In 2013, intern Scott Elias reflected on 4 different reframes discussed at Convergence XII and considered the power of each reframe to bring about social change. His reflection and the reframes where documented in Reframes as a Tool in a Social Movement, which you can download here. Below he focuses on the reframe “Gender & Women – Identity and Material Reality.”

REeframe: Gender & Women – Identity and Material Reality

by Scott Elias

When do gendered identities matter in defining value in investing?

Everything is about investing, it’s how we value the world, and if investing is how we value the world, gender is how we value the world too. It’s a system that shapes values, behaviors, and practices. And just as financial systems differ but interrelate cross-culturally, so do gender systems. That is, gendered systems exist on a global scale. And because both investing and gendered systems exist on a global scale, there’s overlaps between the two, hence gender lens investing.

What do we mean by gender? What do we mean by material reality? And how are they innately connected?

Do we mean a range of physical, mental, and behavioral characteristics that usually distinguish between what socially constitutes as masculinity and femininity? Yes, but it also usually refers to biological sex and the socially and culturally constructed roles, responsibilities, privileges, relations, and expectations of women and men. More precisely, it refers to what has become known as gender identity. Some question whether gender identity is the appropriate category of analysis for gender lens investing. Are women as a category somehow less appropriate? Seeing as how there is no consensus on what constitutes a singular human identity it gets tricky to start qualifying what defines women. And the process of qualifying requires a process of disqualifying which necessarily serves as a screen. Once we accept conceiving gender as lens, when asked the question “when do gendered identities or material conditions matter in defining value in investing?” the easy answer is always. The true task is articulating why.

That one’s identity is gendered is of utmost important, for there is a disciplinary production of gender, and social customs and disciplinary forces re-produce, maintain, and legitimate social (or gendered) relations of power. At any given time, in any given society, there are a multiplicity of compulsory social forces that insist obedience to gender norms. These forces consolidate conceptions of gender identity. That is, they discipline the way we perform identity, the way we perform subjectivity, indeed, the very way we perform gender. And the way we perform gender carries over into the way we act professionally and privately—and that includes into the way we move our money.

When is gender the right category of analysis and when should we just be talking about women and girls?

It is a challenging question, but moving the conversation from simply women and girls to a conversation about gender enriches the conversation. What makes gender so powerful as opposed to women or another term we could use is that the term gender highlights an underlying system. The language of gender is NOT just about women; it’s about the entire system, and as a reframe it means tweaking the rules of that system, exposing and reforming the norms that direct and inform our gendered thoughts and actions. Overemphasizing the term “women” focuses in on a particular set of gendered conditions. That is particularly useful when the scope of the issue is less general and more specific, like investing in a literacy program specifically for girls to curb a historical gender gap in education. But it is also limiting, may give rise to what has become grounded in a controversy regarding perceptions of “angry feminism,” and at times simply diverts focus from a sophisticated comprehension of how gendered systems work and reproduce themselves. After all, one is not investing in women or girls. Women and girls aren’t an investment opportunity. But understanding dynamics around women and girls, and their life decisions, should inform investment decisions, and investing in literacy programs, specifically for women, through a gender lens, can bridge gender gaps and reduce gender inequality.

In this sense, gender is particularly useful as a frame because it goes beyond looking at simply women. With gender as a frame we can fund products that actually think about women and their needs, particularly when we’re thinking about social tools and networks online. But it means more than just the metrics of women participation in a given industry. It is useful because as a frame it means we can impact culture, that we can fund companies that create women-friendly cultures as opposed to just companies with lots of women in them—two very different things. After all, gender equality is different than gender equity, and 50-50% representation doesn’t necessary guarantee an equitable environment. Yet an emphasis on women and girls is often implicit in gender lens investing. And the nuance between “women and girls” and “gender” facilitates a candid conversation about how literacy programs can be gender equitable programs, even if they disproportionately targets girls, because girls have gotten less access to education relative to their boy counterparts. That is, the use of “gender” elevates the conversation from a discussion about a particular set of gendered conditions to how and why those conditions are socially and culturally constructed, and how and why they are socially and culturally reproduced.

When do material conditions matter in defining value in investing?

Again, it is a challenging question without a definitive answer. Probing questions tend to cause further questioning. Yet if gender is central to how we value the world, investing is central to how we value the world, and gender is central to how we value our material conditions, than it is only logical to conclude that material conditions matter in defining value in investing. Whether we think of firms with women-friendly cultures as opposed to those that have lots of women in them—again highlighting the distinction between gender equity and gender equality—material conditions matter. In large part, they matter because markets were constructed and service an unequal distribution of resources for men and women. And because our identities are impacted by, or born out of, our material conditions—unequal material conditions—our gendered identity, our material conditions, must matter in investing. Our material conditions reflect they way we understand the world, a gendered world where values have been unequally distributed. Therefore we are likely missing pools of value because we are not distributing it equally by definition of how we are nurtured. If we understand identity as a product of a rule-bound gendered discourse that inserts itself in the way we conceptualize identity, in the way we understand our material reality, than we can begin to understand how these very conceptions connect to how we think and act, how we value, and, ultimately, how we make investment decisions and move our money.

Why is this reframe important?

Consider the origins of systems of knowledge. Analyze how gender is a system of power, a system of relations beholden to discourses that discipline material reality. If you do that, the real challenge becomes exposing the discontinuities and breaks in a discourse, the glue that sustains prevailing gendered norms.  Impact investing is gendered whether we speak about it in terms of gender norms or not. Regular investing based on (empirical) speculation or models that predict returns are gendered whether we emphasize the precise term gender or not. The subtle underlying connections that constitute value already exist, and the importance of reframing gender, reframing gender as an opportunity in finance, and finance as an opportunity to transform systems lies in making these already existing underlying connections visible.

Gendered system shape how we perform our identity, how we articulate who we are to our peers and bosses, to the world. Knowledge of what power is, knowledge of what materiality is, is critical to changing the power (or gendered) dynamic of systems—especially in investment circles. So how do you change the system? There is no easy answer, no silver bullet, but to change the system one must find a beneficial leverage point, and to find that leverage point one must begin to see how gender is part of a system. It means reframing how we view gender, and as a result reframing gender as an opportunity in finance. It means reframing finance as an opportunity to transform social systems. It means an understanding that investments and value are tied into gender, that gender is a lens and not a screen, that gender underlies the entire system. This reframe is about tweaking the rules of that (gendered) system, challenging the prevailing norms that direct and inform our gendered thoughts and actions, and capitalizing on investment and market opportunities that impact both our gendered material condition or reality, our gendered investment decisions, and the very gendered social relations of power itself. By contesting the reification of gender and identity, we can benefit from a crucial leverage point with the potential to destabilize the authenticity of privileged gender roles, to reverse the gender gap and reduce gender discrimination and gender inequality. And by denying the authenticity of privileged gender we can challenge a system that disciplines the way we perform and connect to our identity, the way we think, the way we act, and the way we move our money. That is, if more investment vehicles employed a gender lens, we could accelerate change for everyone—including women and children.

Read the white paper: Reframes as a Tool in a Social Movement

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