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Opinion: Leading by example is the first step towards applying a gender-lens strategy

Gender-lens investing (GLI) strategies can have a truly catalytic effect, as financial institutions have a wide reach of companies and sectors in portfolio. However, as GLI becomes mainstream, we see the financial sector lagging behind in its gender commitments. A study by Accenture found that the proportion of women in leadership roles within financial services firms was 24% in 2021, and is projected to grow to only 28% by 2030 (link).

In our opinion, GLI’s focus on a financial institution’s portfolio companies risks letting the financial sector off the hook, as it’s clear that the industry itself still has some way to go towards fully supporting women’s empowerment in its own operations. On top of that, we believe that a crucial, but often overlooked, first step in integrating a GLI strategy is to actually lead by example. By leading by example, investees or clients will be able to learn from financial institutions and trust them as a partner.

Based on our experience and conversations with GLI frontrunners on how they empower women in their own organizations, here are three ways for a financial institution to get started.

1. Recognize that gender issues are not new: leverage the experts and learn from those who have been in the field for longer

When setting up a gender strategy, financial institutions should reach out to practitioners who have been part of the gender fight for longer. These people can provide a big-picture view and give a critical perspective from outside the financial industry. One way of doing this is to organize roundtable conversations and/or one-on-one consultations with experts, from feminist economists and activist movement leaders to traditional investment experts.

2. Show commitment at the top: ensure real leadership commitment in the organization and work to change the sector from within

We are still far from mainstreaming feminism in the financial sector, which means that until more women are in leadership, support for gender topics must come from male CEOs. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it, We Should All Be Feminist, meaning that men can push for women empowerment as much as women can, especially given the large proportion of men in leadership roles. Our dream? To have all male CEOs in the financial industry show true commitment to gender topics and stand publicly as feminists. This is a first important step towards women feeling empowered to work in the financial sector.

3. Ensure on-the-ground action: have someone be your ears and eyes inside the organization

Gender topics can be sensitive. Integrating gender-related topics and issues into day-to-day operations takes time: you have to commit to it and play the long game. As stated by an article in the Harvard Business Review, overcoming biases is “not just a onetime education session; it entails a longer journey and structural changes to policies and operations” (link). A best practice we have seen is appointing a gender champion with a direct channel of communication to senior management (e.g., a Chief Gender officer). This makes sure employees feel comfortable raising workplace issues and ensures these are addressed. The role of the champion is to constantly monitor the needs of the organization in terms of gender and diversity topics (e.g., working conditions, hiring and promoting processes, equal pay, work-family balance, period stigma, etc.).