Why more UK social investors should use a gender lens: an interview with Ceri Goddard

Ceri Goddard is the director of equality innovation at the Young Foundation, where she leads the Gender Futures program. She shares the topline findings from the new Gender Futures report, ‘The Sky’s the Limit’, exploring gender lens investing in the UK and Europe, and its implications for social investment practitioners.

A lot of the research out there is quite US-focused. What did you feel the biggest unanswered questions were when you were starting on The Sky’s the Limit?

There were two. One was what is the state of the field in the UK and in Europe more broadly, and secondly to what extent has the social investment sector taken on gender lens investing. It was our impression that the gender lens investing movement has actually come more from the corporate space. 

Can you take us through some of the topline findings of the report?

On a positive note, the vast majority of social investors - over 85% that we spoke to - believed they had an important role in advancing gender equality and a fair few of them understood the benefits of gender lens investing (at least in principle). However, very few of them understood the benefits beyond those associated with greater diversity in business. There seems to be an automatic assumption that gender lens investing is only about increasing diversity within your own organisation, or looking at diversity amongst potential or actual investees rather than that broader conception of gender lens investing. 

On the negative side, despite this commitment in principle we're not seeing it reflected in practice. Of the national sample we took of the main investors including wholesalers and SIFIs only one was actually assessing the gender impact of their investments. Only a quarter - around 25% - were thinking about gender in any of their process. That could be in decisions they were making, it could be in terms of their own internal process. 

There seems to be an automatic assumption that gender lens investing is only about increasing diversity within your own organisation, or looking at diversity amongst potential or actual investees

This was in a context where only around half of them were considering any type of equality, and these were surprising findings given that this is social investment. You expect the social investors to perhaps be ahead of the game of the corporate investors. But it seems that the hard business case that has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in the corporate world does not seem to have filtered through to the social investors. 

How does the research build on what’s out there already, beyond looking at geography?

Traditionally the discussion around gender lens investing has included three broad lenses - channeling capital to women entrepreneurs, channelling capital to gender progressive ventures and finally channeling capital to ventures that benefit women and girls. As part of the research we drew out some aspects of those that haven't had much attention. The first is the distinction between ventures that only mitigate the problems of gender inequality, so for example respond to existing discrimination against women and girls or against men and boys. They are hugely worthy but they don’t get at the root problem and develop alternative solutions for a different future. For example ventures that might want to work with young people to change their attitudes around gender, so that we don't have the same problems repeating for generations.

There seems to be a real focus on services and goods and I think if gender lens investing is not to be accused of pinkwashing or only seeing women as another market opportunity, then investors need to step up and provide some frontloaded support so we can build a market that also has a section of ventures that are gender transformative. We're really keen to do that and are looking for investors who want to work with us on it.

What came out very powerfully talking to investors  - and we've characterised it in the report as a fifth lens - was the feeling that investors need to take a gender lens to their own practice. There is no such thing as a gender neutral investment, but there's also no such thing as a gender neutral investor. A huge majority of people we spoke to said that in order to become effective gender lens investors they needed to take a look at their own practices and diversity. 

Are some people gender lens investors without realising it?

I think people have a gender impact without realising it, and that can be positive or negative. I don't think you can do gender lens investing without realising it because by definition you use a gender lens by conscious choice. On the positive note, as part of the research we did some topline portfolio reviews of a number of social investors we spoke to who on the face of it are not doing gender lens investing and don't have dedicated gender programmes and don't explicitly say that they are seeking to advance gender equality. 

But if you are a social investor where the majority of your finance is going into care or childcare services(for example), then you will have a high gender impact. Women make up the vast majority of employees in the care industry. And if you're combining that with a demand for good employment practice then you're likely to have a positive gender impact because you're supporting women getting the living wage. Because we know the vast majority of the working poor are female, we know the vast majority of those not being paid the minimum wage are women. 

Could you talk about what you call the ‘reproductive sector’, which is where much social investment goes?

In the report we characterise the economy as having three spheres: the financial sphere, the productive sphere (industry, goods) and the reproductive sector which is basically the reproduction of human beings and their development: health, education, care. That is also where the vast majority of women work and the women who benefit from that economy. So the extent to which social investors take a gender lens is hugely important. 

Gender Futures is very concerned with tackling systemic or structural gender inequality and the thing about that is that it can feel quite invisible. It's so built in. The biggest challenge is surfacing these issues. One of the reasons for social investors to use a gender lens more often is so these impacts can be identified and promoted and hopefully propagated and scaled.

How has response been?

The response to the report has been hugely positive and we didn't find a resistance to doing more among investors. People were really keen to do more and explore it and they were really excited about both the financial and social opportunities, but they needed two things. First of all, just some practical support in terms of what [applying a gender lens] looks like, and they also needed to be asked and/or funded to do it by the wholesalers, whether that's private individuals or government.