SDGs in focus: improving gender equality

4 min read 15 Jan 24

Investing where capital is scarce, usually in developing markets, contributes to tackling the most pressing issues of our time. Gender is a cross-cutting issue – progress in this area is intertwined with all other sustainable development outcomes. Investors can and do play a role in driving greater gender equality in developing markets via three investment themes: financial inclusion, sustainable agriculture and access to energy.

What are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of 17 interconnected goals, which collectively form a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. The goals, which must be achieved by 2030, cover areas such as ending poverty and improving health, reducing inequality, tackling climate change and preserving our oceans and forests.

Interconnected nature

Arguably, there is not a single challenge in the world of sustainable development – ranging from financial inclusion to climate change risk – where outcomes are not worse for women. By their nature, the SDGs are intertwined, with progress in one area requiring advances in others. And while SDG 5 calls for gender equality specifically, gender as a theme runs through all the goals. Therefore, we cannot hope to achieve the SDGs without systematically tackling gender inequality.

The current state of play

While there has been progress, we are still a long way from achieving global gender equality. Currently, we are on track to achieve only 15.4% of indicators for SDG 5: Gender equality by 2030, while 23.1% are considered to be far or very far off track1. In fact, at the current rate of progress, closing the global gender gap is projected to take another 131 years2.

“At the current rate of progress, closing the global gender gap is projected to take another 131 years.”

The current state of play varies widely across regions, with Europe leading the race to achieve gender parity. There is more to be done in much of the developing world – the Middle East and North Africa, followed by South Asia, have made the least progress1.

There are also noticeable differences when we consider different aspects of gender equality. For example, equality in the field of educational attainment has been trending upwards in recent decades. Globally, 91% of girls go to primary school, compared to 93% of boys. By the time children reach upper secondary school, girls have edged ahead of boys (54% versus 52%)2. Health outcomes have also improved, with global development agencies more able to directly intervene and provide support.

However, further progress is much needed when it comes to women’s economic empowerment. Globally, less than half of working-age women participate in the labour force – but again, there are regional differences, ranging from 60.9% in Sub-Saharan Africa to 18.8% in North Africa and the Middle East3.

The opportunity for investor

Tackling gender inequality offers many opportunities to both encourage sustainable development outcomes, and generate financial returns. With advances in education, there is currently an unprecedented number of young, educated women – with disposable income – ready to enter the workforce. Research from Moody’s suggests that eradicating the gender gap in the workplace could add $7 trillion to global GDP annually6. Companies with strong female representation are also 25% more likely to outperform financially than their less diverse counterparts7.

While some aspects of the gender challenge necessitate cultural and political shifts, investors can nonetheless play a significant role in driving improved outcomes. For example, by supporting business models that directly provide solutions towards women’s empowerment, particularly around access to key services.

Another approach is to engage with investee companies – whether or not they are targeting a particular gender-related outcome – to ensure they have put in place adequate policies and procedures. For example, in areas such as anti-harassment, parental leave and fair promotions.

Financing for female business owners

In developing markets, one option for investors looking to level the gender playing field is to support companies offering financing for female entrepreneurs and business owners, as well as reducing gender gaps in financial inclusion overall. Cultural or even legal barriers mean that levels of formal employment are considerably lower for women in many developing markets. Meanwhile women that start their own business often struggle to access credit to a greater degree than male entrepreneurs, in part because women often lack collateral, such as land ownership. Under the ‘classic’ microfinance model, financial institutions aim to overcome this issue by facilitating the practice of ‘group lending’.

What is group lending?

  • Group lending involves lending money to a group of people, such as female entrepreneurs in a rural village.
  • Physical collateral is replaced with ‘social collateral’ – members of the group are self-selecting and mutually responsible for each other’s payments, thereby encouraging timely repayment.
  • Women are therefore given the opportunity to overcome cultural barriers and secure funding to start or expand a business.

Opportunities in agriculture

Rural women make up almost half of the global agricultural workforce, while accounting for less than 20% of agricultural landholders1. They are often prevented from owning land as a result of insufficient credit, unequal pay, low levels of decision-making, gender-based violence, or unequal inheritance rules for males and females. Those that do own farmland are disproportionately blocked from accessing financing and crucial inputs, such as fertiliser and pesticides.

However, investors can encourage positive change by supporting female-led smallholder farms in a variety of ways. These include providing direct funding for farmers, delivering training and educational services, enabling them with technology, or supporting companies promoting fair pay for farmers.

Access to energy

A lack of reliable grid infrastructure means that an estimated 52% of the global rural population rely on polluting technologies, such as kerosene lamps and fossil-fuel generators, for their domestic lighting and power needs2. The indoor air pollution released by these devices is responsible for 3.2 million premature deaths, and the loss of 86 million healthy life years annually3, with the largest burden suffered by women and girls, as they spend more time in and around the home.

“Women and children can avoid the health issues associated with indoor air pollution, with greater opportunities for health and personal development activities, such as studying or starting a business.”

Without sufficient policy action, 1.9 billion people will still lack access to clean fuels and technologies in 2030, the majority of which will reside in Sub-Saharan Africa1. However, investors can make a positive impact in this area by supporting companies providing off-grid residential solar power systems, which replace fossil fuel generators and lamps. The systems consist of a rooftop solar panel, which connects to lighting and a plug socket, and is often sold to homeowners on multi-year finance for greater affordability.

The benefits of such systems are vast. First and foremost, women and children can avoid the health issues associated with indoor air pollution. With access to clean, reliable energy – and less time spent collecting and preparing fuels – there are also greater opportunities for health and personal development activities, such as studying in the evening or starting a business to generate an income.

The SDG Reckoning report – an update on progress towards the SDGs

When it comes to achieving the SDGs, the world’s ambition is not currently being met by its actions. In the annual SDG Reckoning report, published by our parent company M&G plc, we assess the progress towards each of the 17 SDGs, both from a general perspective and through an impact investing lens.

Read the report

Please note that, while we support the UN SDGs, we are not associated with the UN and our funds are not endorsed by them.

1UN Statistics Division, ‘Gender equality’, (, June 2023.
2World Economic Forum, ‘Global Gender Gap Report 2023’, (, June 2023.
3World Economic Forum, ‘Global Gender Gap Report 2023’, (, June 2023.
4UNICEF Education Pathway Analysis database, ( 2021.
5World Bank Gender Data Portal, (, November 2023
6Moody’s Analytics, ‘Close the Gender Gap to Unlock Productivity Gains’, (, March 2023.
7McKinsey & Company, ‘Diversity wins: How inclusion matters’, (, May 2020.
8United Nations, ‘Securing Women’s Land Rights for Increased Gender Equality, Food Security and Economic Empowerment’, (, June 2023.
9World Health Organisation, ‘Household air pollution and health’, (, November 2022.
10World Health Organisation, ‘Household air pollution and health’, (, November 2022.
11World Health Organisation, ‘Household air pollution and health’, (, November 2022.

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