A lot of people assume that investing with a gender lens means investing in the companies that already “get it”: companies with a female founder or strong representation of women in leadership, companies serving women customers or creating products and services that address entrenched gender roles, or companies that are already addressing gender imbalances in their employment, marketing, and supply chains.
But gender lens investors also have an important role to play in helping companies that aren’t there yet on gender to transition and improve. For one, there are a lot more of them out there — and if we really want to change the way that business is done, we need every company to do better on gender equity. Yes, we need to direct capital to the companies that are excelling on gender equality and creating transformative change. But if we want to create a more just and equal world, we have to work with the ones that don’t yet “get it” too.
On this, we can learn from the climate movement, where investors have used their capital not just to develop new technologies in sectors like plastics, renewable energy, and electric cars, but to help big carbon emitters transition to meet a low carbon future. They do this because they understand that it is not enough to create new energy efficient buildings if the old stock is inefficient, or to put more electric cars on the road without getting rid of the old ones. If we want to lower emissions sufficiently to stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis, we need every business to be good on climate.
The same is true when it comes to gender equity. If we want to build a more gender equal world, gender lens investors need to spread our efforts across the full range of companies, rather than focusing solely on the businesses that are already leading the way.
This process is often easier in corporations, which are more likely to have the financial stability and governance structures to support an internal transition on gender equity. But it is equally relevant in small, medium, and emerging companies as it is in publicly listed ones. It’s also relevant to the funds you invest in, which can be encouraged to bring gender into their investment analysis.
Whatever the size of the businesses and funds you’re investing in, in order to make this transition work, you need a certain set of ingredients. The first is commitment. Both investors and investees need to understand what it means to build a company that is committed to gender equality, and they need to really buy in. If the commitment is hollow, it’s not going to work long term.
The second is leadership: you need people in the company who are willing to take a stand and change the way they do business, and who have the power and influence in the organization to bring others with them. The third is capacity: do they have the time, the knowledge, the insights, and the skill to change what they’re doing? Those skills can often be brought in, but they have to be there.
Finally, there has to be an incentive to change that runs all the way from the top of the company through all levels of staff. For early stage companies especially, the pressure to hit growth and revenue targets is often a matter of survival, and the reality is that some of the changes required to build gender equality into a business may not have an immediate positive impact on those indicators. In order for gender equality to remain at the top of the agenda, both investors and investees need to be clear about how it fits into the longer term goals of the business. There is also a need to look at incentives within the company itself: what metrics are employees being told to measure their success against?
Once you have these things in place, your role as an investor is to help the companies you’re invested in down that pathway. Here are some ways you can do that:
- Ask companies in your existing portfolio to do an analysis of where they are on gender equality across all dimensions of the business: from leadership, to staffing, to supply chains, to marketing, to policies and procedures. This communicates to investees that gender is important to you, and incentivises them to move up the ladder and get better.
- Offer technical assistance to help cover costs like research, staff time, and external consultants.
- Open up your networks. Introduce your investee companies to potential board members, consultants, and other gender- and diversity-aligned investors.
- Hold the companies you invest in accountable, by asking them to report on agreed gender metrics quarterly or monthly. What gets measured, gets done.
- Connect your investees to resources designed to help companies evaluate and improve their gender performance. The GenderSmart website is full of tools and roadmaps to help companies and investors up their game, organized by region, sector, investment theme, and asset class.
- Celebrate success. Tell the story, reward the team for goals achieved, and celebrate the business impact.
The time to start is now. As UBS Chief Economist Paul Donovan recently noted at the UBS Global Family Office conference, most companies are currently in a state of transition anyway: whether that’s due to climate change, COVID-19, the digital revolution, or all three. This type of transition is no small thing for businesses. Often, it requires a total overhaul of the way you think and how you do things.
If we know that gender and diversity is the next big transition (and some would say it’s already here), why wouldn’t you incorporate it into the transitions you’re already pursuing, rather than transforming your business from top to bottom on climate or digital, and then having to rethink everything again in just a few years. Why would you want to do it twice?
The reality is that demographics are shifting, and they are influencing everything from how talent decides who to work for, to what customers choose to buy, to who holds the wealth and capital that fuels growth.
For the leaders on these issues, there will be long term growth and financial opportunity. And those who lag behind will suffer the downside of not getting it right.