Martin Herrndorf

Gender Roles in Green and Inclusive Business – Replicating Old Patterns or Breaking New Ground?

The green economy has the potential to empower women – but risks replicating old gender patterns of the ‘brown’ economy, says a new DCED / GIZ study. How does the case look for social entrepreneurship and impact investing?

Gender in the green economy

Sustainable development has always included a gender aspect – importantly and directly in the “social dimension” of sustainability, with its focus on justice and equality. But there are also indirect effects: Improving general working conditions, human rights, and the state of the environment will benefit women in particular, as they are often specifically exposed to bad working conditions (e.g. in agriculture or textile production), human rights abuses (including but not limited to sexual exploitation), or environmental degradation (like indoor air pollution or the burden of collecting firewood).

But there are factors that could severely limit the potential of women’s participation in the green economy, says a new study by Markéta von Hagen and Johanna Willems, commissioned by the German cooperation agency GIZ for the Donor Committee for Enterprise Development (DCED). The concern is that “green growth” or the “green economy,” on which the authors focus, might replicate patterns of the “grey” or “brown” economy.

First, this concerns “time poverty” due to traditional separations of work loads – in most countries, women still carry the triple burden of child care, household work and paid work. While they may benefit from organic product or fair-trade arrangements, for example, time constrains can severely limit their participation in such activities.

A second reason can be found in the distribution and access to assets. To take an example from the report: Women can substantially profit from organic agriculture, specifically organic cotton. However, they have usually less access to land, and that land tends to be less fertile. Their fields in Burkina Faso for example, lie 1.8 km farther away than those of men (as identified in an assessment by the University of Berne). This limits their potential to equally benefit (economically) from organic cotton production, as it importantly constraints the necessary distribution of organic compost from villages to their fields for good yields.

The last major reason can be found in gaps in education and different occupational orientations. For example, while science and engineering occupations are crucial in the green economy – take renewable energy or energy efficiency technologies – women’s participation is particularly low in these sectors. They might therefore not equally benefit from the millions of green jobs predicted.

A gender gap in social entrepreneurship and impact investing?

When preparing for a panel on the topic, I questioned whether similar differences can be observed in social entrepreneurship and impact investing. When looking at the rank of Ashoka Fellows or members of high-profile incubators, the answer seems to be – yes! Even in traditional ‘female’ fields like education, male social entrepreneurs dominate. Could similar issues be the reason?

A first reason could be career planning. Many social entrepreneurs build on established career paths in the “traditional economy.” This might be easier for men than for women, who (still) struggle more to balance family and work requirements. Maybe the ‘time out’ taken by women for family and childbearing, mirrors a ‘time out’ taken by social entrepreneurs from their still better-paying and more secure mainstream career?

Asset distribution is a similar case. Men with a ‘traditional’ education and career background (read: engineering education and consulting job) can bring the financial backing and mainstream reputation to the social entrepreneurship field. While the ‘when I was still at consulting firm ABC’ is not an exclusive male tagline to create legitimacy towards potential partners and investors, it is more available to many men for the reasons outline above.

Third, impact investing is a case that can nicely illustrate the education gap and orientation difference. There are obviously high-profile examples of women driving the agenda, headed by celebrity-impact-investor Jacqueline Novogratz. But in the file-and-ranks, this can be different. At one major (Swiss) microfinance and BoP investor, the finance positions are almost exclusively held by men, while the female staff members mainly work in public relations, research or human resource functions. Probably not incidentally, the board is dominated by men. Such patterns clearly mirror the traditional finance world – and can be considered an almost ‘natural’ outcome when building up impact investment firms in an industry dominated by men (even if its final clients and beneficiaries are overwhelmingly women).

Are we missing out?

While addressing gender issues, social entrepreneurship runs the risk of replicating gender patterns in traditional entrepreneurship (and business in general). Similarly, it replicates the patterns of the development field – where agencies are still dominated by men (German GIZ started with an all-male board after a merger, and only recently announced their first female board member). And Bill Easterly addressed “The White Man’s Burden”, not “The White People’s Burden“.

The GIZ/DCED’s report includes a three-page-bullet-point-list of recommendations, which surely provides a wealth of starting points for addressing the potential gender gap in green growth. What would be your list for addressing the gender gap in social entrepreneurship? How can a more balanced, and hopefully better functioning, social entrepreneurship and impact investing sector be built?

Side–note 1: Sadly, the panel ran parallel to a session on mobilising private financial resources for green growth in developing countries.

Side-note 2: The (male) author happily works at a female-owned-and-run inclusive market consultancy.

Agriculture, Education, Environment, Social Enterprise
financial inclusion, skill development, smallholder farmers, social enterprise