Think Big When You Think Gender-Lens Investing

How EWB approaches its investments with a lens for inclusion (and how you can too)

When I started my role at EWB Canada last year, one thing that was top-of-mind was the Canadian Government’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP). Knowing I was going to be based in Kampala, Uganda, I was eager to see the application of FIAP in international development, and more specifically, through impact investing in emerging markets. While gender equity is an issue I tend to think about year-round, International Women’s Day this year prompted me to put together this post to share some of the work we have been doing at EWB to incorporate a gender lens into our impact investing work.

Not too long ago at EWB Canada, Gender-Lens Investing (GLI) felt like an industry-contrived concept that was hard to actualize, especially for the early-stage social enterprises that we work with in East and West Africa. As investors, we worried that adopting a GLI strategy would narrow the pool of eligible businesses that fit our investment criteria, or impose unrealistic demands on our portfolio companies. Not to mention, we simply did not know where to start.

In 2017, Value for Women completed a Gender Opportunity Assessment for EWB, which helped to identify an organizational roadmap for improving gender inclusion. After attending an ANDE workshop on GLI in 2018, co-hosted by Value for Women, the concept started to come to life for us. We began to see how we could operationalize a business-driven approach to gender inclusion, as it relates to EWB Canada’s investment priorities and portfolio.

There are many ways to holistically embed a gender-lens in your investment process.

GLI recognizes that all investments have gendered impacts on our economic, financial, and social systems. Many impact investors and International Non-governmental Organizations understand the potential of applying a gender lens to move the needle on gender equality outcomes, but are less sure of what it looks like in practice. In a recent CAFIID webinar on gender-lens investing, participants were polled to identify what held them back from GLI. The main reason turned out to be a lack of relevant internal skills and understanding of how to implement this approach. This feeling resonated with us until we dove into the exercise of determining what our approach could be. Once we began researching, we noticed one of the biggest barriers to implementing an effective GLI strategy is the way we think. In other words:

While GLI efforts so far have largely focused on investing in women-led businesses, we have learned that neither a fund or organization needs to exclusively invest in female founders or products and services for women to qualify for a GLI strategy. There are many ways to holistically embed a gender-lens in your investment process, from how you source and screen potential investment opportunities to how you manage your investment portfolio.

GLI demands that organizations identify if women and girls have been involved or considered in the design process for a social innovation, in relation to the local ecosystem of that social enterprise. And, it requires investors to bring an extra layer of intentionality to the process of sourcing, funding and evaluating social businesses in gender-inclusive ways.

Applying a GLI strategy can help teams keep some of the barriers that women face top-of-mind, check their biases, and approach investment work with a lens for inclusion.

Here are some suggested tactics and resources we have found useful to get you started:

  • Rewrite your investment thesis. It might only take a couple of small changes to reflect a gender-lens in your mission, but go through this exercise with your team to ensure your organization’s intentions are captured in the North Star that guides your work. The Project Sage 2.0 report collates a number of funds that operate with a gender-lens, and highlights their gender activity and/or investment thesis for inspiration.
  • Diversify your network. Where are you looking for your next investment? Do your co-investors or referral sources value gender inclusion? If not, consider identifying new partnerships or joining new networks that may expose you to more gender-smart businesses.
  • Add a gender-lens to your due diligence process. A great way to operationalize a GLI strategy is to ensure you are asking the right questions at each stage of your investment process. Has the prospective investee examined how their product or service affects women and men differently, or tested whether there are any barriers or power dynamics at play that may prevent women’s uptake? The MEDA GEM Framework and the SPRING Investor Toolkit are great resources to identify the questions investors can ask to help determine whether a business is improving gender equality outcomes, or has the potential and openness to do so.
  • Implement a gender equality scoring system. Score your potential investments using a gender equality score. Grand Challenges Canada has a great guide on how they have approached this. Scoring potential investees does not necessarily have to be used as exclusionary criteria; even if the scores are low, it can serve as a useful baseline for understanding how your organization may be able to support a business or social enterprises in incorporating gender considerations.
  • Provide gender inclusion technical assistance. Some impact investors have been providing technical assistance to the companies in their portfolios specifically for gender projects. For example, Root Capital provides Gender Equity Grants to portfolio companies with the capacity to take on such projects. The Shell Foundation has a great report on taking a Business First Approach to Gender Inclusion, featuring a number of findings and case studies from gender inclusion strategies they have tested with a selection of small-to-medium enterprises they have supported.
  • Dance with data. How will you assess the gendered impacts your investments are having? What sex-disaggregated data can you request from your portfolio companies while being mindful of their time? Acumen’s Lean Data Guide to Understanding Gender Impact can be a useful place to start.
  • Take a look in your own toolbox. Think about your own team. How can you build more internal capacity to support portfolio companies in implementing gender inclusion strategies? Are there opportunities to direct professional development budgets and organizational learning events to gender inclusion? Keep an eye out for ANDE events, webinars by Impact Alpha or Toniic, the Gender Smart Investing Summit, or Duke University’s new intensive course on “Getting Gender Smart.”  

Ultimately, the approach you take to GLI should be contextual and will depend on a multitude of factors like the stage of the social enterprises you are working with, the capacity of your own team, and local cultural norms in the geographies in which you operate. There is no-one-size-fits-all approach. Engage with local gender experts in the regions in which you invest to ensure you are building an approach around local realities.  

EWB Canada is currently exploring a number of these strategies to understand what works best for our portfolio ventures. We’re incorporating a gender lens throughout our investment and due diligence process, and we recently welcomed a new Gender Inclusion Fellow to support in the process of identifying a gender equality scoring system and technical assistance opportunities for EWB Ventures. Feel free to get in touch with us at if you’d like to discuss this further or have other great strategies and resources to share.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BalanceForBetter. I hope this post helps you think about how to bring a more gender-balanced lens to your work.

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