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Gender lens investing (GLI) is “an investing approach that deliberately incorporates a desire to make a difference in the lives of women and girls, while meeting the risk/return objectives appropriate for an institutional portfolio.” The Criterion Institute and Jackie VanderBrug, Managing Director of Global Wealth Management at Bank of America, developed a comprehensive gender lens investing framework, defining, disaggregating, and evaluating the ways in which various investments can benefit and empower women.
Overall, GLI can include, but is not limited to, investments along the following three pillars: (i) Increasing access to capital for women, (ii) workplace equity for women, (iii) products and services for women.
In development contexts, women are often considered to be a singular unified cohort that can be grouped together and served based solely on their gender. However, women are not a monolith. This overly simplistic classification interferes with the development community’s ability to serve the most vulnerable populations of women. Intersectionality broadens the concept of “women” and brings visibility to women with differential identities.
Because different groups have different needs, one must pay explicit attention to, and create, programs and solutions focused on different categorizations of women. Such solutions and programs may include, but are not limited to: race, ethnicity, income level, food security, income security, education level, location, financial literacy, access to information, land ownership and access, number of children and/or dependents in the household, disease burden, and marital status. Accounting for these factors would create a truly intersectional and impactful venture fund that does not overlook or exclude women with varying degrees of vulnerability.
How do we best address intersectionality to ensure the three above-mentioned pillars of GLI are inclusive?
At the US Chamber of Commerce’s International Women’s Day Forum, Jamie Sears, Executive Director of Americas UBS Community Affairs & Corporate Responsibility, spoke about the “myth of meritocracy in the entrepreneur space” and how “discrimination is structural and persistent.” According to the World Bank, 70% of formal women-owned small- and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries are either excluded by financial institutions or are unable to access financial services that meet their needs, resulting in a $287 billion gender funding gap annually. As investors rethink their impact and more purposefully direct capital flows, they have the opportunity to work with development actors to promote not only economic change and empowerment, but also the ability to address the accompanying shifts in attitudes, policies, and practices required to result in sustainable system change.
Understanding how value chains are embedded in the social context that defines differential roles, opportunities, and barriers to success is essential to maximize efficiency, productivity, and profitability. Gender-blind and need-blind investments risk exacerbating gender inequities, failing to identify opportunities for economic growth, and widening the looming gender funding gap and gender agricultural productivity gap, which stands at an estimated 30% in Malawi. A purposeful focus on gender and other intersectional dynamics sheds light on the otherwise invisible relative disadvantages that all kinds of women face and can inform investment strategies in new or improved value chains.
Similarly, many development actors focus on microfinance as the silver bullet to women’s economic empowerment. However, by focusing on microfinance within spheres already in women’s limited areas of control (ie, market vending, textiles, etc), it is easy to overlook the root causes of inequities and not address larger systems built on patriarchal norms – such as politics, health care, and education – that exploit women and perpetuate their lack of adequate representation.
Further up the value chain, we see a growing body of evidence has linked gender diversity to measures of better performance, including return on invested capital (ROIC), return on equity (ROE), and ROE volatility. While this evidence highlights ROI for women’s representation and the damaging nature of gender-blind investments, more research is needed to parse out the different identities of women, such as women of color, women of varying income levels, LGBT people, and women living in the Global South.
Very few companies directly address the needs of women, let alone the needs of women in the Global South. Jackie VanderBrug draws attention to the need for products that address the challenges that women face and how innovation has been gender-blind in many ways to date. In agriculture, for example, technology is “necessarily filtered through the gendered patterns of agricultural labour, household enterprises, family food consumption decisions and social structures.”
According to the SPRING Accelerator Investor Toolkit, “girls and young women do not need to be the direct end users to be impacted by a business’s products and services.” Investors can focus on ecosystems and specific industries, such as EdTech, that benefit and accelerate the success of women.
If the work of the Foundation and the work of the development community is to address the needs of the most marginalized peoples, we must strive to define inclusion beyond gender. While women continue to be underserved and underutilized along the value chain, we have the ability to think deeper and to address the many layered issues that the most marginalized women in the world face.
The Agricultural Transformation Initiative’s (ATI) Investment Support Facility (ISF) in Malawi is focused on integrating smallholders into investor-grade transactions. All transactions in the pipeline must include women in a substantial way, integrate significant numbers of smallholder farmers into their business models, and demonstrate meaningful income and productivity increases for smallholders. We seek to answer the question: What does it mean to truly and materially integrate and include all women?
If you have ideas for helping to ensure the ISF is an intersectional investment fund, please comment below! We are always looking for new ideas to ensure we support the most vulnerable communities in Malawi and are eager to have you be part of the conversation.
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