By Amy Chen

Last month, I had the privilege of attending the second annual Beyond Borders Forum, hosted by Women’s Education Project (WEP), in New York City. The Forum focused on two compelling issues: preparing young women for fulfilling careers in the global economy and creating a corporate climate that is welcoming and equitable. The evening’s main event was a panel comprised of leaders from WEP, Criterion, Ellevest, and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. that explored gender equality and gender lens investing in the context of each organization’s operations.

It was clear from the panel that there is more focus than ever on the opportunities that emerge from incorporating a gender lens strategy, a movement that has engaged the attention of investors and leading companies and has the potential to direct significant capital toward advancing gender equity. Over 100 people attended the Forum, a testament to the increasing interest in understanding gender issues and innovating new approaches.

The panel was moderated by Abby Schultz, a senior writer at Dow Jones Penta, and featured Zoë Timms (Founder of WEP), Christina Madden (Director of Engagement of Criterion), Sylvia Kwan (Chief Investment Officer of Ellevest), and Swati Sawjiany (Managing Director at J.P. Morgan).

One of Criterion’s roles was to provide insights on using finance for social change, and they opened the discussion with a brief history of gender lens investing, noting that the field has grown rapidly over the past four years. According to a recent report from Veris Wealth Partners, public market investments in products with a gender lens investing mandate increased from $100 million in 2014 to $2.4 billion today. This does not include the funds invested with a gender lens across other asset classes, which in fact may bring the assets invested with a gender lens into the trillions.

Criterion emphasized the shift underway in the field, as investors are finding new possibilities for investing with a gender lens. For some investors, gender-disaggregated data is informing market analysis and how they value certain investment opportunities. Others are looking at gender-based violence – an issue that affects more than 1 in 3 women worldwide – and how it correlates to investment risk at a company, industry, and geography level. A proliferation of tools are being developed to help investors assess gender equity in the workplace and throughout the supply chain, looking at factors such as parental leave policies, gender equitable healthcare offerings, sexual harassment policies, and more.

WEP shared the challenges faced by its constituencies – young women, all living under the poverty line – in gaining the skills needed to find and keep fulfilling jobs while battling various socioeconomic constraints. To that end, WEP helps match women with their real career interests through its WEP centers, field trips, “I Am A Leader” program, and extensive alumni network.

Ellevest, a digital investment platform tailored specifically to women, noted increased demand from investors to incorporate impact investing into their investment strategies as a way to diversify their portfolios and align their investments with their values. In response, Ellevest built Ellevest Impact Portfolios, which invests up to half of clients’ portfolios in companies that power positive social change by advancing women. These investments include companies with women leaders and policies that advance women, companies working to meet higher standards of sustainability and ethical practices, loans that support women-owned businesses, and companies that provide community services.

J.P. Morgan touched upon various efforts to provide an open, fair, and equal environment for all employees. Through its “Women on the Move” initiative, the company provides tools for career development, growth, and retention. J.P. Morgan also earmarks $10 billion for women-owned or managed businesses and focuses on personal finance tools geared toward women. Given the current gap in female representation in senior roles in the private sector, the company acknowledged the need to support work-life balance and to use different recruiting strategies to discover talented women from atypical backgrounds.

Criterion emphasized the need to ensure that women’s rights organizations and other diverse social change agents are engaged in this growing field to ensure the solutions embraced by financial systems are grounded in gender expertise and look beyond representation in leadership to deeper indicators of gender equity. To this end, Criterion provides trainings and resources for social change organizations to deepen their understanding of how finance works, how data is valued in financial analysis, and how investment decisions are made.

For more information on the Women’s Education Project, visit https://womenseducationproject.org.

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