Recent resignations of high-profile white women leaders make the case for embracing a broader view of gender lens investing
  • Metrics for gender lens investing need to incorporate an intersectional lens.
  • Data on the number of women in leadership roles does not tell investors enough about company culture or the rates at which women of color are being promoted.
  • Several high-profile female CEOs recently resigned after accusations from employees of a racially insensitive work environment

Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity — which mirrors the homogeneity of finance as a whole — is not a new phenomenon. Any sociologist will tell you that the privilege and power afforded to white men over the last few centuries puts everyone else at a disadvantage.

Gender equality advocates now acknowledge a new reality: merely having a female CEO is not enough to claim that a diversity problem is solved, despite its primacy in gender equity screenings for investors. Project Sage, part of Wharton Business School’s Social Impact Initiative, found in 2018 that more than 70% of surveyed funds defined gender lens investing as investing in portfolio companies advancing women in finance or corporate leadership. Too often, that advancement is limited to white women. 

“We have to take an intersectional lens to make sure that that’s not happening,” said Tara Sabre Collier, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Oxford University’s Said School of Business who studies diversity in impact startups. “When we’re pushing for women’s leadership, we must also specifically be saying local women’s leadership if we’re talking about investment funds in Africa and Asia, and in the West, making sure that we’re saying that women’s leadership includes Black and brown women’s leadership.”

Sabre Collier and other experts have noted that while collecting data on gender is becoming the norm for the financial world — including data on maternity leave policies, pay, and rates of promotion — data on race, sexual orientation, and other demographics is much harder to come by, making it difficult to tease out how intersectional a woman-led organization actually is. When data is available, it’s dismal: one 2019 report found that 40% of directors in the U.K. social investment sector were women, but just 2.8% were women of color. 

Based on recent history, data on human resources practices disaggregated by race might be useful. The female leaders of The Wing, Reformation, Refinery29, and other startup darlings have stepped back from their respective positions after employee complaints about a toxic work environment for people of color. Outwardly, these brands appeared to be walking the walk on diversity. (Full disclosure: I am a member of The Wing.)

Women Deliver, the global advocacy organization that has partnered with a number of gender lens investors to deliver its annual gatherings, is also under fire for a similar lack of intersectionality. CEO Katja Iverson, a G7 advisor on gender equality, is stepping back to await the results of an independent investigation into the allegations. 

“It’s lifted a veil on a problem that was always there, but wasn’t talked about,” said Sabre Collier.

Indeed, there is a whole #girlboss industry that caters to young women who believe in the disruptive power of their own leadership — an important message, but one that needs more specificity. A year ago, my main critique of this industry was that it could verge on self-parody with its Instagram-friendly branding and vague claims about empowerment. In the wake of the last few weeks, that critique has shifted to the blind spots that a relentless focus on gender can unintentionally create.