Thought Leadership

Gender Lens Investing 2.0: How Foundations Can Address the Roots of Gender Inequality

This article is part 1 of a two part series on Gender Lens Investing by Cornerstone Capital. Click here for part 2.

In 2001, as a philanthropic advisor, I started on a journey with The Denver Foundation to bring more racial and ethnic diversity to the boardrooms of Denver-area nonprofits.  Like many well-intentioned people in the foundation and nonprofit community, we assumed board diversity would address the racial bias that was evident in the programs, management and governance of many nonprofits.  In fact, we were so confident in this as a change strategy that we engaged a group of advisors and developed a program plan.
What we quickly found out of course, was that increasing diversity was only one part of the very complex process that nonprofits would need to take if they were to tackle the legacy of structural racism that affects virtually all of our institutions today. So we rebooted our efforts and like many foundations and organizations in the U.S. and globally, The Denver Foundation embarked on a journey to break down biases and assumptions and began working with nonprofit and philanthropic partners to help the whole sector to become more diverse and inclusive, and ultimately, more equitable. During this process it became very clear to us that the complex issues that affect people and communities cannot be addressed without considering their interrelatedness to one another. 
When I reflect on the state of the gender lens investing movement today, I am reminded of this journey from almost 20 years ago and the important lessons we learned then about the essential need to address the root causes of bias and discrimination. The same principles of digging deep to understand why biases exist in the context of race are also critical when it comes to gender. While many foundations have done important and deep work over the last two decades to understand and attempt to address the root causes of many forms of gender bias and discrimination in their grantmaking, there has been scant attempt in the investment field to do the same thing.  The discipline and rigor that many foundations take to understanding what drives inequality and the kinds of interventions that can help bring about true equality is critically needed today in the field of gender lens investing.  Foundations have the unique ability to support critical research; to invest in innovations; to take risks where traditional investors will not; and to convene and shed light on what is needed and what is possible through grantmaking and investment capital.
At Cornerstone Capital Group we work with foundations, individuals, and families who care about an array of social and environmental issues, including gender inequality.  Like our clients, we have been concerned about the discipline of gender lens investing and the limitations of what we think of as Gender Lens Investing 1.0, which has focused primarily on diversity — the diversity of women on corporate boards and in senior leadership, the diversity of fund managers, and the diversity of those who have access to capital.  While all these variables are critically important— and we must continue to exert pressure on those who can have an influence on gender diversity — we cannot stop there.  Like the foundations of the early 21st century that insisted on going more deeply into root causes, we have set about on a journey at Cornerstone to understand how investments can address the root causes of social and environmental issues, using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the basis of our analysis.  We view foundations as natural partners in this work, which we think of as Gender Lens 2.0.
At its heart the challenge we set out to tackle was how investors who care about various Sustainable Development Goals — especially SDG 5 — could align their investments with the SDGs by focusing on common themes underpinning the SDGs. The SDGs provide a framework to demonstrate the inter-relationships between different social challenges including inequality, health, poverty, gender, and much more. They also reveal opportunities, such as the critical role of gender in climate justice, and other related topics such as water management and extractive industries. We were particularly mindful of the challenge that mission-aligned investors face in analyzing the impact of publicly listed securities — including gender lens investors, who have been limited primarily to screening out companies with no women on their boards of directors.   
Cornerstone Capital Group’s Access Impact FrameworkTM was created to illustrate the alignment of investment strategies to each of the Sustainable Development Goals. We identified the concept of access — which accelerates the ability of individuals and societies to achieve desired social, economic, and environmental outcomes — as a key common denominator underpinning all of the SDGs. The framework maps 11 such access themes across the SDGs. By facilitating access required for individuals and societies to achieve the SDGs, investors can help address the root causes of inequality and do so holistically by addressing multiple barriers to opportunity simultaneously.
When analyzing SDG 5: Gender Equality, we incorporate traditional gender lens themes with an analysis of seven “access themes” that align most closely to SDG 5. The seven themes are:
  1. access to fair treatment/equal opportunity
  2. access to healthcare services
  3. access to financial services
  4. access to telecommunication systems
  5. access to education
  6. access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene
  7. access to adequate housing and living conditions
These access themes are interrelated. For example, improving women’s access to telecommunication tools such as mobile phones and internet services enables better access to online financial services, educational resources, healthcare, and career opportunities (see related resources). Becoming more educated and having better access to financial services may result in becoming more financially secure. Internet access seems to correspond with improved health for women, as they can learn about disease risks and prevention.  Access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene along with access to adequate housing and living conditions clearly leads to better health and a more stable and secure living environment. The examples are limitless but the amount of investment that is flowing with an intersectional approach is not.
The Access Impact Framework represents a way to analyze the alignment of investments that is multidimensional and reflects how many foundations understand their work: it is rooted in rigorous research; it sits at the cutting edge of a critical discipline; and it has the potential for having an impact at scale.  But we cannot stop here. All of us — especially foundations who are concerned about gender equality — can play a critical catalytic role in advancing gender equality through an intersectional approach using the SDGs.  With virtually the whole world coalescing around the SDGs, the moment is ripe for foundations to ask hard questions of their investment advisors about how their investments are being used to advance gender equality and address the fundamental issues that are impeding progress. By working across sectors we can continue to innovate and develop new tools and products that gender lens investors can use to address the root causes of inequality in all its forms and to realize our shared vision of achieving a more just and equitable world.
In the second part of this series, we review examples of how foundations can utilize gender lens investing options across asset classes.

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