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Convergence: Imagining Gender Lens Investment Strategy

The most provocative session at the Convergence confab Day 1 was when groups were assigned to design specific financial instruments for particular industries, using a gender lens.

I completed my first day at Criterion Institute’s Convergence gathering, which is focused on gender lens investing.  It has been a truly energizing and mind-opening day.  People are here from all kinds of institutions and sectors, most of them with an observable passion for figuring out how to formulate investment strategies that would help society achieve gender equality.

This passion lives largely on faith.  What I mean is that you have to make a leap of faith that the process of imagining how one would design, deploy, and measure financial instruments with a view to gender issues (from women on corporate boards to increasing female access to technology to creating more women-friendly infrastructure) will lead to something that can actually be done and would be effective.  Because when you first start talking about this idea, the gap from here to there seems. . . well, not just like making a big leap, but like trying to jump into a parallel universe.  Nevertheless, everyone here thinks it is doable and worthwhile and I have to say I agree. But the task is complex and we will have to live on faith while we think it through.

I had three group sessions that I was assigned to today.  All of them were really stimulating.  The first one was about the alleged contradiction between feminism and capitalism.  I had a heads up on that, which is why I stopped to write a bit about the history of this seeming contradiction early this week.  But getting around a table with a group of women of various ages, who were all coming to the question from different generational perspectives as well as work experiences, was very helpful.  And I must admit I felt validated (or vindicated or relieved or something) to learn that they were all experiencing the same weird moments I am having these days:  you are on a panel or giving a speech and someone from the audience steps up and jumps on your case because you are dirtying feminism by working with capitalism on behalf of women’s rights!  The flip side also happens, but more quietly:  male investors or corporate chiefs who turn off what you are saying as soon as they can label you “a feminist.”

So we agreed that the problem has two components, a theoretical one and a rhetorical one.  We need to do the deep thinking to re-theorize, but we also need to figure out how to position the “contradiction” in the dialogue happening right now.

Another group was about metrics and value chains.  We mostly shared the conundrums and frustrations of analyzing and trying to measure value chains generally, let alone their gender effects.  It was not a conversation that resulted in a breakthrough.  Rather, it just opened up the questions a bit more in a way that I expect I will process for a while yet. Maybe I will resolve some of it.  Maybe not.

The last session was the most provocative.  Groups were each assigned a financial instrument and a sector or technology and told to figure out how you would design/deploy/measure the investment instrument in that industry or sector in a way that addressed gender issues.

In each group, there were gender people and financial people.  The finance types were instructed to begin by explaining the instrument.  Then the gender person was to describe some of the special issues around that sector or industry or technology as applied to women. Then everyone was to go around and say what expertise they brought to the task (as with everything, the Criterion people had done a masterful job of background-engineering everything such that the right mix of brains showed up for every session).

My group was supposed to do a private equity investment in mobile technology.  Now, as it happens, I have been an advisor to the research project on women and mobile done by the GSMA and the Cherie Blair Foundation, as well as serving on the advisory board to mWomen.  Recently, I have signed on to do a synthesis of the research on mobile’s impact on women for one of the big mobile companies.  So–surprise!–I was matched to the task.

But so was everyone else in the group.  I was amazed when the young lady from private equity explained what that was all about. For years, I have been intimidated by private equity because finance professors turn it into something that, you know, girls can’t possibly understand.  But this young woman made it crystal clear in just a few minutes. What a breakthrough moment for me!

Anyway, the upshot of the day is that I learned there are very many more ways than I thought there were to imagine gender lens investing and to formulate tools or design instruments that would work for what we want to achieve.  And it is, really, just the leap of faith that stands between this moment and the alternate universe in which investments can be a positive force for gender equality.

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