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Making the Most of Women Professionals in Impact Investing

7 Steps Toward Strengthening Female Leadership and Career Development Across the Sector

by Marta Maretich

Women are breaking ground in the field of impact investing. The prominence of female leaders such as Jacqueline Novgoratz, Hazel Henderson and Judith Rodin suggests that the field of impact investing will be more gender-balanced than was the case with traditional, male-dominated finance. A recent study demonstrates the value of “multilingual” leadership teams, signalling that diversity and collaboration may be the strongest model for impact leadership. All this is good news for women working in impact.

Yet the sector is young; there’s still far to go before it’s firmly established. As impact moves into a consolidation phase, how can female impact finance professionals (including fund managers, executives and board members) improve their performance and make more of a difference? Findings from a National Council for Research on Women report on women fund managers in traditional finance suggest some practical steps women in impact could; and probably should; take to make the most of their professional lives.

1. Recognize the need to mobilize all available talent. The world faces major challenges: food scarcity, health crises, depletion of natural resources, habitat loss, climate change; all areas impact investing targets. We must draw on the expertise and talent of women as well as men in order to find; and, in the case of impact investing funds, to finance; innovative solutions.

2. Strive for a “critical mass” of women in top jobs. Research in related fields has shown that a critical mass of women in leadership roles changes the dynamics, decision-making and culture of organizations for the better. Impact funds should strive for broadly representative gender mix at the executive, officer and board levels. In the longer term, the impact industry needs to determine what a critical mass of women should look like; and create quantifiable criteria, benchmarks and guidelines for bringing more women into the field. This may be a task for a group of industry leaders, or possibly an organization (not yet formed) for women impact investing professionals similar to Women in Banking and Finance or Women in Finance.

3. Build and expand professional networks.
Traditional finance now boasts a number of female-centered networking organizations including 85 Broads and Golden Seeds. Similarly, female philanthropists have the Women Donors Network and Women Moving Millions. It’s about time female impact professionals had one or more such professional body to support career development, provide mentoring, encourage peer support and facilitate learning. Opening more male-dominated impact networks to women, and inviting more men to participate in women’s networks, have been found to strengthen gender equity in other fields.

4. Promote female fund managers and woman-centered portfolios. Funds can do more to identify and promote successful female fund managers and woman-centered (or gender lens-based) portfolios. Funds should promote both to investors, highlighting research that shows that funds and businesses managed by women perform as well as those run by men when the playing fields are level. Impact investment portfolios aimed at women beneficiaries offer clients an added dimension of benefit. Reaching out specifically to female investors, as the group High Water Women does, is another way to find synergies between investors, female fund managers and portfolios centered on women.

5. Gather and share data on women in impact. Quantifying impact; and sharing fund performance information; are already central principles for the impact sector. Yet, apart from some findings included in ImpactAssets50, there is so far little information on the representation of women in top impact finance and leadership roles. Tracking, monitoring and reporting information about the gender makeup of impact funds will help develop the sector. On another level, collecting information about the performance of women impact executives, fund managers and women-focussed funds will clarify the contribution made to the sector by women; and provide information to improve career development and participation.

6. Nurture the next generation of female impact leaders.
Woman impact professionals need to reach out to the next generation of young female leaders. This means mapping the career path for women in impact, then actively encouraging girls in elementary, high school and higher education to pursue subjects, such as economics, math and business, that make it possible for them to succeed. Shining a light on successful women in the field and using the media to make impact careers more visible to young people have both been shown to increase interest. Mentoring, coaching and providing educational opportunities such as boot camps and internships, are effective, too.

7. Support and fund research. Research may not be a top priority for busy impact investing professionals, but it’s essential for the development of the impact sector; and for the successful participation of women in it. The current buzz around investing in women is in many ways the fruit of research and this should be a lesson for the community of female impact professionals. Research has the power to shape sector development; but research doesn’t happen on its own. Someone (could it be us?) needs to help identify research needs, fund the work and disseminate the findings. Women impact professionals need to step up to this challenge, just as women in other fields have done before them.

Conclusion

Impact investing has always held itself apart from traditional finance, pointing to the ethics, values and commitment to benefit that distinguish the impact movement. Yet as the sector grows and evolves, women impact professionals will confront some of the same challenges faced by their sisters in traditional finance. If they want to lead from the front; and research suggests it’s best for everyone if they do; then they will have to build networks, hone skills and cultivate the career self-awareness that characterizes true professionals in every field.

The impact investing sector supports women in many different ways. Now there’s a chance for it to demonstrate its support for the professional women who make impact happen.

[Image credit: mfrissen, Flickr]

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