Logan Yonavjak

Peering Through a Gender Lens at SOCAP12

I was invited to join a fascinating conversation at SOCAP12 about Gender Lens investing. Criterion Institute, one of the main organizations driving the conversation, describes a “Gender Lens “as a viewfinder that reveals opportunities for the world of investing with a focus on women and girls. The goal of Gender Lens investing is to drive increased investing and return through the implementation of a Gender Lens.

I joined a team of 30-plus men and women Gender Lens ambassadors, armed with talking points by two of the main leaders of the conversation, Jackie VanderBrug (formerly with Criterion Institute) and Suzanne Biegel (Catalyst at Large Consulting and an active angel investor). Although several specific workshops and presentations at SOCAP12 (see VanderBrug’s presentation from SOCAP12 here) were focused on this issue, our task was to attend sessions, interact with attendees, and infuse the dialogue of the entire conference with this gender lens perspective. Suzanne brought an additional component to the conversation with an emphasis on the “Women Effect” of developing a larger base of engaged women impact investors, advisors, and board members.

Emphasis on the “Lens”

One critical item to note is the concept of a Gender Lens, not a screen. It’s important to clarify that looking through a Gender Lens does not mean that men are excluded from the equation; it’s more like an expansion of opportunity. Seeing through a Gender Lens is like peering through a set of glasses.

“Through one lens, you are seeing participation, needs, realities and leadership of men, and through the other, you are seeing the same thing for women,” VanderBrug said. “To be most effective, all of these issues need to be taken into account.”

There proposition is that there are three main Gender Lenses that can be applied in investing. “In analyzing investment decisions, these lenses to begin to assess the impact – positive, negative, or none at all – that potential investments have on women and girls,” said VanderBrug. Many business models will touch on all three of these lenses, while others may only incorporate one. They are:

  • Gender equity in the workplace

  • Access to capital for women

  • Products and services that benefit the lives of women and girls

Criterion Institute created a map that reveals some of the gender lens activity opportunities in this space. Some of the opportunities include the Calvert Foundation’s win-win senior debt notes and Golden Seed’s fund investing in women high growth entrepreneurs. There are many more.

How companies and investors are applying these three Lenses

At a meta level, peering through a Gender Lens is about being aware of gender imbalances within investment organizations and companies and then aiming to remove any barriers. For example, literacy was touted as a barrier for employment in the solar industry in Uganda. However, one organization, Barefoot College, recognized that women did not actually have to be literate to be productive employees. They began exploring training opportunities for illiterate women and subsequently getting them placed into the solar workforce.

Companies and investors also can examine opportunities along their entire value chain, from the board of directors to organizational policies and practices to a company’s product and service supply chain. A Gender Lens, for example, might enable a bank to serve more customers by identifying and then addressing the different needs of their male and female customers.

Engaging women as capital providers is another important component of this initiative. J.P. Morgan’s social finance team is in the beginning stages of thinking about how to apply a Gender Lens to their investments. “Our Social Finance team is always searching for the highest quality investments worldwide – from both a social and financial perspective. We have no doubt that the focus in the market on gender-lens investments will provide us with increasing opportunities for consideration,” says Yasemin Saltuk, Director of Research for J.P. Morgan’s Social Finance unit.

How Can We Quantify the Impacts of Applying a Gender Lens?

There are already some pretty staggering statistics to show the positive social impacts of investing in women. For instance, studies show that women reinvest 90 percent of earned income into their families, compared to only 30-40 percent for men. The share of assets held by women has a positive effect on spending on education, and reduces the effects of expenditures on alcohol, tobacco and recreation.

Data continues to demonstrate that there are extensive ripple effects for economies and for battling hunger by investing in women. However, a lot of this data is still emerging, which is why standardized impact reporting is critical.

To further this effort, B Lab, in partnership with the Women Effect Investments Initiative at Criterion Institute, is exploring the role of the B Impact Rating System to effectively measure the impact of investing with a Gender Lens. The role of this group is to make recommendations to the B Lab Standards Advisory Council for amended questions to the B Impact Assessment to collect gender data more appropriately and accurately, and also think about standardized impact metrics. This broader standardization effort also is looking to correlate a number of these metrics with financial performance. Although these standardized metrics are not ready yet, some will be statistical and some more observational.

The types of metrics being explored (and already being reported by a few organizations) include the number of women as beneficiaries of a particular product or service, the number of women in fair wage jobs, and the number of women on a company’s management team. “Stories, in addition to statistics, will continue to be a very important component of this process,” Biegel said.

Who Are the Leaders in this Effort?

Hundreds of organizations are formally and informally involved in the Gender Lens conversation. What the Criterion Institute has been doing with the WEI Initiative over the past three years is weaving together a meta-narrative and network that ties these movements together – from efforts to get more investing in women-led microfinance companies to getting more women on boards of directors of Fortune 500 companies.

Did you know, for example, that women currently make up less than 3 percent of corporate CEOs and 11 percent of board seats? “Applying a Gender Lens in investing and finance is both about driving additional return and also about acknowledging the remarkable role that finance, not just philanthropy, plays in affecting positive change in our world today,” says Vanderbrug.

Joy Anderson, president and co-founder of the Criterion Institute, said to think about how the world would look if investors considered gender when making decisions, “things would really be valued differently, and the impact – both social and financial – would be huge.”


Related article: One critical component of Gender Lens investing involves thinking about catalyzing investment capital in family planning initiatives in emerging economies. Dozens of organizations – from Bloomberg Philanthropies to DFID (the UK’s Department for International Development)– are teaming up to invest in women across the globe. Without addressing the issue of population, it’s really impossible to make a dent in the serious development challenges we face today. Read more on this topic here.

For more information on Gender Lens investing, visit the Criterion Institute’s website: http://criterioninstitute.org/womeneffectinvestments/.