Gender Smart | February 21, 2017

Pacific RISE: Three gender-lens investing truths we learned developing an impact strategy in the Pacific

The team at


Impact investing in the Pacific is hard enough. If we have to consider gender as well, we have often heard, it will be nearly impossible.

The development of Pacific RISE, an initiative of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) seeks to expand impact investing in more than a dozen Pacific Island countries, is turning those assumptions on their head.

Pacific RISE is providing AUS$3 million (US$2.3 million) in grants to impact investing intermediaries using a gender lens in their work in the Pacific. Intermediaries, such as The Difference Incubator or Social Outcomes, will facilitate the flow of capital from investors to enterprises by providing technical assistance to help the enterprises get ready for investment and helping them build relationships.

There are some early lessons learned from that process that are relevant to others design a gender lens investing strategy in other regions or sectors. What follows are three truths, learned the hard way, about building a gender lens investing strategy:

  1. Recognize and take time to shift perceptions.
  2. Compile data about gender patterns to inform investment analysis.
  3. Bake a gender lens into the whole investment process.
Shift Perceptions

Many investors assume that introducing gender will limit opportunities. These same investors don’t apply that logic to other foci. For example, if we were to look at opportunities in the Pacific and focus on agriculture, many investors would see that as a useful focus that implied we will go deep and develop expertise.

The objection that paying attention to gender will shrink the range of opportunities in an already difficult environment assumes the effort will simply prioritize, or screen for, women. As women are half the population, the thinking goes, it will cut opportunities in half. Then the logic continues: in places where there are fewer women entrepreneurs, or women are less dominant in the economy, it is dramatically reducing the potential for investment. Not just to 50 percent but to 15 percent. Suddenly women are a niche, gender focus is a constraint.

To understand the constraints and opportunities that will shape the program, designers need to listen carefully to conclusions about gender with an awareness that there is both bias and a range of misperceptions that kick in when gender comes up.

Early in the design process, Pacific RISE adopted the position that a gender lens can and should expand opportunities, not limit it. Yet we still needed to meet our partners, including investors and intermediaries, where they were at and then work to shift perceptions.

For example, some impact investors were hesitant about the women’s empowerment focus of the program. In design, we acknowledged the need to work on framing and provide education for investors.

In addition, we built relationships with a new set of investors who had already demonstrated interest in gender equality, and philanthropists investing in women and girls issues. This led to expanding the potential pool of investors.

A gender lens helps see opportunities. Start with the assumption that it makes the view of the world bigger, clearer. And go out and see what comes up in the viewfinder. However, stay vigilant. If partners operate with the assumption that gender is a constraint in the program, it will become one. Build in feedback loops to test that perceptions are changing among collaborators. You don’t want to be the only one flying a gender lens flag.

Data patterns

Better data leads to better gender analysis, adding rigor to the design of the process. That means not just a single convincing data point about a women-led business, but a wealth of information about gender patterns that can enrich the investment process.

Such data helps us not just see clearly opportunities and potential for shifting gender inequalities. It makes us smarter. It sharpens our view of the world by pushing on our assumptions to see both risks and opportunities with clear eyes. This is true also of asking questions about race, class, age or any assumptions that may be obstacles.

In the Pacific Islands, women make significant contributions to communities and economies. Businesses have strong cultural links to family and village customs. Impact investment products and services often target women and girls, but rarely uses a gender analysis throughout the investment process.

  • In the Solomon Islands, for example, the annual turnover at the Honiara Central Market is between $10 and 16 million. Women are responsible for about 90 percent of this marketing activity as bulk buyers from farmers and as retailers.
  • In Papua New Guinea, annual food production, largely the responsibility of women, has been valued at $55 million per year.
  • In Samoa, 80 percent of the private sector is comprised of micro-businesses; women head more than 40 percent of them.

A recent review of companies in Papua New Guinea found the impacts of gender violence results in the lost, per staff member, of more than 11 days of work per year as a result of the impacts of gender violence: two days lost to ‘presenteeism’, five days to absenteeism and four days helping other victims of gender based violence. For one firm, this means an estimated 26,200 staff days lost per year!

How does data inform the day-to-day operations of Pacific RISE?

  • We make use of specialized gender knowledge. Programs sometimes check a box and relegate gender specialists to initial design or reporting inputs or watchdogging outcomes. Not in Pacific RISE. On the Pacific RISE team, Kate Nethercott plays the role of a gender specialist, bringing knowledge of gender patterns in the region and key relationships with women’s right organizations in the region
  • We disseminate what we know widely with our partners and intermediaries. Pacific RISE offered intermediaries a set of fact sheets on gender patterns in the Pacific more broadly and around domestic violence in particular. Our country profiles also have been upgraded to include gender patterns.
  • We connect intermediaries to gender and women’s rights networks operating in the Pacific. Dedicated gender resources such as the Global Fund for Women, Pacific Women and the international NGO, CARE, are able to provide the gender data to improve financial decision making.

The desire for data and knowledge about gender in the Pacific has shifted the sense of who is an important partner and what is important knowledge. In thinking through market formation, we often prioritize technical expertise about investments and industries, even if we know that culture and social structures determine much of what is possible.

Gender Lens

Many gender programs start with a target and, indeed, 80 percent of DFAT’s investments have to affect women’s economic empowerment in a meaningful way. Our first reaction is to point our investment processes at women. They put out a numeric goal and so everyone starts counting. We prioritize women-led businesses, for example, and count how many women in our pipeline.

There are two problems with this, one is that this simple screen doesn’t take into account a broader gender analysis. An even bigger issue: How do we expect to have different outcomes if we continue to do (only more of) the same things?

The requirement to “check the box” should challenge our capacity for creativity. The requirement is intended to signal that there is a problem so we can solve for the underlying challenges. We can then push us past basic assumptions into meaningful opportunities.

Pacific RISE wrote gender into the entire program design, not just the intended impact but the realm of opportunities, the structures and processes of implementation and strategies to get to deeper and more durable social change.

In particular, we rethought how we engage with intermediaries such as the business accelerators. We developed a baseline understanding of where intermediaries were in gender lens investing and where they wanted more support. We designed and provided the organizations with specific gender lens training, mandated gender lens questions in the application forms and selection criteria (we assigned 20 percent of the assessment criteria to addressing a gender lens) and provided one-hour skype calls to help intermediaries answer this section of the application.

As a result of the training program, several intermediaries are incorporating gender lens investing practices into their core operations. We have developed frameworks to evaluate how intermediaries implement processes, design investment structures and value the underlying gender analysis of opportunities in how they make investments. This will be useful learnings for other organisations in future.

By shifting perceptions, building the evidence base and integrating a gender lens across our processes, Pacific RISE is expanding impact investing to support the goal of women’s empowerment set by the Australian government. By sharing what we’ve learned, we hope to go beyond the ‘why’ of gender lens investing to ‘how’ it helps expand, not limit, the opportunities for meaningful impact investments.

[seperator style=”style1″]Disclosure[/seperator]

To learn more, contact Joy Anderson @ criterion institute or visit

Photo credits: 
Kiribati Cafe owner. Photo by Felicity Spurrett
Mrs. Nawaitouvo making virgin coconut oil on Nacula Island, Fiji. Photo by Rob Laird
PNG student at Divine Word University. Photo by Felicity Spurrett.
Women attending a small business mentoring program. Photo by Bea Duffield