Putting gender equality at the forefront of investment strategies has become a key goal of investment promotion agencies (IPAs) as a way to promote sustainable development, reduce the role of the informal economy, boost job creation and generate higher profits for the multinational corporations (MNCs) that invest in a location.

“People at the top of IPAs and site selection organisations are working extremely hard to engage more women, but foreign direct investment [FDI] is still a Boys’ Club,” says Claudia Bellony Atanga, senior manager of programming at the non-profit International Economic Development Council. “What will break down the barriers of this Boys’ Club is us being intentional about how we attract and engage not just women, but also women of colour.”

Putting women at the forefront of investment strategies

The UN Conference on Trade and Development’s IPA Observer reveals that there are several ways that the IPAs are looking to integrate gender equality in the investment promotion workflow, including promoting gender-inclusive links between foreign investors and the local economy, and recommending opportunities where investment projects can have a positive impact on women. Other initiatives include suggesting aftercare services that promote gender equality in the workplace of MNEs, and encouraging equal access for men and women when it comes to capacity building, certifications and supplier development programmes.

According to the IPA Observer, IPAs also often promote gender equality and women’s empowerment through their national communication and media campaigns, ensure that their image brand is in line with the country’s gender equality commitments, and provide tailored support to address any challenges faced by their female stakeholders.

It only takes one MNC to embrace gender equality initiatives, and then its competitors as well as the public sector follow the example. Paola Bulgarelli, Cinde

Costa Rica’s Investment Promotion Agency, Cinde, is one of the IPAs that has integrated gender equality initiatives at the core of its investment promotion operations. Paola Bulgarelli, leader for strategic projects of investment climates at Cinde, believes that IPAs can have a significant impact on the national agenda when it comes to gender equality. “It only takes one MNC to embrace gender equality initiatives, and then its competitors as well as the public sector follow the example,” she says. “Therefore, it is key that IPAs provide the right sets of tools to the MNCs, and function as a bridge between them and  women searching for employment in order to push for more gender diversity.”

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Indeed, Cinde’s initiatives have worked well, with 49% of the 15,000 jobs created in the country in 2020 held by women. Moreover, women make up 44% of the workforces in companies supported by Cinde, against a national average of 40%.

Bulgarelli believes that Cinde’s work is an “invitation” to other IPAs that could follow similar initiatives in order to achieve greater gender equality in their countries. However, she stresses how important it is that measurements are created to show whether or not the initiatives will have a positive impact on gender equality and in reducing the gender gap.

Beyond the IPA gender leadership gap

Apart from the efforts to integrate gender equality in the investment promotion workflow, IPAs are also promoting gender equality in-house. The IPA Observer states that this includes addressing gender through internal non-discrimination policies, providing a range of training options on gender equality and female empowerment, and designating gender focal points to promote and monitor progress, with the goal of achieving diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Efforts to promote gender equality within IPAs seem to be paying off, as data shows that women are well represented when it comes to the distribution of IPA staff. A survey by the World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies and World Bank Group finds that “on average an IPA has 161 full-time employees, including 129 technical staff – of which 47% are women”.

Despite the fact that women are well represented within IPAs, there is still a gender gap when it comes to leadership. In fact, data from the IPA Observer shows that only 21% of IPAs are led by women.

Cedric Grignard, director of new business and innovation at Aderly, the investment agency in Lyon, believes that decisions taken within IPAs are given a different perspective when senior female figures are involved. He adds, however, that whether a decision is taken by a woman or a man, the focus must remain on ensuring that any investment is compliant with environmental, social and corporate governance standards and that it supports gender equality, as well as building the appropriate environment to work towards hitting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals targets for the 2030 deadline.

By placing women in leadership roles, Rina Bardic, managing partner at investment and advisory company BlueOceans.Ventures, believes that an IPA can elevate both its status and that of the country or region it represents. “This also applies to the corporate side, as there are often only one or two women in the room when very large corporations are discussing relocations and site selection, particularly in the Middle East but also in other parts of the world,” she says. “This is not a balanced environment because the voices of women are seldom heard compared with their male colleagues.”

Bardic suggests that women should be better represented in high-profile events and conferences, where they would have a platform to express their ideas. She adds that there should be more focus on gender equality in the boardroom too, in an effort to secure a better balance in terms of decision-making.

Shaking up site selection decisions

With only 21% of IPAs led by women, it is clear that men still dominate the field. On top of that, a majority of top corporate decision makers are also men. However, a better gender balance will, according to the economic development community, bring with it site selection decisions that are more inclusive when it comes to the work culture, and see a rise in prominence of locations and sectors that were off the radar previously.

It is not about breaking the Boys’ Club, but it is about breaking the white Boys’ Club that is controlled at the top by a few individuals. Claudia Bellony Atanga, International Economic Development Council

Bardic explains that women tend to gravitate more towards more inclusive, family friendly environments and focus more on the well-being of employees when it comes to site selection. “It is [important to look to attract] innovative companies that do not follow the old corporate route, or only look at financial incentives,” she says. “Therefore, it is essential for women to participate in the decision-making process in equal numbers with men, when it comes to a policymaking and the corporate side, so their voices are well represented, and the companies can build supportive environments to meet their needs.”

Flexible working hours and work-from-home schemes are just some of the initiatives that organisations could promote in order to encourage more women to take leadership roles. A bonus of such an approach is that everyone can achieve a better work-life balance.

This inclusive, diverse environment can bring further benefits through providing investors with new opportunities in previously unconsidered sectors, and a better understanding of the new markets that they are entering.

Bellony Atanga at the International Economic Development Council says that the success of an FDI project can be threatened when investors enter emerging markets and the people in leadership roles making the decisions look and think differently from the people that live in those communities. “This is really the issue; it is not about breaking the Boys’ Club, but it is about breaking the white Boys’ Club that is controlled at the top by a few individuals,” she says. “So, it is significant to engage more women, and more women from diverse populations, as well as black and indigenous populations, as a way for the communities and the economies to grow, and for the companies to perform well.”

With governments, IPAs and MNCs promoting gender equality initiatives, the timing seems right for the economic development community to break up this Boys’ Club. However, there is a widespread feeling that this alone won’t be enough; the focus should be not only on putting an end to this male-dominated scenario, but also building a diverse and inclusive environment. This new ‘club’ should score highly on gender, ethnicity, race and socio-economic diversity, because this is what will help companies to diversify their site selection decisions and enjoy previously untapped opportunities. By embracing such diversity and inclusivity, while providing an environment that enables all employees to thrive, organisations will be able to generate higher profits, ensure descent work for all and promote sustainable development.

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