“It’s not just looking at women”: Expanding the gender lens

Probono Australia

Applying a diverse gender lens to philanthropy and investing offers a critical solution to achieving equality, but impact washing is dampening its effect.

At our current rate of progress, it will take 132 years to close the global gender gap, which means we will be halfway through the 22nd century before we experience an equal society.

The World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report also found that despite more substantial improvements made in areas of health, survival and education, closing the gap in economic participation and opportunity is still significantly out of reach for many women across the world.

Applying a gender lens to philanthropy and investing offers a critical solution to this problem, and CEO of not for profit Australians Investing In Women Julie Reilly OAM believes broadening the definition of gender will create the biggest impact.

“Gender is an important consideration in all decision making. Funding can be designed to benefit everyone, but if it’s not examined or questioned through the lens of gender, often women are underserved,” said Reilly.

“Gender is not the only lens but it is the foundational lens – gender intersects with age, race, ability, socio-economic status, and this intersectionality is critical to impacting systemic issues.

“It’s not just looking at women… A gender-wise approach supports gender analysis of the problem or issue being addressed by philanthropy to ensure the particular needs of women, men and gender diverse people are considered, and how the funded initiative will impact them.”

The rise of orange bonds

Employing a broad definition of gender is also the focus of Singapore-based impact investing organisation Impact Investment Exchange (IIX), which last year launched the Orange Bond Initiative – the world’s first gender lens investing asset class.

The global initiative, which received foundational support from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, aims to enable governments, donors and foundations to address gender equity, as well as equip investors to use a gender lens to mitigate risk, stabilise returns and maximise sustainable impact.

The success of the initiative, which is expected to unlock US$10 billion by 2030 and benefit 100 million people, is contingent on incorporating all communities facing gender discrimination argues IIX founder and CEO Professor Durreen Shahnaz.

“A gender-empowered financial system is a market that embraces inclusion by valuing the full and meaningful participation of women, girls, and the LGBTQI+ community regardless of race, religion, region, income, or other intersectional factors,” said Shahnaz.

“Within the Orange Bond Initiative, we have specifically chosen to include the LGBTQI+ community, other gender minorities, and any group that faces gender discrimination.

“We hope the initiative will provide a platform for all gender products to be developed and an ecosystem that enables marginalised communities to gain access to the capital they need.”

The effect of impact washing

Gender lens investing has been the subject of global research and investment, with Shahnaz adding that US$2 billion was committed to the space in 2021 alone, however the development of green and impact washing has dampened the credibility of adopting this approach.

“Gender lens investing can be susceptible to the same pitfalls as all other areas of impact investing, for example gender-washing and impact-washing,” continued Shahnaz.

“When impact is not verified and the recipients of capital are not provided a voice or involved in the allocation process, there is potential for these issues to arise, where companies misuse the intended capital and publicise [the] market impact but do not follow through.”

Impact washing is less of a concern for Reilly, who admits that while companies may be misusing the gender lens label, publicly demonstrating a commitment to gender equality can be a powerful symbol of leadership – something she particularly sees from the current Australian government.

“I see people who think they’ve ticked the women’s box, because they have funded an initiative, such as a women’s program or a women’s scholarship. I don’t think that’s the same thing [as impact washing],” said Reilly.

“What’s interesting about our current time is we’ve got a Victorian government with a gender equality commissioner. We’ve got a federal government that is at least talking about and showing really strong action in centering women in budgets, as they are in New South Wales. Philanthropy, instead of leading, is actually playing catch up in the current environment.

“It’s a message for everyone in the social sector, and actually in government and capital markets. Be out and proud, and publish your commitment to gender equality…  If we can get a gender lens on philanthropy, that will amplify and infuse the rest of the sector. Everyone benefits from gender equality.”