Gender Capitalism: The Time is Now


Jackie Vanderbrug, an SVP at US Trust, speaking on gender lens investing at Power Shift.


The Rise of Gender Capitalism,” an article in the current issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, focuses on the emerging interest in “gender lens investing”–and reaches toward a radical new vision of economic systems and behaviors.

The authors, Sarah Kaplan and Jackie Vanderbrug, begin with an emphasis that “making change means looking at the socially constructed roles, relationships, and expectations of women and men and the ways that these are reinforced by educational, political, economic, and cultural systems.” I have italicized those last few words to call attention to the fact that Kaplan and Vanderbrug’s vision does not stop at investing in women entrepreneurs or promoting women in finance careers (though both these items are included in the desired outcomes), but goes on to challenge the way that gender has constructed the global financial system.

We have been taught that the financial system is “objective,” a finely tuned machine that follows the flows of risk, rates, and returns as perfectly as if it were keyed to the music of the spheres. It is precisely this belief that blinds us to the reality of systemic bias.

As long as we think financial decisions are neutral, the statistics showing the huge gender gap in, for instance, access to credit for businesses (which Kaplan and Vanderbrug peg at $320 billion worldwide, a figure consistent with other expert estimates), must somehow be something women deserve.

As long as we believe that the global gender gap in bank account ownership “just happens,” then women will continue to be poorer than men.

As long as we don’t question why females grow up less financially literate than males–everywhere–then we must conclude that little girls are not as bright as little boys.

As long as we accept that venture capitalists use “analytical rigor” to make their investment choices, then the low percentage of women who are funded (6% according to Kaplan and Vanderbrug) by the 96% of venture capitalists who are male must be a function of our own cognitive weaknesses.

As long as we are content that the projects and companies backed by the investment community represent an “objective”and inclusive vision, then we must surrender to the future that follows.

Instead, Kaplan and Vanderbrug—along with a growing number of advocates, including me—ask you to consider another possibility. They ask you to look at the system to see how gender actually determines its structure. When you look through that perspective, it is called “using a gender lens.” Let me give you a couple of trial peeks through that lens.


On the right, Author Sarah Kaplan, a business professor at University of Toronto, with two other gender impact investment enthusiasts, Laurie Spengler (Enclude) and Suzanne Biegel (Clearly So), at the opening reception for Power Shift 2014.


I have been writing up a case study about one of the Walmart Empowering Women Together suppliers. The Kenyan entrepreneur makes a distinctively African line of accessories. She pays cash for materials, has her workers make the goods, then delivers to retailers who demand 30 days to pay. She is chronically late paying wages and turns down orders because she has no cash for materials. Every new order waits for payment on the last one. If she could take work as it comes, her business would thrive.

“Easy,” you say, “what this woman needs is a revolving line of credit.” As a Kenyan gender investment advocate, Kanini Mutooni, explained to me, women own 52% of startups in Kenya, but only 7% have accessed capital. Why? Because banks will not lend money to anyone who cannot pledge title to land as collateral. And women have title to only 1% of the land. “Well,” you may speculate, “pledging collateral is a common practice and a neutral one. If women had been more successful, they would have land to pledge.” But the reason the land ownership is so skewed is that inheritance laws have stipulated that land can only pass from male to male.

So, far from being a gender-neutral criterion, the Kenyan banking rule keeps money out of the hands of women by resting on a gender-biased law that has kept land out of their hands, as well. Together, these two restrictions form mutually re-enforcing, load-bearing walls in a financial structure built only for men.


The Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford was the first to sign the petition for women’s financial inclusion at Power Shift. To see how you can sign it, too, keep reading!


A North American business we are studying makes gluten-free baking mixes. The owner started this company with the money from the sale of a food company she and her husband built together. She used some of her money to get this new enterprise of her own started. This thing has really taken off–she has a huge operation now and major grocery chains are her customers. But she had to self-fund everything because the local banks will not lend her any money, including the one she and her husband dealt with in the previous business.

This entrepreneur and her husband are both furious. They both insist that if he presented the application, the bank would see the previous business as a good track record and an indication that his next attempt would be successful. The bank would lend him money. But that track record does not belong equally to her. If a couple builds a business, the assumption is that it is his, not hers.

Interestingly, several local enterprises were started by men about the time hers began. They have all been given bank credit and, as a result, their businesses have all grown faster than hers. The common “explanation” would be that women just don’t want to “grow their businesses” the way men do. Or that women tend to cluster in industries, including food, where the growth is slower and therefore less attractive to capital. So it’s all about women making the wrong choices, not bankers being biased.

Now imagine this same decision being made over and over and over. Multiplied a million times, you have whole industries that don’t grow because there are too many women in them (just as pay drops in industries where there more women than men). And then you have bankers who refuse to lend to certain industries on the “neutral” criterion that they have slower growth.

So why don’t these silly women just move into industries that grow?  Like, maybe, auto parts or shipping?  If you think that would solve the problem, you must believe that the banks would find a woman in one of those male-dominated industries credible enough to extend credit to her.  (Are you kidding?)  And you would have to turn a blind eye to all the efforts males in such industries make (bullying, harassment, sabotage) to keep women out.  Just as they do in, for instance, finance.


That’s Sarah Kaplan, right smack in the middle of the picture, in the class where we were teaching “Finance After Hours.”


For Power Shift this year, Jia Fei Jin and I wrote a teaching case called “Finance After Hours.” The name of the case referred to the “cultural requirement” that Chinese entrepreneurs go out for long boozy nights with their bankers (often followed by visits to prostitutes). Women business-owners do not want to do this. The bank says the women are not sociable and so they can’t be trusted.  All this is framed as Chinese custom.  But the phenomenon is the same in The City and on Wall Street:  a persistent custom of socializing in settings that would make women uncomfortable and put them at risk acts as a barrier to both women seeking capital and women trying to build careers in finance.

Why does this happen everywhere?  Good question.  The history of women and money (you can see a nice summary by the Guardian here) is a long list of rights won and then taken back and won again.  Whether you look at the history of Egypt or Rome or Europe, whether you consider the Hebrews, the Muslims, the Hindus, or the Visigoths, you will find that the question of women’s access to money and property is always contested.  It is not enough to marvel that the inheritance laws in Kenya were also the rule in the “advanced” nations until maybe 100 years ago–and are still the norm in the developing world today.  It is not enough to express shock that women in the US could not open a bank account without their husbands present to give permission until the 1960s–or that, in the UK, this didn’t change until 1975!

We must go one step further.  Because the history is told in rights won and lost, in every period and in every region, we must realize that the default position (literally the setting that is always there unless you change it) is that women did not participate in the money system.  This is the basic premise of the “objective” global apparatus we have inherited.

It’s time to insist on being fully included.

So, put on your gender glasses and join the movement.  As a first step, you can join with Jackie and Sarah and me and all the Power Shift folks to sign a petition to ask that women’s financial inclusion be part of the next round of international development goals. Just click here to read about petition and it will take you through to the Change.org site. Be sure and read the “Rise of Gender Capitalism,” as it will give you ammunition.  Then, square your shoulders, go out there, and start asking the questions, challenging the assumptions, and demanding the evidence.  The system is not neutral.

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