Tracking the Progress on Gender Equality through Sustainable Finance

Posted on April 9, 2021

Ijeoma Madueke
Ijeoma Madueke
Manager, Sustainable Finance Solutions Projects

Although women are half of the world’s population, we currently represent 39% of all labor force participation,[i] only 5% of Fortune 500 Company CEOs,[ii] and 70% of women-owned small and medium enterprises have limited or no access to financial services.[iii] In addition, 435 million women and girls live in extreme poverty[iv] and 132 million girls are not in school around the world with only 66% of countries having achieved gender parity in primary education.[v] Given these statistics, it is no wonder that in 2015 the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) dedicated an entire goal to Gender Equality (“UN SDG 5”). Beyond being a social issue and fundamental human right, a key goal of achieving UN SDG 5 is global economic development. According to McKinsey, advancement towards women’s equality has the potential to add about USD12 trillion in annual global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025.[vi]

2020 was a historic year for the world with one-third of the population in lockdown for months leading to a cascade of worsening economic conditions for households worldwide. Notably, women were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • An additional 47 million women and girls were pushed into poverty as a result of the pandemic[vii]
  • Women spent three times as many hours as men each day in unpaid care and domestic work[viii]
  • Women are more likely to be laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security[ix]

As a result of these negative impacts, financing activities that contribute to the empowerment and socio-economic advancement of women and girls will need to be accelerated even more to meet the goal of gender equality by 2030.

A key challenge is determining the most effective investment strategies for creating positive impact on gender. One notable strategy being contemplated by the investment industry is the notion of Gender Lens Investing. The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) defines this as “Investing with the intent to address gender issues or promote gender equity, including by: (1) Investing in women-owned or -led enterprises; (2) Investing in enterprises that promote workplace equity (in staffing, management, boardroom representation, and along their supply chains); or (3) Investing in enterprises that offer products or services that substantially improve the lives of women and girls.”[x]

The bond market has been and will continue to be a key instrument used to finance the SDGs and sustainability as a whole. By 2022, the Sustainable Bond market is expected to reach cumulative issuance of US$1 trillion, while the Green Bond market is forecast to reach USD1 trillion in annual issuance by 2023.[xi] One option for creating targeted gender investment is the development and issuance of Gender Bonds. Although there is no formally agreed upon definition, Gender Bonds generally refers to bonds that specifically support the advancement, empowerment and equality of women.[xii] Some recent notable issuances include National Australia Bank’s Gender Equality Social Bond (US$384 million), CIBC’s Women in Leadership Bond (US$769 million), Bank of Ayudhya’s Thailand Women Entrepreneurs Bond (US$220 million) as well as other gender-labelled bonds by development finance institutions. With only about 13 gender-labelled bonds issued as of March 2020[xiii] and no specific guidelines for their issuance, Gender Bonds are still nascent and as such, tracking these does not adequately capture the magnitude of investments towards gender equality.

According to Environmental Finance, the green, social, sustainability and sustainability-linked bond market issuances reached US$600 billion in 2020, up 53% from the prior year.[xiv] Social bonds were a major driver of this success representing 27% of total issuances. Although it is tempting to assume that a reasonable portion of this income can be attributed to UN SDG 5, analysis of issuances highlights that much of these funds were directed to support COVID-19 relief and recovery.

It is this obscurity on the breakdown of sustainability and social bonds that makes tracking the true progress towards UN SDG 5 unclear. To detangle the overall growth of the market from its gender components and provide better transparency,  issuers can report specifically on the amounts being channeled towards gender equality. Furthermore, improved reporting will also provide space for those investors specifically interested in advancing issues related to women and girls to mobilize potentially large amounts of capital to cover financing deficits.



[i] Catalyst, “Women in the Workforce – Global: Quick Take” (2021). Accessed at:

[ii] UN Women, “Facts and Figures: Economic Empowerment”. Accessed at:

[iii] The International Finance Corporation (IFC), “Bridging the Gender Gap in Access to Finance”. Accessed at:

[v] UNICEF, “Girls Education”. Accessed at:

[vi] McKinsey, “How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth” (2015). Accessed at:

[vii] UN Women, “Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot 2020”

[viii] UN Women, “Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot 2020”

[ix] McKinsey, “Women in the Workplace 2020” (2020). Accessed at:

[x] The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), “Gender Lens Investing Initiative”. Accessed at: The definition is expanded to include, “investing with the following approaches to inform investment decisions – a process that focuses on gender, from pre-investment activities (e.g., sourcing and due diligence) to post-deal monitoring (e.g., strategic advisory and exiting); or a strategy that examines, with respect to the investee enterprises: (a) Their vision or mission to address gender issues, (b) Their organizational structure, culture, internal policies, and workplace environment; (c) Their use of data and metrics for the gender-equitable management of performance and to incentivize behavioral change and accountability; and (d) How their financial and human resources signify overall commitment to gender equality.

[xi] Environmental Finance, “The 2020s - The Decade of Sustainable Bonds” (2020). Accessed at:

[xii] FSD Africa, “Viability of Gender Bonds in SSA: A Landscape Analysis and Feasibility Assessment” (2020). Accessed at: (2020).

[xiii] FSD Africa, “Viability of Gender Bonds in SSA: A Landscape Analysis and Feasibility Assessment”.

[xiv] Environmental Finance, “Sustainable Bonds Insight 2021” (2021). Accessed at: