Opinion: How impact investing can help girls shatter the glass ceiling

Girls attend a computer class at a high school in Herat, Afghanistan. Photo by: Graham Crouch / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Moringa School in Kenya and Rwanda, a social enterprise built with a blended private and philanthropic financing partnership, has spent the last five years developing a bespoke curriculum for young adult students, both in the classroom and online, that combines skills in software development and data science with essential transferable skills for work.

With a 90% job placement rate for the predominantly female graduates, it’s a bold example of what’s possible and a clear statement of change for the next generation of tech leaders.

Governments and private investors have long recognized the importance of investing in education and skills development, in terms of both achieving gender equality and economic resilience. But progress for adolescent girls and young women — a group that comprises an estimated one-eighth of the world’s population — is far from equal, especially when it comes to enabling adolescent girls in low- and middle-income countries to have the same opportunities to find employment and participate in their communities.

Many girls won't go back to school when lockdown is over

Experts worry the pandemic could roll back decades of progress on gender equality and girls' education.

Even prior to COVID-19, nearly 1 in 4 girls aged 15-19 globally were not in education, employment or training, compared with 1 in 10 boys. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more likely we are to see this gender gap widen even further, as we have seen in previous public health emergencies such as Ebola.

Adolescent girls and young women are our next generation of leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs. It is their right to learn and reach their full potential. Investing in their success makes economic sense and is also a smart way to maximize social impact.

In order to support female talent, all global stakeholders — including philanthropic entities, governments, and investors — need to develop intentional strategies at greater scale of impact that focus specifically on girls’ and young women’s transition from education and learning to employment.

A new report published last month — in a partnership between UNICEF, the GenderSmart Investing Summit, and Volta Capital — has outlined the opportunities to reach more adolescent girls and young women by increasing private capital investment and impact in this area.

It lays out six core investment themes — skills, jobs, education, safety, health, and inclusion — that influence how girls and young women make the transition from school to work, and presents opportunities for investors to address persistent gender gaps in education and economic participation.

Increasing investment will be critical as a compliment to the nonprofit interventions that enable adolescent girls and young women to gain access to secondary and post-secondary education; build foundational, digital, transferable and job-specific skills in any education setting; and secure decent and productive jobs, including self-employment and entrepreneurship.

Safety, health, and inclusion are also essential and provide a foundation for success in the other investment thematic areas while being stand-alone investment themes.

Investors can choose to build a focused investment strategy in one or several of these themes. Looking across impact investment flows in different sectors, there is currently more than $21 billion in existing impact investments relevant to the school-to-work transitions in emerging markets — from education technology to infrastructure. Yet, only a very small proportion has intentionally and explicitly addressed the opportunities for girls and young women in their due diligence reviews or impact measurements.

A first step in addressing this gap is for current impact investors to incorporate a lens on adolescent girls and young women that identifies and channels capital, and measures impact as integral to their investment and impact management processes.

This includes the many investors with portfolios focused on economic growth via an investment thesis of increasing jobs for women.

Interactive: Explore 25 years of uneven gains for girls

Twenty-five years after committing to action on gender equality, global data suggests that there have been achievements in education, health, and rights for girls. But delving deeper shows the inequality within these numbers.

There is huge potential to expand impact by adopting a wider generational view that explicitly supports adolescent girls and young women, including addressing the mismatch of current digital skills competencies with the required competencies needed to be successful in local job markets.

Secondly, let’s consider impact investment flows into education technology. Early investor adopters, especially in the current COVID-19 climate of increased digital learning, are embracing opportunities by investing in new tech platforms and content. But very few of these investments have intentionally assessed the specific needs and opportunities of adolescent girls and young women. Adolescents and young adults are not homogenous, but many investment theses are designed as a one-size-fits-all model.

Another step in addressing the gap is shared learning between investors and the international development community on the decades of experience translating “gender mainstreaming” into tangible intervention designs, measurement and results with, and for, girls and women.

Thirdly, we need more smart and bold investment approaches in education technology and other sectors that compliment public-financed, nonprofit interventions and philanthropic capital, including through blended and other innovative financing approaches as modeled by Moringa School.

Now is the time to reimagine a world of opportunity for this generation of girls and young women and enable a future fit for their success.

Our aim is to place them at the forefront of change, value their lived experience and potential, and address persistent barriers. Together, we can shatter the proverbial glass ceiling so many adolescent girls and young women continue to encounter on their pathways from school to work, and bring about a monumental change for generations of girls to come.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

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