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Gender Smart Investing: the US$4.5t opportunity Singapore can leverage

By Naina Subberwal Batra

The data is unequivocal: no matter where in the world you are born, life is harder if you are born a girl. From health to education to work, women face a multitude of barriers to achieving their full potential.

International Women’s Day has drawn to a close, but I would like to take this opportunity to keep the momentum going and highlight why closing the gender gap benefits all of us and how we can make it happen.

What’s at stake in Asia?
According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, none of us – or our children – will see gender parity being achieved in our lifetimes, at least not for another 99.5 years. In fact, a recent report by UNESCAP suggests that Asia is not on track to meet 16 out of 17 Sustainable Develop Goals. Progress towards gender equality, notably, is actually regressing.

This sobering picture reflects the scale of efforts that still need to happen on a systemic level. To be blunt, the gender gap does not only hurt women; it hurts everyone.

Gender equality is not only a moral and social imperative but an economic one. Studies show that increasing women’s economic participation speeds up development, helps overcome poverty and improves children’s nutrition, health and education outcomes. Advancing gender parity is also a key contributor to strengthening national, regional and global economies. Asia Pacific countries could add US$ 4.5t to their collective GDP annually, according to McKinsey.

Resources are required in the right places to fully realise these gender equality goals, and a growing body of evidence about investing in women is bringing a glimmer of hope.

The business case
Investing in women is not just the right thing, but the smart thing. To fully realise the benefits, however, organisations should invest in them as employees, entrepreneurs, customers and community stakeholders to unlock increased profit, growth and innovation. 

In its report on Investing in Women, the IFC presents quantitative evidence of the rewards. In Indonesia, ECOM Agroindustrial Corp.– one of the world’s largest coffee traders – boosted productivity by 131% by developing gender-specific training after identifying knowledge gaps between men and women as a key barrier to growth.

In India, Lighting Asia/India partnered with Frontier Markets to establish a network of self-employed women to promote their solar lights. After 18 months, this network accounted for 30% of all sales. 

Financing for gender equality
Despite these early movers, many funders are not yet fully present in the continuum of capital that is needed to address gender inequality. Innovative financing mechanisms – designed with a gender lens – are emerging as powerful tools to address the funding gap.

One example is Singapore-based capital firm IIX – the Women’s Livelihood Bond Series (WLB Series) recently closed on the Singapore Exchange for the second time, with new supporters comprising of The Rockefeller Foundation, UNCDF and Standard Chartered Bank. The WLB Series is unlocking over US$150m in capital to create sustainable livelihoods for over two million women in Southeast Asia through innovative finance.

The UBS Optimus Foundation provided US$270,000 in upfront funding for Educate Girls to increase enrolment and improve learning outcomes for out-of-school girls in Rajasthan, India. After three years, the programme exceeded its goals – achieving 116% of the enrolment target and 160% of the learning target – upon which the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation repaid UBS’ investment plus a return.

Governments are also recognising the value of applying gender lens to their policies. Whilst Singapore citizens with university qualifications reflects near gender parity, its female labour force participation places the country in 50th position in 2019. To achieve long-term economic stability, more women must be involved in the economy. The Singapore government has been introducing more flexible work arrangements – from grants to incentivise companies, to childcare or eldercare infrastructure to ease home commitments.

When capital providers work together, philanthropic and investment actors alike can advance gender equality through innovative financial mechanisms. Grant capital can play a catalytic role in unlocking larger amounts from the private sector.

The road ahead
Although there is growing potential for investments to advance gender equality, I see two barriers that can be removed:

Firstly, we need market-makers to address the mismatch between capital flow and investable opportunities.

A self-perpetuating myth is that there are few women managing or leading enterprises in Asia. This is obviously not true but finding them may require a more concerted effort. Investors typically operate in formal professional circles where female entrepreneurs are rare. Deal-sourcing first-mover advantage is possible by tapping into the informal women economy, but ecosystem builders will need to offer appropriate services that can transition these informal entrepreneurs into the formal market.

In 2017, The Sasakawa Peace Foundation launched Asia’s first impact investment fund specifically aimed at the empowerment of women. US$100m will be invested in projects and institutions that promote gender equality across Asia. Income from the investments will be used to support women entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia by improving their access to finance and helping to develop their businesses.

To accelerate progress, we are partnering with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Investing in Women and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on a series of gender initiatives. These partnerships will be announced at our Annual Conference in June, Singapore.

Secondly, investors need practical guidance to meaningfully integrate a gender lens into their decision-making criteria.

Investing in Women, an initiative of the Australian Government, maps out considerations for investors to build a gender lens into new or existing strategies.

In developing their investment thesis, investors should consider the gender patterns at play in their markets and how these are changing over time. They should determine whether there might be any biases in the market that would cause opportunities to be overvalued, undervalued, unseen or changing. Uncovering risks and opportunities from gender dynamics can help investors see trends and patterns that are often left out of traditional financial analysis.

The investment process should also review its current practices and interrogate assumptions in order to identify and correct any biases. For example, what are embedded assumptions in the process for engaging enterprises?

Institutionalising this approach often requires attention to organisational culture and a clear vision with measurable indicators. Support from senior leadership and investment in technical and financial resources are needed to be accountable for action. 

Equality can’t wait
The case for investing in women is overwhelming, and I believe that genuine change is within reach. Social investors are leading the charge but to truly achieve inclusive development, we must bring gender considerations from the margins into the mainstream. Our future will be shaped by Asia, influenced by women, and driven by impact. Let’s invest in it. 

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