Investing in women and girls: a multiplier effect for change

The global theme for International Women’s Day this year is Generation Equality. It’s a call for action across the generations to level the playing field and support women to fulfil their potential. We asked Julie Reilly, CEO of the Australian Women Donors Network, to help the APS community to understand more about the issue and how investing in women and girls could pay extra dividends.

We know that despite considerable progress in Australia and globally, women and girls continue to be overrepresented in poverty and disadvantage and underrepresented in positions of power and influence. Women and girls need significant investment to address this inequality and are highly effective drivers of change with a well-documented multiplier effect from the dollars invested in them.

However, unconscious bias can result in women and girls missing out on their fair share of the benefits of philanthropic giving. Employing a ‘gender lens’ in philanthropy helps to address this and maximise the impact of giving.

And what is a gender lens? At its most simple, a gender lens asks questions to find out what might not be evident on the surface, for example, seeking a gender analysis of an issue you care about to make the invisible visible.

Inclusion by design

The Big Issue sellers are a familiar feature of city street corners around Australia, but before 2010 most of the beneficiaries of this hugely successful enterprise were marginalised men. An investigation revealed that many women were not inclined to access this potentially life-changing opportunity due to factors like child care, fear of violence, or the negative connotations of women selling from street corners. In response, The Big Issue created The Big Issue Women’s Subscription Enterprise, in which women are employed in distribution centres, selling subscriptions by phone, packing orders and sending them all over the country from the safety of a secure and private working environment. Using a gender lens uncovered a significant gender bias and allowed for the implementation of a solution that significantly increased the impact of the organisation across the population.

Gender bias – are you seeing the full picture?

As Caroline Criado Perez put so clearly in her award-winning 2019 book about the gender data gap Invisible Women, acknowledging gender bias is not suggesting anything malicious or deliberate is at work. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that for millennia men were considered the default human. The book shows that many things from medical research to snowplough timetabling – as well as philanthropic funding – is conducted primarily and unconsciously considering the needs of men and boys as the norm.

The effects of this male default range from relatively minor matters to more life-threatening consequences. These include crash test dummies and car safety mechanisms designed for the average male body proportions which do not adequately consider or protect most women (and many men outside the ‘norm’) and pharmaceuticals that are not properly tested on women.

Another more insidious example involves cardiac health. More women die of cardiovascular disease than men. Yet, a US study conducted in 2014 found that only one-third of cardiovascular clinical trial subjects are female and fewer than one-third (31 per cent) of cardiovascular clinical trials that do include women, report outcomes by sex. Also, as explained in a 2019 article in the Lancet, ‘typical’ symptoms of a heart attack, which involve central crushing chest pain that radiates to the left shoulder or jaw, are only typical for men. The kinds of symptoms experienced by women – feeling generally unwell, and unexplained weakness – are referred to as ‘atypical’ and are much less widely known. As a result, women take more time to seek treatment, pushing morbidity and mortality rates for women higher. Gender bias directly leads to a higher number of women dying from heart attacks.

Why investing in women and girls is essential – for us all and the planet

While gender equality is a worthy goal in and of itself, the benefits of investing in women and girls extend far beyond the individual.

Data shows that in the developing world women invest 90% of their earned income back into their families. In comparison, men spend only 30-40%, spurring the OECD to urge development agencies to ensure that ‘financial assets are in the hands of women’.

This benefit goes even further, however. In his impeccably researched 2017 book Drawdown, environmentalist Paul Hawken found that by a significant margin, the most impactful thing we can do to reduce the impact of climate change is to educate girls and support family planning. The reasons for this are many; educated and empowered girls and women have fewer children and can invest more resources in each child, helping to stabilise the global population and reduce poverty.

Overcoming gender bias in literary awards – a case study for change

The Stella Prize, established in 2013 and named after iconic Australian author Stella Maria Sarah ‘Miles’ Franklin, is a major literary award that recognises Australian women’s writing. It was established after 11 prominent women in the writing industry expressed concerns that, in the words of Sophie Cunningham: Women are much less likely to win literary awards, to write reviews of books, or have their books reviewed. This, despite the fact they write about half the books published’. Now, after seven years of advocating for and recognising women writers, the Australian literary world has changed for the better – the 2018 Stella count found that nearly 50% of book reviews in Australia were of books authored by women. The application of a gender lens and investment in empowering women and girls has changed the landscape for women authors, and readers, in Australia.

An invitation to play your part

Just last week UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, called for immediate action to address gender inequality everywhere around the world.  Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to invest strategically to drive equality for women and girls.  International Women’s Day is an invitation to play your part.

The Australian Women Donors Network’s free Gender-Wise Toolkit for Grant-Makers outlines what the application of a gender lens means for philanthropic giving. It explains the practical and simple steps of how to go about it to improve decisions about distributing funds, including which organisations they go to, who those organisations are planning to support and how.

> Register to receive your free Gender-Wise Toolkit.

Australian Women Donors Network

With thanks to the Australian Women Donors Network for partnering with APS to develop this content.