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25 Jun 2021

Gender equality: in society, the workplace, and in investment

Barbara-Ann King

Investec Wealth & Investment UK

Though there’s been significant progress towards gender equality, we’re still way off the 2030 UN goals. Covid-19 shows we must renew our focus.

The United Nations (UN) sustainable development goals (SDGs) are the global goals for sustainable development – the roadmap to the future we need to build. One of these goals (SDG5) is to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls by 2030.

Specifically, this goal has targets to end discrimination, gender-based violence, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), to increase the value of unpaid domestic work, enforce reproductive rights, and allow women to fully participate in leadership and decision-making.

In addition, it recognises three necessary means of action:

  • Fostering equal rights to economic resources, property ownership, and financial services
  • Promoting the empowerment of women through technology
  • Adopting, strengthening policies, and enforcing legislation for gender equality.
While this goal was born, along with 16 others, in 2012, it’s difficult to have a purposeful conversation about what it means in 2021 without acknowledging the powerful impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had, on women in particular, over the last year.

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Covid-19 and gender equality: a magnifying glass on key issues

While the issues affecting women are multitudinous, there are three that merit particular attention.

Firstly, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on an existing discrepancy in power distribution. 70% of frontline healthcare workers are women, while women make up only 25% of national parliaments. While women are leading the global effort to save lives, they are not empowered in decision-making.

Already, women do 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work than men.

Secondly, the increased domestic burden of the pandemic has fallen unequally. Already, women do 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work than men. While both men and women are working from home and face similar pressures, women have undeniably taken on more of the childcare and unpaid household duties.

Most alarming is the sharp increase in domestic violence the pandemic appears to have brought on. While ‘stay-at-home’ orders are intended to bring safety to the population, it is sadly clear that home is not always a safe place for a woman to be.

Covid-19 and gender equality: the other side of the coin

I do also want to reflect on the positives brought by the pandemic. Though it does not mitigate my concern about domestic violence, it comforts me to see how online services are providing an escape for people experiencing violence at home, and who may not otherwise speak up. It’s a great demonstration of empowering women through technology.

Something else I’ve witnessed is that we’re become more caring about employees and colleagues as people. We see more of their lives and their roles in their families. With this comes recognition of the need for flexibility – for men and women - and greater understanding of the complex web of issues holding women back from leadership.

Many wise people have said many wise things about what women are. “Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world,” or “women are leaders everywhere you look”. Women are all these things, but first and foremost they are people. They have lives outside of the office and we can’t divorce their personal lives and professional lives. We can’t, for example, expect a woman who’s experiencing violence at home to thrive in the workplace.

Collectively, we’re gaining an understanding that gender equality cannot be tackled in silos, or in isolation. It is inextricable from health, work, economic growth, and the various other issues targeted by the global goals.

Gender equality at work

Just as equality cannot be unwoven from the other SDGs, gender inequality cannot be a standalone issue at work.

It is not just a conversation around women in the workplace, or women’s access to financial services, or the way that women invest. Equality demands that women are represented and included throughout policies, systems, and processes.

Diversity is about much more than gender, but it’s a place to start.

Investec is a signatory to the UN Principles for Responsible Investment, and we’re committed to being more than just a signature on a page. I want to see more women in leadership. I’ve been in conversations on this topic, and I’ve said “If I don’t see women on the list, I’m going to put them on myself.” This is working – for example, earlier this year we’ve appointed Nicola Toyer as Head of Charities. We want people from different backgrounds, who have different perspectives to share. Diversity is about much more than gender, but it’s a place to start.

One issue I feel passionate about is the language used to describe women at work. We need to remove words like ‘feisty’ from our vocabulary, as it’s applied with negative connotations to women, and instead use the same word we’d use for a man: ‘assertive,’ which comes with a positive connotation. The same goes when people describe a woman as very ‘emotional’, another word that is loaded with negative gender connotations.

We’re all emotional, expressing our emotions is healthy and we all do it in different ways. Yet, this tends to be not recognised if, for example, a woman cries at work.

We must not only look inward at the opportunities we’re giving women, but also outward at how we’re serving our clients. Economic empowerment of women is my passion. While this encompasses topics like microfinancing in developing countries, which allows women to start businesses and lift their families out of poverty, it equally includes building our female client capability in our industry. That is a priority for us.

Investing with a gender lens is something we’re seeing growing demand for, and not just from our female clients.

Barbara-Ann King, CCO Investec Wealth & Investment UK
Barbara-Ann King, chief commercial officer, Investec Wealth & Investment UK

Companies that value diversity and have leaders focused on people and culture – they’re the companies with the best growth prospects.

Gender: the invisible G in ESG

Interest in ESG investing is on the rise. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown investors that the companies that thrive are those that take their responsibility to their employees seriously and operate in harmony with the communities they are part of. The social and governance pillars of ESG are gaining equal prominence with the environmental.

We have already noted the ways in which gender equality intersects with environmental, social and governance issues. We can expect them to rise together.

External pressure will grow on companies to have female representation in their leadership and policies that support women at work. Not just because it’s good for women, or even because it’s good for families, but because companies that value diversity and have leaders focused on people and culture - they’re the companies with the best growth prospects.

Promoting gender equality isn’t a women’s issue. It’s a global issue, a financial issue, an essential issue, and we all must take responsibility.

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