Back in my early university days, I did a double degree in women’s studies and economics. I was told that I was the only student to have ever chosen that seemingly strange combination. Switching between classes did feel like switching between two very separate worlds. One had small classrooms with only female students, and the other had auditoriums dominated by male students and only one female economics professor during my entire degree.
Since then, and it’s been a while, I’ve repeatedly seen this separation between women’s issues and broader economic and investment issues, including at the government level. To cite a recent example, while visiting a developing country to analyse its investment environment, my colleague and I set out to visit the ministry in charge of ‘Family, Woman and the Child’. This was met with curiosity by the local investment promotion agency (IPA). “What does the work of that ministry have to do with investment?” they asked.
At the ministry we met with an all-female team, which brought me back to my university days. We learned about their work on topics including supporting women who were victims of domestic violence, teenage mothers who were forced out of school (or not returning after the pandemic), as well as women working in the informal sector.
These topics may seem unrelated to investment, and far from the work of the IPA trying to attract multinational enterprises to the country. But they are not marginal issues taking place on the sidelines of the economy. These and related issues affect many women worldwide, hindering their potential across many dimensions including economically as employees, entrepreneurs, creators and innovators. These are key components of an enabling and attractive environment for investment.
When seeking to strengthen the enabling environment for investment, governments must deliberately look at ‘women’s issues’ which are, in fact, socioeconomic issues. They need to ask some tough questions. Do women face any specific barriers in priority sectors for investment? Are these different for women in rural and urban areas, or women of different races, income brackets or age? The source of gender gaps are different across sectors, and they can have important consequences on their competitiveness, too.
Conversely, when analysing FDI’s potential economic benefits, governments must explicitly consider how the opportunities generated can be more gender inclusive. What type of support do women across different sectors need to start an enterprise, access finance, gain market access and link to the supply chains of foreign investors? Is the information that governments provide to foreign investors about the local economy, such as the availability of labour and local firms, gender-balanced?
IPAs have a role to play in facilitating FDI’s greater impact on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Costa Rica’s IPA, CINDE, provides an example of what can be done. The agency works with private partners to offer capacity building to target groups of women disproportionately affected by unemployment in key sectors for investment. It also collaborates with the national statistics agency and central bank on data collection related to women in the economy, and participates in a government-wide initiative analysing barriers to gender parity.
IPAs from India, Jamaica and South Africa, among other countries, are also focused on promoting gender equality through investment promotion. These agencies are not working alone. Indeed, IPAs’ networks are among their greatest assets, but networks are not automatically inclusive. IPAs should strive to make them more women-inclusive: having more women in decision-making positions within the IPAs can help with this.
By leveraging their roles as intermediaries between the public and private sector, and as connectors within government, IPAs can create the spaces, policies and programmes needed to make FDI more inclusive of women and the institutions working for them, including the ministry of ‘Family, Woman and the Child’.
Stephania Bonilla-Feret is a senior economist at Unctad’s Investment and Enterprise Division working on investment promotion