Gender empowerment in emerging markets: look beyond the board

Earlier in March, International Women’s Day championed the progress made towards greater gender equality over the last century. Whilst there is much to celebrate, and we laud the efforts made, there is clearly much still to do. One of the most concerning of the post-pandemic scars is the ‘shecession’: women’s jobs are now 1.8 times more vulnerable than their male counterparts[1]. When the going gets tough, women bear the brunt of the downside in the workplace, balancing family responsibilities all the while.

At Arisaig Partners, we believe improved outcomes for women have positive ‘ripple effect’ on families, communities, businesses, and ultimately shareholders including ourselves. We are not alone in this belief. Gender Lens Investing (GLI) has seen increasing interest in recent years. By 2019, there were estimated to be 192 active GLI vehicles across public and private markets with total assets under management of USD 7.7 billion, up from USD 4.8 billion in 2018. Intellecap[2], a social impact advisory firm, broadly identifies two categories of how GLI supports women


  1. economic empowerment through investing in businesses that have women leaders, owners, or promote workplace equity; and
  2. social empowerment through investing in business that provide access to critical goods and services to specifically benefit women and girls.

The vast majority of GLI funds focus on economic empowerment, including most prominent gender lens exchange-traded funds (ETFs)[3]. Intellecap estimates only 12% of GLI funds restrict their criteria for investment to social empowerment.

As a business with a woman co-CEO, we have seen first-hand the benefits that a diverse and representative leadership can have on an organisation. However, these outcomes are not guaranteed. S&P Global found that while proportion of women on boards has increased since 2013 (particularly in countries with binding or recommended quotas), it is not clear this has (yet) had a ‘trickle down’ effect: correlations between women on the board and other diversity indicators such as women in management or gender pay equity is low[4].

Simply investing in businesses where women are represented in leadership is not enough. Worryingly, this metric seems to be one that GLI funds focus on, perhaps because doing so does not significantly restrict their opportunity set. In a survey conducted in 2019 of 5,000 mid-market businesses around the world, 87% of them had at least one woman in a C-suite role[5]. In fact, one may be hard pressed to distinguish ‘gender focused’ portfolios from those that do not consider this at all.

Spot the ‘gender lens’ investments

One of the lists below is the top 10 US holdings across ten of the world’s largest ‘gender lens’ funds. The other is the top 10 holdings of a large ETF that simply tracks the S&P 500[6]. Which is which? With 50% of the names in common, it’s surprisingly hard to tell.


List A List B
Microsoft Corp Apple Inc
Apple Inc Microsoft Corp Inc Inc
NVDIA Corp Alphabet Inc
Visa Inc Tesla Inc
Anthem Inc Meta Platforms Inc
AbbVie Inc NVIDIA Corp
UnitedHealth Group Incorporated Berkshire Hathaway
Omnicom Group Inc UnitedHealth Group Incorporated Inc Johnson & Johnson


Sources:  Morningstar, fund manager websites (accessed 22 Mar 2022); compiled by Arisaig Partners [7]

In our view, a more grass roots approach to influencing gender equality is required. A simple example is affordable sanitary products. The positive impacts of women and girls having access to these to manage menstruation are well-established. Just ask any of the millions of girls that miss school or develop urinary tract infections due to lack thereof. Unfortunately, substantial obstacles to access persist. When budgets are tight – during high inflationary environments like now – access to sanitary towels could be one of the first products to go. In countries such as India, where as many as 4 in 5 girls drop out of school after starting their periods[8] and girls limit their food and water intake to minimise the frequency of having to change their pads[9], cultural taboos are a significant barrier, so distribution must be accompanied by education.

Outside of this ‘product’ example, finding emerging market listed businesses that tackle gender issues away in a way that can be so clearly ringfenced and impactful is not easy. There are, however, examples of businesses catalysing change in high employment sectors. Several manufacturing companies are addressing female employment mobility by providing education. Specifically, they are improving access to English education – key to undertaking management level tasks in South Asia, for example – to help women move beyond the shop floor. This, combined with adaptive and supportive maternity practices, are improving earning potential for women. While the companies have seen short-term benefits from securing higher prices from sustainability-minded western suppliers, the real businesses case, however, lies in lower churn levels, greater talent retention, and higher productivity.

Having fully integrated ESG into our investment approach for over a decade, Arisaig Partners has long recognised the advantages associated with diverse leadership and workforces, and continues to nurture and encourage these qualities in businesses we invest in. However, to contribute measurable impact on gender equality, we seek to invest in businesses that do more than tick gender representation boxes, provide a women’s bathroom (unfortunately still a stumbling block for some emerging markets factories we visit), or have female representation at board level. We need to look harder and go further, and we will.



[2] Intellecap, Global Landscape of Gender Lens Investing




[6] Different share classes of the same company are considered a single holding.

[7] Answer: List A represents the ‘gender lens’ funds.




This material is being furnished for general informational and/or promotional purposes to professional investors only. The views expressed are those of Arisaig Partners and should not be considered as advice or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold a particular investment. They reflect opinion and should not be taken as statements of fact, nor should any reliance be placed on them when making investment decisions. This material does not constitute independent research and is not subject to the protections afforded to independent research.

The statements and views expressed herein are subject to change and may not express current views. Arisaig Partners makes no representation or warranty, express or implied, regarding the accuracy of the assumptions, future financial performance or events. Emerging markets are generally more sensitive to economic and political conditions than developed markets and may be more volatile and less liquid than other investments.

All information is sourced from Arisaig Partners and is current unless otherwise stated. Issued by Arisaig Partners (Asia) Pte. Ltd. Not for public use or distribution. Arisaig Partners (Asia) Pte. Ltd is licensed and regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

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