens' investing truly empowers women

Jacolene Otto gender lens investingJacolene Otto, head of private equity and real estate at global advisory and family office firm Maitland, argues that firms’ approach to gender lens investing needs to be both quantitative and qualitative to achieve real impact.

As we look towards making more sustainable investment and business decisions, the importance of integrating environmental, social and governance factors (ESG) into our decisions is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Most investors and corporates are now taking into account the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) as one of the guiding principles for sustainable development.

One of the 17 SDGs that has come to the fore as a niche area of investment over the past 10 years is SDG-5 – to “Achieve Gender Equality and Empower all Women and Girls”. We are seeing several governments committing to female empowerment. But as with all the SDGs, the private sector needs to commit capital as governments cannot go it alone.

Over the past couple of years, the commitment to empowering women has gained more traction with the #MeToo movement, the high rates of violence against women – according to the UN, one in three women have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime since the age of 15 – and the lack of women in leadership positions.

This has led to gender lens investing (GLI) which, in short, is investing undertaken with gender concerns as an important, or even the lead factor, in the decision-making process. GLI is, therefore, the practice of investing for both financial return as well as considering the benefits of the investment to women and girls.

What GLI looks like in practice

Although there is guidance in the form of impact investor CDC Group’s Gender-Smart investing ‘toolkit’, which assists firms in developing their GLI strategy or the 2X Challenge, an industry initiative to mobilise capital to women, what does GLI look like in practice? How are firms actually achieving true impact on women through their investments?

What I have explored in my research and conversations is quantifying the issue. For example, most firms see GLI as:

  • Our portfolio companies’ workforces are made up of more than 50% females;
  • We have majority women on our board and/or in leadership positions;
  • Our investments are majority-owned by women;
  • The products that our portfolio companies sell are mainly female-orientated;
  • The women in our company are paid equal to men.

Incorporating qualitative measures

Although this is all positive, giving women access to the market and meeting the brief of GLI, I keep wondering if it is enough. Is this really going to result in change? And, if not, then maybe the qualitative aspects also need to be explored. 

Some of the interesting qualitative insights I found to ensure meaningful investment are:

  • A correlation between the levels of violence against women and the stability of a country. According to the Criterion Institute’s Political Risk – Investment Approaches Roadmap, the level of violence against women is a better indicator/predictor of peace, compliance with the country’s laws and regulations, and relations with neighbouring countries than for measuring the wealth or democracy of a country, for example. Yet the measurement of political risk, which drives investment decisions, does not take into account violence against women.
  • Gender-balanced investment teams generate 10% to 20% higher returns in private equity and venture capital firms, according to the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank group. This points to the importance of the investment manager not just ensuring that the underlying investment portfolio is gender focused, but also that its own practices ensure advancement, training and guidance for women.
  • The need to adapt the investment due diligence process to specifically include a gender perspective – how women are treated in the organisation, the gender pay gap, female unemployment in the surrounding community – and to develop a strategy on how investment into the portfolio could potentially have an impact on this.

So, although there are positive developments, for GLI to be effective and truly have an impact it should be about more than just female ownership, the number of board seats held by females or the number of women in the workforce. 

In essence, are investments truly empowering women in communities and helping to drive change? I would argue that both qualitative and quantitative measures need to be considered.

Jacolene Otto is head of private equity and real estate at global advisory Maitland

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