Magazine article Soundings

The Limitations of Transnational Business Feminism: The Case of Gender Lens Investing

Magazine article Soundings

The Limitations of Transnational Business Feminism: The Case of Gender Lens Investing

Article excerpt

Does greater involvement in financial markets help the advance of feminism?

The fact that there is a gender bias in women's access to finance in almost all parts of the world has been well documented. The specific expressions of this bias vary across space and place. In the US, for instance, it has been found that women (particularly single women with children) face discrimination when taking out mortgage loans - as do people of minority racial or ethnic backgrounds. Studies conducted in various OECD countries have also found that women are among the groups most viciously targeted by payday lenders and other predatory lenders that extort money from the least well off through high interest rates and servicing fees. In a somewhat different manifestation of gender bias, women-owned businesses are also less likely to receive financial investment. Thus, for instance, while women found 40 per cent of all businesses in the US, they constitute at most 6 per cent of those that receive funding by venture capitalists.1

While the situation in countries of the global south is quite different, there too women face difficulties accessing the finance needed to start and expand businesses. In recent years, this financing gap has become the focus of a growing number of public-private partnerships that seek to offer women loans to start small or medium enterprises (SMEs), which are increasingly being presented as a key means of achieving 'development'.

In addition to facing gender-based inequalities in borrowing, women are also underrepresented as investors and financial actors. In media and policy-making circles, for instance, much attention has revolved around the lack of women on the boards of banks and other corporations. According to one estimate, in 2014, across 15 UK, European and US banks, women made up 25.7 per cent of those on boards and 22.3 per cent of senior managers.2 Looking beyond the banks, it has also been noted that women are underrepresented among various categories of investors, ranging from traditional investors in stocks and bonds, to private 'angel investors' providing capital for business start-ups, to investors in the newer (and often smallscale) internet-based crowdfunding and peer-to-peer (P2P) lending initiatives.

It is within this broader context that a number of new financial instruments for 'gender lens investing' (GLI) have emerged. While GLI can refer to a range of products and initiatives, the term is meant to broadly capture an emerging class of investments that claim to be women-centred and to improve gender-based inequalities in finance. Many even go so far as to claim that GLI will bring about large-scale systemic transformation within society more broadly. In this article, which has a specific focus on gender lens mutual funds, I outline some of the problems of this approach. Without wishing to undermine the possibilities that these initiatives may afford for advancing gender equality in certain areas, I would like to suggest, first, that many of these initiatives actually have quite limited aims, and, second, that they work to reproduce particular assumptions about the commensurability of gender equality and finance-led neoliberalism. These assumptions, I argue, are rooted within a neoliberal 'common sense' that assumes that greater access to the financial market, like other markets, will automatically lead to the erosion of discrimination - undermining gender inequality while simultaneously improving profitability. They also assume that there is no alternative to neoliberal finance-led capitalism, which imposes important limits to critical feminist praxis.

Outlining GLI and its limitations

To begin, it is necessary to further explain the emerging (and multifaceted) field of GLI. According to several groups that are seeking to advance this broad field - or what some refer to as a 'movement' - GLI fuses the moral imperative to support women together with the thesis that it makes good business sense to invest in companies that support women in leadership and throughout society. …

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