By Melanie Pease Davidson
The first time I heard the term “gender lens investing” was around 2006. I was with a group of female philanthropists discussing socially responsible investing and micro nance as tools for poverty alleviation. At the time, a new nonprofit called Kiva Microfunds was getting a lot of attention for creating an online marketplace to connect lenders and borrowers around very small loans with very big impact on borrowers’ lives. Kiva was clearly a game-changer in the socially responsible investing space, but it was mostly working in developing countries. We lamented that meanwhile, here in the US, women-led ventures remained grossly underfunded; it was in this context that I heard “gender lens” proposed as a screen or lens to apply to financial portfolios and funds to help solve that imbalance.
As gatekeepers to power and opportunity, when we think critically about which ventures receive financing, the conversation needs to go much deeper than gender.
Despite the still-dire statistics around investment in women, the situation has actually improved a lot since then. The concept of a gender lens has grown to include direct investments in women-led ventures and is seen as an opportunity to aim for better performance. The term has become relatively well known in impact investor circles, and is being used in mainstream financial firms like JPMorgan Chase, Janus Capital Group, and Goldman Sachs, which all have models and financial tools dedicated to funding women.
Yet even as I celebrate the fact that gender lens investing is becoming more mainstream, I can’t help but notice that by focusing on the idea of a gender lens, we in the impact investment community are missing a hugely important opportunity for creating change. As gatekeepers to power and opportunity, when we think critically about which ventures receive financing, the conversation needs to go much deeper than gender. We need to be talking about parity around race, for example, and making sure all people have equity in the workplace and access to affordable capital. Especially in the impact investing space, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than the already ambitious, certainly important, but not-good-enough “gender lens.”
This need becomes painfully clear when we take a look at the data: 87 percent of venture capital-backed founders are white; 83 percent of founding teams are all-white. Black female founders made up just 0.2 percent of venture deals from 2012 to 2014.
Obviously, these problems run deeper than funding. To create real change, we need to work across systems — financial, political, corporate, and philanthropic. And we need to work in a cohesive way, with consistent messaging and branding.
That’s where my colleagues at PeakChange and I are starting. We’ve been having fireside chats, purposefully seeking out people in the impact investment space that are representative of the populations we need to reach to determine the right language and dialogue for rebranding gender lens investing. This summer we will be having firepit chats. We plan to hire a professional PR and branding consultant to extract and articulate the deep ideas here, to come up with a new term that lets us retire “gender lens investing” and replace it with something that gets at the full picture of the change that needs to happen.
Will you join us? We know we’re not the pioneers or the only people talking about this issue, but we’re trying to combine multiple efforts in a way that pushes the dialogue forward and allows new voices to be heard. We’ve set up a place where people can provide their input, see our progress, provide feedback on our ideas, and help this new idea roll out to a larger audience at scale. Sign up at peakchange.co/gender to get involved.
And in the meantime, I invite you to have an authentic dialogue about these issues in your community — even if it’s hard. It’s difficult to talk about race, to talk about economic disparity. We need to, all of us — even us white ladies.