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Leveraging gender for smarter infrastructure investment

It is only through diverse, actively engaged teams at every level that we will build infrastructure that meets the needs of this century.

Woman inspecting construction project

A female engineer inspects construction site. Image via Shutterstock/Phont

The climate crisis is already changing the way we invest in infrastructure, with governments, private investors and project developers working together to shift everything from the design of energy-efficient buildings, to helping communities transition to green energy sources, to creating disaster-resilient transport networks — all in anticipation of a hotter and more disaster-prone planet.

To date, the role of gender in shaping infrastructure investment has been more limited. But gender is relevant to all infrastructure investments, not just ones with an explicit social impact focus.

Gender influences how, when and where infrastructure is used — think the additional safety concerns for women when it comes to public transit or the role of water infrastructure in freeing up girls’ time for education. Our gendered experiences even shape what we consider to qualify as "infrastructure" in the first place: See the recent, post-COVID discussions in the U.S. about childcare as infrastructure.

Not getting it right on gender risks creating infrastructure projects that don’t serve the needs of their whole community, and thus don’t achieve their commercial, environmental or social aims.

With an estimated $97 trillion needed by 2040 to support sustainable development, it is critical that this investment is gender-responsive.

Gender-smart and climate-smart

Some savvy climate investors are already using gender as a lens through which to identify potential risks and opportunities in an investment.

The Private Infrastructure Development Group — PIDG, a sustainable infrastructure investor and project developer working in Africa and south-east Asia — reviews each investment against 2X Challenge and their own gender equity criteria and policy before moving it to investment committee. It works with investees to make sure their projects are both gender-smart and climate-smart.

For example, when PIDG invested in a green bond created by Acorn Housing to fund the construction of university student accommodation in Nairobi, it supported the developer to make sure that the building was not only energy-efficient, but that its design also addressed the safety and well-being concerns of the female students.

If we want to build infrastructure that is both gender-smart and climate-smart, we need education, coordination and synchronization to make sure that everyone involved is fully on board with the benefits.

In Pakistan, PIDG company GuarantCo is working with a local solar provider to help improve the gender balance of its workforce, working to bridge the gap from education to employment. In Pakistan, many young women are training in STEM, but they are struggling to break into the workforce. GuarantCo is working with recruiters to help them develop fairer and more equitable hiring practices, as well as working with the project developer to fill any gaps potential employees have in their training. This approach is gaining momentum in many energy access investments in Africa and Asia, by PIDG and others.

Business benefits

Paying this kind of deep attention to gender also brings business benefits.

PIDG investee K-Electric noticed that many households in the communities they work in rely on illegal power connections, which are more affordable, but come with serious safety risks that can cause injuries and fatalities. Armed with the knowledge that women were the primary decision-makers in these households, but that men who were not family members were not permitted to enter their homes during the day, they partnered with local women who served as trusted educators on the dangers of using illegal energy, encouraging communities to transition to safer energy sources and growing K-Electric’s customer base in the process.

Deepening impact

This kind of nuanced understanding of how gender dynamics play out in the communities you’re working in is essential to building gender-smart infrastructure. At a green infrastructure roundtable co-hosted by GenderSmart and PIDG in June, a common theme raised by participants was the impact of unintended consequences: projects that they thought would increase gender equity but ended up having unanticipated negative impacts.

PIDG investee JCM Power learned firsthand that employing women in good green jobs could field negative consequences, especially in conservative contexts: leading to an increase in gender-based violence, for example, or pushing domestic responsibilities onto adolescent girls. On one project, they learned that some workers were breastfeeding but were reluctant to tell their employers for fear that they would lose their jobs.

To anticipate and respond to these challenges, JCM works with local social inclusion experts to identify potential issues and develop solutions. One example: providing an on-site creche that allows workers to remain employed and increase their productivity while still meeting their infants’ needs.

Opportunities for you, the reader

The smartest infrastructure is a group effort, bringing together the collective knowledge and expertise of everyone involved: from developers, to development finance institutions, to private investors, project managers, suppliers, policymakers and impacted communities.

This also means that if we want to build infrastructure that is both gender-smart and climate-smart, we need education, coordination and synchronization to make sure that everyone involved is fully on board with the benefits.

One way to make this a reality is creating market signals that reward investors for doing business in the right way. For example, could projects have a higher likelihood of passing through the regulatory hoops if they demonstrate they’ve taken into account the gender impacts of what they are creating? Could investees that are gender-smart as well as climate-smart have access to lower interest rates or other incentives?

There is also a need to incorporate a gender lens in infrastructure due diligence and project development, where we have the most influence to shape infrastructure towards equitable outcomes. Project developers at our recent roundtable pointed out that the costs of incorporating such approach in standard due diligence are often overestimated. Could gender disaggregated reporting and statistics become the norm?

We also need women leading infrastructure investment and developer teams, driving climate-smart and gender-smart business decision-making.

This point was brought home strongly by Tariye Gbadegesin from ARM Harith, who is leading a climate infrastructure fund out of Nigeria, as well as by other investors and developers at our recent roundtable. As we think about climate-smart infrastructure with a gender lens, who is at the table in making decisions and driving gender equity from the top matters, and women seeing women at the table attracts other women to step forward. The point was made that often: People make the assumption that top female talent isn’t there in infrastructure, but that it is untrue. It takes intentionality and openness to find that talent and it is there, globally. 

Finally, there is a lot to be said for being an active investor and using your power and voice to shift those you’re working with — not just on the climate side but on the social side as well. It is only through diverse, actively engaged teams at every level that we will build infrastructure that meets the needs of this century.

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