hile the economic impact of Covid has hit women hardest, there’s a possibility the recovery will deliver some improvements. Investors are developing an appetite for gender equality, and young people will drive equality harder.
But the changes need more women at the top in finance and investment. And equality will have to compete more effectively against the sustainability agenda for attention.
Jacqueline Pieters, who held agri-finance leadership roles at Rabobank for nearly three decades, told us, “I worked with large companies, that had a revenue of over 250 million euros. In 28 years, I hardly came across women as a counterparty.
“The CEO, the CFO, they’re mainly men. I know only one female CEO in the companies that I served – and she was fantastic.
“Generally, I know that less capital is invested in startups where there is one or more female founder. And research bears this out. It is more difficult for female founders to get investment.
“Figures also show if there’s a female onboard and they do get finance, they are generally more successful. That might because only the best ideas get the finance.”
As Melissa Miners, Global Sustainability Manager for Unilever pointed out, though, investors are developing an appetite for equality in business practice, “It doesn’t feel hard. Our investors are asking for this. Our customers are asking for this. It’s no longer a nice to have. It’s the future.”
“It has to be said that the pandemic has made things a hell of a lot worse for women”
Remarkable for its gender balance in management positions, Unilever empowers women inside a framework of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, Melissa Miners explained.
She said, “This works across our supply chain [of 70,000 suppliers and 1.5 million farmers]: safety and rights for women, upskilling women’s capabilities and expanding opportunities.
“Our supply chain touches most parts of the world. I can give you examples of how we are working with various farmers in Indonesia, Madagascar, Kenya.”
And closer to home, “It’s a really exciting place to work. There are so many inspiring women in leadership positions, there’s always a role model to look up to.”
As Unilever continues to push boundaries, Melissa Miners said, “Our Sustainable Compass, a living plan integrated into our core business, is launched on the 9th of March. My role is to lead on the nature agenda of that strategy.”
Jacqueline Pieters applauded the news saying, “Unilever making sustainability and gender equality a part of the core business is incredibly important.
“Women do 12.5 billion hours of unpaid work a day, worth $10.8 trillion – which is three times the value of the tech sector”
“I’m so glad Melissa is saying it’s accepted by Unilever shareholders that this is a must-have, a need to have. In many companies you still have your sustainability department, you check that box, and then you have your core business. In my opinion it should be one thing.”
But outside of this good news, things have been difficult for women, as Rachel Wilshaw, Workers Rights senior manager at Oxfam, explained.
“It has to be said that the pandemic has made things a hell of a lot worse for women. We know that 740 million women lost 60 per cent of their income in the first month of the pandemic because they’re in the informal sector.
“Often the schemes the government puts in place are based on people being in formal jobs. So women in the informal sector go without those entitlements or protections.”
However, Rachel Wilshaw too is seeing more investor interest in equality at listed companies.
“I’m the global lead for our Behind the Barcodes campaign, targeting powerful supermarkets in the UK, the US, the Netherlands and Germany.
“My god there’s so much to be done – I don’t want to wait 200 years for parity”
“Last year 10 out of 16 companies scored zero on gender equality. Because they didn’t understand that things can be so much worse for women producing food.
“Investors are often looking for that kind of information, but don’t have the means to get it. Transparency is the theory of change.
“We construct the score card and show companies how they compare with each other. And they are competitive creatures, they compete on this. We find quite a lot of drive for companies to improve.
“A CEO has said to me in the last year ‘we will not be bottom of your scorecard next year. We hear what you’re saying. Zero per cent on gender equality. We want to do better’, and they did.
“This was Lidl after coming bottom of the score card, they invested quite a lot in improving their policies and human rights commitments and then they jumped above Aldi and Asda.”
But it’s a steep mountain for women to climb.
“A colleague of mine calculated recently that women do 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work a day,” Rachel Wilshaw shared.
“There’s a lot of resistance to equality”
“And that equates to $10.8 trillion if valued at the minimum wage – which is three times the value of the tech sector.
“These are systemic barriers. Unless we can understand this is the case, there’s never going to be parity.”
“My god there’s so much to be done,” said Julie Escobar, co-founder of Global Women Fresh, a networking platform for the fresh produce sector. The network is training women in Africa, Bangladesh and India skills such as opening and managing bank accounts, and running small business finance.
“I co-founded Global Women Fresh after being in the Ag business for more than 20 years and the lack of women at the top level is outstanding. We have less than five percent.
“Now, with more than 1,000 members, we’ve partnered with the United Nation’s SheTrades. By the end of 2021 they want to empower more than three million women, mostly in Africa.
“I don’t want to wait 200 years, as Melinda Gates says it could take, for equality. But there’s a lot of resistance to equality. If you’re the CEO of a private fresh produce company, you’re being forced to think about sustainability, social impact, profits and staying in business.
“Men are the venture capitalists. We need more women on the investor side”
“Sometimes the gender equality discussion doesn’t make it to the top five of priorities. We need to address this across government, the private sector and civil society with real intentionality.”
Jacqueline Pieters advised, “Men are the investors, the venture capitalists. We need more women on the investor side.
“Women and men are sometimes using a different language. When women demonstrate their new invention, they get very much into the product. While the investors like to know what the return on investment is – when am I going to get my money back? Both are important.
“I suggest women founders practice their story with a man. To understand their perspective.”
And Rachel Wilshaw seeks better research, to make the important role women play more visible to managers and investors.
“People get a misconception that men are doing far more than is actually the case. You must have an analysis of who’s doing what.
“Women may be doing very important work. But the men are visible, in the fields, delivering the products, doing the price haggling.
“I hope there will be apps used for collective negotiation that massively change bargaining power”
“You’ll find women are nurturing the plants and they critically affect the quality of the product. But the men are visible so they attract the investment.”
On the plus side, she expects the use of technology by young people will flip bargaining practices to help women get ahead.
“In the past unions have gone into a room and done deals with managers,” she said. “I think things are going to change. Workers can now mobilise via phone and negotiate to get better deals.
“I’d like to see apps that allow people to take power into their own hands. I hope there will be apps used for collective negotiation that massively change bargaining power.”
With increased investor interest in equality and sustainability, what will investment look like in the future?
Jacqueline Pieters has seen green investment funds fold in the Netherlands because, despite the appetite for this sort of investment, the projects weren’t available.
“Innovation is going to be faster and more prominent, that’s where investment will be”
“It seems like Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) focussed companies are doing better,” she says.
“But what is the value of externalities like reducing carbon emissions or improving social means? These are not valued in money. We need to give the externalities a value and sell that to the investor.
“There’s going to be more investment in sustainability. Not only from a nature point of view but also who is producing it? Are children and women well paid?
“I would advise very strongly for companies to invest in their own resilience. But also invest in your relationships – like what Unilever is doing now. Investing in the value chain to ensure that you are not dependent on one party.
“Also to invest in innovations. AgFunder has just said that startups in 2020 were able to raise 26 billion dollars in capital and it’s going to increase to a third of a billion.
“So innovation is going to be faster and more prominent and that’s where investment is going to be based. Of course also in sustainability, I think that’s going to be driven by regulations, customers and investors.”