As the world celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8, female representation at the top of the global investment promotion industry remains lower than the general population, raising questions about what gender diversity might mean for developmental outcomes.

An analysis of the top 100 host countries of foreign direct investment (FDI), conducted by fDi in August 2020 found that less than a fifth (17%) of their investment promotion agencies (IPAs) are led by women. While some leadership positions have changed since initial data collection, men still make up the vast majority of top positions today.

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Although the leaders of these 100 IPAs varied by organisational structure — from executive director to chief executive or chair — this representation is significantly lower than the 49.6% female share of the global population. Among the 37 OECD countries included in fDi’s analysis, females held 32% of the top leadership positions within IPAs — almost double the global proportion.

In the UK, the same fDi research found that only 13 (38%) of 34 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), the public-private institutions set up to promote local growth and employment, are led by women. Moreover, only three (8.9%) LEPs had leadership from minority ethnic communities.

Need for diversity reporting

While the global proportion of female leaders in IPAs exceeds that seen in the private sector, where just 2.6% of the world’s 500 largest companies have female chief executives, there remains a disconnect between developmental goals and practice. 

Many IPAs aim to attract investment to achieve outcomes in line with the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals — the fifth of which is to boost gender diversity — but often lack reporting on their own organisations, and may be missing the well-documented benefits of more diverse leadership.

Meanwhile in the private sector, about 70% of the world’s largest 5000 multinationals report on progress in this area, according to Unctad’s World Investment Report 2020. However, the representation of women in leadership positions  falls as you look higher up the organisations, according to a Mercer 2019 analysis.

Disproportionate pandemic effects

As the pandemic has forced millions worldwide to work from home, parents have found themselves juggling their career and childcare, with most of the burden falling on women. 

A global Financial Times survey of almost 400 people conducted in February 2021 found that two-fifths of working mothers have either taken, or are considering taking, a “step back” in their career as a result. Meanwhile, the proportion of working fathers thinking of doing the same was 10 percentage points lower.

More broadly, women across all sectors have been disproportionately impacted by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

An October 2020 study into the impacts of Covid-19 on gender inequality found that women are 24% more likely than men to permanently lose their job. Using a six-country survey across China, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the UK and US, the researchers also found that women expect their labour income to fall by 50% more than men do.

Before the pandemic, more than a quarter of female workers in OECD countries were in part-time employment, which is more than twice the share of men. A report published by consultancy McKinsey in 2015, found that advancing women’s equality could add $12tn to global gross domestic product by 2025.

While the number of women in senior leadership positions has grown, there remains a disconnect between goals and reality.