As the world comes to terms with deepening inequalities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we realise the importance of investing in women empowerment to build back better. Natasha Garcha, Oxford MBA alumni, shares learnings from the gender investing movement and her work on IIX’s Women’s Livelihood Bond series.
As the COVID-19 pandemic redefines normal across the world, it also puts up a magnifying glass to systemic disparities. One in particular is the centuries old issue of gender inequality. Over the last nine months, we have seen a plethora of outraged articles and social media angst reiterating how women are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The United Nations calls the spikes in gender-based violence a ‘shadow pandemic’, WEF reiterated the uneven footing stemming from women earning 79 cents for every dollar men make and McKinsey estimates that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 if women continue to lose jobs 1.8 times more than men during the crisis.
But are we asking the right questions? What would happen if we shift our thinking – and the narrative – to what is possible if we invest in women to transition them from being victims of the pandemic, to recognising them as solutions to building COVID-resilience? Let’s re-look at the world with that lens.
COVID:19: The fifth wave of feminism
New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen’s proactive and coordinated response enabled them to control the outbreak and stabilise their economies more effectively than their male-led counterparts. Companies with more than one woman on their board return a compound 2% over those with none. Women make up 70% of health and social care workers responding to the pandemic. Female journalists like Barkha Dutt took COVID-19 coverage out of the ivory tower to the backstreets of India to give migrant workers a voice and tell their stories.
To further reinforce this belief, my role as Director of Innovative Finance at Impact Investment Exchange (IIX) has allowed me to connect with over 1000 women of color, typically making under $10 a day, battling the dual complexity of poverty and patriarchy. They range from Cambodian female micro-entrepreneurs who are the economic backbone of their community, to Filipino single mothers using solar energy to run their grocery stores at night, to Indonesia garment factory workers saving to send their daughters to college, to smallholder farmers building food security in rural India. There is one thing all these gritty, undefeated women have in common - none of them wants to be positioned as victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they want to be recognised as part of the solution so that we invest in them, give them equal opportunity, and allow them to reach their full potential to build back better.
I call this ‘shift’ in the way we view women the ‘fifth wave of feminism’ – the evolution of a multi-dimensional movement that combines the forces of politics, economics, culture, media and sustainability to build the argument for gender equality (Figure 1). And to change this from a ‘wave’ to a ‘tsunami’, it is time we put women front and center of one of the most powerful forces in the world - financial markets. IIX's Women's Livelihood BondTM (WLB) series is doing exactly that.
Case in Point: IIX Women’s Livelihood BondTM building COVID-resilience through gender lens investing
The WLB is a $150 million series of innovative debt securities that pool together a multi-country, multi-sector portfolio of women-focused enterprises in Asia. Designed by a woman of color – our founder, Prof Durreen Shahnaz, the first WLB issued in 2017 made history as the first gender-lens, impact investing security in the world to be listed on a stock exchange. The WLB series has attracted private sector investors from across the world, offering them an opportunity to diversify their portfolio with a new asset class while empowering half a million women in Asia to generate a social return through sustainable livelihoods. To date, the WLB1 (issued in 2017) and WLB2 (issued in Jan 2020) have a strong track record with no defaults and all coupon payments made on track, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because investing in businesses that embrace gender equality not only creates positive impact, but also helps to mitigate risk by creating sustainable value for the community. For instance, WLB2’s latest impact report shows investing in the Bond has advanced 12 of the 17 United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – truly positioning women as solutions to responding to global issues ranging from poverty to climate change that will allow them to build back better in the post COVID-19 era (Figure 2).
Image source: IIX Women’s Livelihood Bond 2 Summary Semi Annual Impact Report Q1 Q2 2020
As such, COVID-19 has shifted the power dynamics so women - regardless of their income, race or zipcode - are not a marginalised, powerless group waiting to be ‘saved’. If we invest in women instead of the next tech-stock, they are quite possibly going to ‘save’ the rest of us by flattening more curves than one.