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Social investing: why it’s time to get gender-smart


What is gender-smart investing, why does it matter – and how is a new Lean Data measurement toolkit set to improve outcomes for women?

Unilever employee showcasing the product catalogue

“I am a more independent woman now…”, “I can work from home and take care of my children…”, “I can make my own decisions…”

Just a few years ago, the idea of investing to empower women was barely on the radar of most investors. But attitudes are slowly shifting – and, with them, so is capital.

Today, the collective value of public and private investment funds with a ‘gender-smart’ focus amounts to $2.4 billion and $2.2 billion, respectively. While it is still not nearly enough (one recent study (PDF 10.5 MB) puts the finance gap for female entrepreneurs in small and medium-sized firms at $1.4 trillion), the momentum is welcome.

So says Suzanne Biegel, a long-term gender-smart investor and co-organiser of a major first-of-its-kind summit on the subject held on 1–2 November in London.

“There’s still a long way to go, for sure, but I’m getting calls every day from people across the globe with new funds and new portfolio commitments,” she adds.

What exactly is ‘gender-smart’ investing and why does it matter?

‘Gender-smart’ investing covers investments that are explicitly geared towards advancing gender equity between men and women, as well as recognising the power of women’s markets.

This commonly translates to support for ventures that are run by women and/or for women. But it also extends to how women are impacted in global supply chains, as well as how products and services are advertised and marketed to women.

And it matters for two reasons. First, because women’s entrepreneurship and workforce participation represent an untapped source of innovation and growth. By the latest count, gender parity would add an extra $12 trillion or more to the global economy.

And secondly, because female empowerment is crucial to achieving universal gender equality, which, in turn, is vital to the delivery of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

That’s the technical answer. Ask the women cited above and they will tell you the same, only in the language of changed lives and lifted aspirations.

Global woman with pro product

5mNo of women Unilever aims to empower by 2020

These women are among the 10,000 or so participants in a programme to encourage women to become micro-entrepreneurs in Colombia. Shakti, which began life in India, provides rural women with the opportunity to sell Unilever products door to door in their communities.

For them, ‘gender-smart’ investing means enjoying greater independence and increased confidence; it means more time with their families and better prospects for their children.

“Before, I had to wait a week to see my children because I was an intern housemaid ,” says one of the participants. “Now I see them every day… and I am able to do things: I feel proud of myself.”

Shakti is one of a host of initiatives developed by Unilever with a view to empowering 5 million women by 2020. The list includes programmes to enhance women’s access to rights, skills, resources, jobs and livelihoods, as well as measures to tackle unhelpful social norms and gender stereotypes across its value chain. (For more, see our 2017 report 'Opportunities for Women (PDF 6.31 MB)’.)

Lean Data: measuring gender impacts

At Unilever, we know these efforts are bearing fruit. But we have to be honest: at times we have struggled to define precisely what these fruits are.

“We’ve been working on gender empowerment for a while now, but there are still some really important issues that we just don’t know enough about,” says Katja Freiwald, who heads up Unilever’s work on women’s empowerment partnerships and advocacy.

She cites the Shakti programme. All the feedback shows it is working: female participants are seeing their incomes grow and their confidence increase. Yet, when it comes to granular details, such as how their roles are changing in the home or in their wider community, the picture grows cloudy.

To rectify this, Unilever began working earlier this year with its long-standing partner, impact investor Acumen, to co-develop a survey tool that could capture these nuances.

The ability to deploy such tools and use the data they generate means organisations can tweak or redesign their gender initiatives so as to ‘iron out’ unforeseen problems and enhance positive outcomes, says Tom Adams, Acumen’s Chief Impact Officer.

The result is the Lean Data Gender Toolkit. Now in its final stages of testing, the toolkit draws on the experience of Acumen’s Lean Data unit in collating and interpreting qualitative and quantitative information relevant to socially oriented ventures. It also reflects technical insights from the International Center for Research on Women.

“It is very easy to make assumptions on what does and doesn’t advance the interests of women, but without accurate information it’s easy to get things wrong or miss opportunities to improve,” says Tom Adams.

Using data primarily from tailored phone surveys, the Lean Data tool focuses on the lived experience of both men and women. In this respect, it differs from the ‘head-counting’ approach of many existing approaches.

Previously, for example, it would have been complex and expensive to determine the ‘impact’ of a programme aimed at training women in business skills beyond how many people completed the course. This new toolkit, by contrast, can tease out how exactly their working lives and their personal circumstances have improved.

The methodology is also designed to be repeatable and comparable, allowing for different projects to be to be measured longitudinally as well as benchmarked against one another.

As part of its test phase, the toolkit has been used to assess the gender impacts of four Unilever programmes, including Shakti Colombia.

For Suzanne Biegel, organiser of the November gender-smart investment summit, it holds out the opportunity for investors to hear “the voice of end customers” and to invest “more strategically” as a result.

“This isn’t just about ‘let’s go find a woman and back her’. It’s about tailoring investments and designing products so that they genuinely impact the lives of women and girls in a positive way,” she states.

FID - Katja Freiwald
“It’s our hope that this toolkit will help not just us but others to take action as well. In that sense, it is a natural progression of the work we have been doing on our ‘Opportunities for Women’ agenda.” Katja Freiwald, Director of Global Partnerships and Advocacy for Women's Empowerment and Livelihoods, Unilever

Getting smarter: encouraging uptake

For Unilever’s Katja Freiwald, the Lean Data Gender Toolkit also offers a more cost-effective and more operationally relevant method of measuring gender impacts.

“The Shakti study, for example, is already showing us how we can make the programme more efficient for us as a business but also more effective for the women involved,” she notes.

When the toolkit is officially launched early next year, Unilever will encourage others in the business community to use it to assess their own initiatives on gender impact. Acumen will also make it available to its network of public and private sector clients.

“Having a systematic methodology in place and making it available takes a lot of the leg-work away from companies and others looking to understand their gender impacts,” says Katja Freiwald.

“It’s our hope that this toolkit will help not just us but others to take action as well. In that sense, it is a natural progression of the work we have been doing on our ‘Opportunities for Women’ agenda,” she adds.

Good impact data will not in itself bring about the revolution in gender equality that the world needs and to which women and men have a right. But it will make our collective efforts a whole lot smarter – which, as impacts go, is not to be underestimated.

All pictures of Shakti Colombia

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