By investing in women now, we will accelerate progress

This year’s International Women’s Day underscores the enormous potential return on investment from backing women

Professor Rosemary Addis AM, University of Melbourne

Professor Rosemary Addis AM

Published 7 March 2024

“I have always thought of myself as a detective”, said Nobel prize winner Claudia Goldin taking out the honour in economics for her work on the gender gap. Professor Goldin’s archival research uncovered vital data designed to “correct the invisibility of women in official statistics”.

This recognition of Professor Goldin’s work was monumental. She is a true pioneer because her work shines a light on uncomfortable truths of modern society and economics.

The gender pay gap is a persistent problem that costs the Australian economy $51.8 billion every year. Picture: Getty Images

British author, journalist and activist Caroline Criado Perez’s excellent treatise, Invisible Women, underscores the issues: “…so much data fails to take into account gender because it treats men as the default and women as atypical, bias and discrimination are baked into our system…”.

The recent inaugural report of company data on gender pay gaps in Australia underscores that there is still a lot of progress to be made.

Releasing the report Finance Minister and Minister for Women, Katy Gallagher said: “The gender pay gap is a persistent and complex problem that costs the Australian economy $51.8 billion every year”.

Across the globe, women are more likely to be unemployed, be in insecure work, get paid less and face structural barriers to leadership.

All of this is in the face of data that finds companies committed to both strong internal gender equality efforts and continuous operational improvements are superior business performers.

And this is not only true of the labour market.

It’s a dynamic that pervades many areas of society, including health and medicine, often with real consequences for our wellbeing and prosperity.

Studies on medical devices are just one example that reveals the disproportionate risks women face because product testing does not consider sex differences.

Incredibly, until 2023, crash test dummies for cars were typically based on average male bodies, which could explain why women are 73 per cent more likely to be injured in frontal road collisions.

In 2022, only 0.7 per cent of all private start-up funding that financial year went to female founding teams. Picture: Getty Images

More investment

In finance and investment, there remains a pervasive gap.

Around the world, women entrepreneurs and fund managers receive a tiny fraction of investment capital despite delivering superior returns.

A 2022 Deloitte study found only 0.7 per cent of all private start-up funding that financial year went to female founding teams, despite a tenfold increase in start-up funding over the previous five years.

Another study found similar patterns across Asia noting: “Women’s entrepreneurship is key to economic stability...however, access to capital remains stubbornly low.”

This is despite data that highlights the benefits of diversity, which range from a 63 per cent better financial performance of enterprises with all-woman teams and a 35 per cent higher return on investment; to 12 per cent higher revenue growth for women-led, venture-backed companies and higher profits for businesses with 30 per cent or more female executives.

If we look at leadership, there remain significant tensions.

A 2023 global director survey highlights a deepening gender divide on boards: While every surveyed female director now views gender diversity as important for boards, a record-low percentage of male directors agree.”

Women’s entrepreneurship is key to economic stability but capital remains stubbornly low. Picture: Getty Images

Drivers of progress

Women are leading the sustainability conversation.

In the boardroom, female directors are more likely to see environmental, social and governance issues as important to company strategy with a tangible financial impact on performance.

This places women at the centre of decisions shaping our future by focusing on their potential as leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, consumers and decision-makers integral to economic growth. The ’female economy’ is estimated to represent a market force larger than China and India combined.

And this is where we can look for opportunities.

Opportunities to mobilise more women into the workforce, move more women to stable jobs and incomes, develop talent and pathways for advancement, invest in fit-for-purpose care economy solutions, and enable a more sustainable infrastructure and environment.

The return on investment for society would be enormous if this potential is realised.

All organisations can look at their performance on diversity and gender equality. Those who see the opportunity will proactively apply these tools.

And this focus is only going to get sharper.

The UK’s Asset Owner Diversity Charter currently has 17 asset owners representing around US$1.5 trillion in assets signed up to incorporate and monitor diversity into manager selection and other processes as part of a broader commitment to a more balanced and fair representation of diverse societies within the investment industry.

The return on investment for society would be enormous if more women are mobilised into the workforce. Picture: Getty Images

Australian institutional investors have joined the 40:40 Vision initiative to push Australia’s top companies to set targets for gender balance at leadership level by 2030.

And new tools and data are entering the market.

There’s the network platform 2X Global which is growing and on track to launch global standards for gender lens investing. The ground-breaking management framework, SDG Impact Standards underscores the imperative for gender equality and is set to inform new ISO standards.

There are also more firms entering the market focusing on investing in women.

Some like Singapore-based Sweef Capital are sharing their expertise and a structured framework to test, track and course-correct for women’s economic empowerment.

Impact Investing Australia and Capital Human created a roadmap for Australian investment to achieve gender equity, racial equity, diversity and inclusion, drawing upon the experience across local and global markets.

There’s massive potential for organisations to drive change through their internal processes, investment decisions and spheres of influence.

There is a clear need and ample opportunity to do better. More focus on investing in women and how our investments affect women could drive the kind of breakthrough return on investment that benefits us all.

Professor Addis has an interest in Sweef Capital Pty Ltd and Chairs the Sweef Capital Gender ROI™ Steering Committee. She is also the Founding Chair of Impact Investing Australia.

Banner: Getty Images

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