Africa: Opinion - We Must Invest Differently to Support Women and Girls

UN Women image for International Women's Day in 2020.
opinion

Many of the structural issues at the root of gender inequality are locked in and magnified by our current financial system

Around International Women's Day, when our aspirations focus on its theme of a "more equal and more enabled future", an unsettling reality lurks just under the surface.

The truth is, despite our best intentions, many of us are unknowingly perpetuating - and even exacerbating - global gender inequality in perhaps the most influential way of all: our financial investments.

But simple action by anyone with a retirement or a savings account can make a difference.

It is true that we can rejoice in some fundamental progress made toward the more equitable world. Recent United Nations (U.N.) data, for example, indicate that fewer girls are forced into early marriage, and laws are slowly being reformed with an eye toward equality.

Yet, unsurprisingly, those same data make clear that tremendous gaps remain.

Worse still, many of the structural issues at the root of gender inequality are locked in and magnified by our current financial system.

Female entrepreneurs receive dramatically less investment compared to their male counterparts. Women represent 39% of the global workforce but only 27% of managerial positions, according to the U.N., and are still paid about 20 cents less on the dollar than men.

Those disparities become a self-reinforcing feedback loop in the status quo financial system.

If we want to move closer to an 'equal and enabled' future, one of the most effective paths is changing the way we invest our money.

In this new decade, we are beginning to see signs that people are taking that fresh approach and using their investment dollars to push for a more equitable world.

'Gender lens investing' is an investment practice with a critical focus: promoting gender equality.

Traditionally, this type of investment has provided funding support directly to women-owned businesses or financed enterprises that offer products or services which improve the lives of women and girls. Such investments drive progress in a direct and explicit way.

But increasingly, gender lens investing is - as the name suggests - equally understood as a lens though which conscientious investors can assess the gender equality implications for any investment opportunity.

That lens can be applied whether or not the underlying investment is specifically 'women-focused.' From that holistic vantage point, investors can see that all financial investments have a ripple effect of broad impacts far beyond their financial return - and some of those impacts make a world of difference for women and girls.

Use of the gender lens already has traction among investors intentionally seeking an environmental or social benefit alongside their financial return.

The latest Global Impact Investing Network survey shows that six in 10 impact investors now make 'Diversity and Inclusion' - including gender and racial equity - one of their impact goals.

Despite this progress, we still need far more investment capital in this space and all of us can be demanding higher standards to deepen our impact.

Hard evidence is increasingly on our side. In 2018, Boston Consulting Group, the consultant, studied 350 early stage companies and discovered that "businesses founded by women ultimately deliver higher revenue - more than twice as much per dollar invested - than those founded by men."

Similar research finds that diverse leadership teams boost innovation.

But right now, the mainstream investing community's focus on gender equality is not always ambitious enough.

Too many approaches seem to be little more than a nod toward tokenism, when a more holistic view is needed. Far more egregious, though, are firms that avoid the issue altogether. Silence about how our investments impact women and girls is simply no longer an option.

In 2020 we can do better and expect more.

All of us with savings and retirement accounts must consider the range of impacts that our investments produce. Ask your financial advisor about how their firm approaches investing with an eye toward gender. If the firm is not presently considering it, join this movement and demand a change. If the standards are weak, demand better.

The women and girls of our world deserve it - and many of them need it urgently.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Giselle Leung is managing director at the Global Impact Investing Network

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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