On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2021, we talked to Gitanjali Swamy, one of the most Influential Indian Women in Technology and global advocate for gender equity.
Gitanjali Swamy has been named one of the most Influential Women in Technology in 2020 by India’s Analytics Insight magazine. She was recognized for “helping enterprises realize their potential through the ‘Innovation of Things (IoT).” Swamy is the Managing Partner of IoTask. She focuses on innovation for environmental, social, governance (ESG) and public-private projects. Swamy also currently serves as the representative to the EQUALS Coalition of the United Nations, where she chairs the Gender Equitable Investment Working Committee and a member of Gender Equitable Investment Group of the EQUALS-EU: Europe’s Regional Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age project supported by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.
Our conversation focused on gender inclusive investments.
So I think there are two issues around why to two major reasons why it is important. One is social justice and equity reason. And the other is simply an economic efficiency reason. And for both those reasons, it’s [Gender Inclusive Investment) important.
If we look at businesses, business creation, or innovation creation, women create and start more than 50% of the businesses in North America and about 30% to 40% globally. So they are creating half the economic development and wealth. And yet, if you look in terms of access to capital and resources to enable that, they receive the extraordinarily disproportionately low amount.
So in research or innovation funding or venture capital, even though they contribute half the efforts, they’re only getting 2% of the funding. This number goes across all different domains of economic development and capital access. We have an issue here because this is not equity, right. It’s a social justice and equity issue. But more importantly, when you have this kind of miss allocation or under allocation, it stumps the entire human collective from realizing their potential because we don’t realize and appreciate the potential of half the people involved in the equation. Right. So I think those are two very, very good reasons. One’s an efficiency reason, in terms of economic misallocation, the other is just simply a social justice and equity reason.
If we achieve gender equality in investment, it will percolate down the entire chain of economic development. So all the different disparities that we see today in terms of peak quality, wealth, poverty, education, etc., all those disparities that exist today will, I believe, disappear. It’s a matter of having the resources to make those disappear. And right now, the resources are being held up. But the second issue is, we will also get a much more participative and respectful world. I think that for a lot of people in the world, respect is driven by money. I think that’s flawed. Money is meant to be a tool. But people do associate money with respect. So when we fix the essential disparities and inequities in access, we will also fix some underlying social norms that generate from it. And I think that’s a wonderful outcome because it will be a world where we value and respect people a lot more.
Finally, I think that economically speaking, the world will be able to grow and invest in areas that we desperately need to create a sustainable world. I’ll give you an example. Women, in general, tend to care much more about socially responsible issues like the climate or poverty or participation, or the Sustainable Development Goals. If we allow them more access to realize their purpose and goals, we will also see some of these hardest social problems get fixed in a much more systematic and broad based manner. So I think overall increasing gender equitable investment will transform the world in many dimensions.
I think that one of the biggest problems in gender equity and increasing general equitable investment is the issue of how people approach it. There is a tendency in the status quo to put in gender equitable investment as an afterthought. It’s like, “Okay, we do the rest of our stuff based on pure profitability. And guess what, we’ll throw a little bit of money in, like 2% 3% 4%, towards gender equitable investment.” That is not a broad based strategy, right? It’s not, and I think that actually is a problem. We cannot fix what is a a challenge that is affecting 50% of humanity by putting small fixes of 1% or 2% in there. People always assumed we would start a venture fund that has $50 million to invest in women, when we are talking about a difference in participation, which is trillions of dollars. In an investing gap, which is in trillions of dollars, trust me, 50 million will not move the needle. You really need much more broad based efforts.
I’d love to point you to the recent announcement that the NASDAQ made with that lens in mind. We did an interview on that with Evan Harvey, Global Head of sustainability at NASDAQ. NASDAQ basically announced that it would not list any company unless they have at least one woman and one minority on the board. Right now, that means anybody who wants to access capital on the stock exchange has to meet those criteria. If this goes through and gets accepted by the SEC, we will have a gender equitable component in some form or the other. Then, the important thing is to populate it from that, which is a leadership position, all the way through the organization. But my point is, we need to think about transforming actively if we are going to address the problem of gender equitable investment
Focusing on inclusion, I think that teams should have both men and women. I think that is imperative because the secret of human success is our collective intelligence or ability to have different perspectives, and we bring other skills and abilities to the table. So it is not just a question of gender equitable investment but of investment that recognizes the true potential of the human collective. One of the most significant issues is keeping it as a separate box instead of making all boxes embody a specific principle.
A couple of years ago, when I gave a talk on this topic, someone asked how I would change a legal system. My response was that a change in human societies has three elements to it. The first is carrots. The second is sticks. And the third is general changes in social norms and values. I genuinely believe there’s no silver bullet.
I know, we love to think that there is a silver bullet. But I do believe that we should be pushing on all cylinders, which is why I’ve been working with legislators and legislative bodies in the United States to introduce regulations. For instance, one of the pieces of legislation that we introduced this year in Massachusetts was extending the provisions of protection from sexual harassment and discrimination to cover investors. This is very important because, to date, it was not unlawful. Those are the sticks. I think the sticks are essential in human society. But it’s also important to encourage people.
You can’t run all of the human change things just by sticks. So putting in place programs that make greater allocation that look at investment policies to ensure that they are gender equitable is equally important, right. For example, today, most major pension funds and endowments asset allocators do not do diligence on gender equitable practices when making the investments. They don’t look at whether or not there was equal pay in their investments. Adding incentives is essential and motivating people to follow them is also important.
The third one [changes of social norms and values] is the hardest one, because we tend to work towards short term goals. There is a vast amount of education, awareness raising initiatives and stakeholders working on that. I think programs like Male Champions of Change are very important because they educate different stakeholders, work towards changing their values and norms, and make them aware of why this is important.
In my opinion all three of those avenues have to be pursued if we are going to address this gap.