When it comes to gender diversity, investment promotion agencies do not necessarily practise what they preach.

While the fifth of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, the agencies mandated to attract investment in line with these SDGs fall short. In the top 100 recipient countries of greenfield FDI globally, just 17% of the heads of national IPAs are female, according to an fDi analysis at the time of publication. 

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Although the leaders of these 100 IPAs varied by organisational structure – from executive director to CEO or chair – this representation falls short of the 49.6% female share of the global population. Among the 37 OECD countries, female representation in the top leadership position of IPAs stands at 32%, almost double the global proportion.

The investment promotion industry performs better than the private sector, where just 2.8% of the world’s 500 largest companies have female CEOs. Nonetheless, the well documented benefits of gender diversity in leadership within the private sector, such as improved financial performance and economic growth, begs the question of what more gender diversity in economic development leadership could mean in practice.

Why the imbalance? 

OECD research shows that IPAs operate in a complicated and dense network of public and private stakeholders, interacting on average with 25 different organisations. Bridging the gap between the public and private sectors requires leaders to manage ministerial relationships, influence policy and gain the respect of male-dominated private sector leaders, says Diane Edwards, the president of Jamaica’s investment promotion agency Jampro.

“The challenge is recognition. Personality and leadership traits are extremely important, and that’s where I think the self confidence of women needs to be bolstered. It is quite often [women] just don’t get admitted to economic development circles and it’s not easy for them to develop the links they need,” she says.

Ms Edwards says that 57% of IPA leaders are female in the Caribbean region, but more needs to be done to encourage future female leaders. “You need to help women to operate in a male world without feeling isolated. I don’t think there are enough female networks that bolster confidence. I would like to see more of an inclusive set of business networks,” she says.

Beyond the status quo

The economic development industry often operates as an “old boy network”, says Rodrick Miller, CEO of Invest Puerto Rico. “People normally find out about economic development from other people in the field.”

That “old boy network” appears particularly exclusive at the top of the hierarchy of investment promotion and economic development organisations. In the UK, 53.9% of civil servants are women, with 12.7% from the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, according to government figures.

However, according to fDi research, only 13 (38%) of the UK’s 34 local enterprise partnerships – the public-private institutions set up to promote local growth and employment – have female leaders. Only three (8.9%) have leaders coming from BAME communities. 

“I think we have to be aggressive about going into colleges and universities, making sure that young people understand what economic development has to offer, and mentoring them once they get into the profession,” concludes Mr Miller.

Additional research conducted by Jack Conway

This article first appeared in the August - September edition of fDi Magazine. View a digital edition of the magazine here.