“If the Minister of Emancipation Feels Like Crying, Then You Know Things Must Be Bad”

This is a translation of an article published in the Financieele Dagblad – the Netherland’s leading Financial daily newspaper – on March 21, 2018 By Elfanie toe Laer.

The launch of Equileap, which maps the market value of gender equality, went quietly. Ten months later, the organisation is achieving worldwide success. An interview with co-founder Diana van Maasdijk.

Earlier this week she was in Toronto. Thursday, she travelled back and forth to Paris. Diana van Maasdijk  travels the world to convince investors that their capital will get a better return when invested in companies that score well on gender equality. Two years ago Van Maasdijk, then Head of Philanthropy for ABN Amro, discovered a number of research papers that bear this out and saw a sound business case in the numbers, and felt her old passion — striving for equal rights for men and women — rising up inside her.

She understood that if large flows of money are steered toward diversity, it will accelerate the pace at which gender equality in the corporate sector becomes a reality. And that is no luxury: In 2016, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicted that it would take 180 years before men and women would achieve economic equality. A year later, the WEF raised that number to 217 years.

Van Maasdijk: “It feels like we have stood still for 20 years. Talk of achieving a minimum of 30% female representation on the boards of directors has been going on for years, but that goal has never been achieved. And then I hear Minister Van Engelshoven, who is in charge of emancipation, say about the latest numbers of women in top positions, ‘It is something to cry about’. As a half Ecuadorian I think, ‘Wow, if a Dutch woman feels like crying, then you know it’s pretty bad.’”

You have worked your whole life for women’s rights. Why is that so important?

“I grew up in Ecuador. My father was a Dutch businessman, my mother is an Ecuadorian children’s book writer. We had it really good, but poverty was never far away. On our way to school, we saw street children; they begged from motorists at the lights and didn’t get the same opportunities we did. I majored in political science in the United States and that is when I understood that poverty has a female face. Especially single mothers without education, which is also the case in the Netherlands. The feminists of the past 100 years inspired me. These small groups of women have achieved so much: We can vote, wear pants, keep a job after marriage… But when it comes to equal opportunities, we aren’t there yet. Women still earn less and are severely underrepresented in leadership and the formal economy.”

Last month, Diana van Maasdijk wrote an editorial in the Financieele Dagblad. She was deeply disappointed: On International Women’s Day she and her Equileap colleagues joined a group of women invited to ring the bell at the Amsterdam stock exchange. The traders on the floor catcalled them. She wrote: “In our global index, companies that lead the way in gender equality have, for the past six years, exceeded the MSCI World Index by 10.7%. In a workplace dominated by the daily search for profit margins, one would expect that this would clearly resonate. But instead we have a “catcalling concert” , indicating that they not only dismiss the profit argument for women’s equality, they don’t even recognize women’s equality on a social level.”

 

Your organization operates in a conservative sector. If your aim is to address gender equality issues, are you choosing the right avenue?

“It’s a question I am asked often, but I’m sure it is the right way. In the past, only yield on investment returns were donated to social causes. Today, an increasing number of investors are looking for a way to invest their capital for a social as well as a financial return. I spoke to the sustainable investment team at ABN Amro and asked them if they could expand this work to include gender equality. They agreed that they could by mapping the number of women working on the board. But that didn’t seem enough to me. Gender equality is about more than just women at the top.”

Next fall, Equileap will publish its Global Equileap Index for the second time. The index will include 200 publicly traded corporations that score highest on equality between men and women. Equileap researches over 3,000 companies with a market value of at least $2 billion. They will be evaluated against 19 criteria, such as gender balance in the board and workforce, equal pay, paid parental leave, and the possibility of flexible work schedules. The company with the highest score will receive the Equileap Award. In 2017, L’Oreal won the award. Financial institutions can licence the Equileap data to develop their own investment products.

 

Research shows that companies with a diverse workforce score better has been around for years. Nevertheless, no-one ranked the companies listed on the stock market based on this score? Why not?

“Lots of people just don’t believe it yet.”

 

How is this possible? According to McKinsey, global GDP could grow by $28 trillion by 2025 – an increase of 26% — if there was gender parity in the economy. These are of course the facts that you use.

“Yes, but I don’t see a strong wave of believers yet. ABN Amro was not very excited about the idea a couple of years ago either. That’s when I decided to start Equileap and to work together with different investors and asset managers. To do this, we needed a methodology to score gender equality in a company, and secondly we needed better data.

A lot of people were sceptical and thought the idea would be too niche, too new. Nevertheless, I was convinced that I was looking at a good business model behind this and, in the end, I found Jo Andrews as a partner in crime. She, too, had worked in the philanthropy sector, believed in the concept, quit her job in the UK and together we have devoted our time to developing Equileap.”

Until the end of the 1990’s Van Maasdijk lived in Ecuador, the US, and Senegal. She only visited during the summer vacations and spoke hardly any Dutch.

 

What was your impression of the Netherlands?

“During my summer holidays I experienced the Netherlands as a free and happy country, and much safer than Ecuador. During vacations in Zeeland, I was allowed to walk wherever I wanted. This was not the type of freedom I had in Ecuador. My husband is French, and when we moved here in 1997 I thought that the Netherlands was a country that endorsed equality. You look around you and you see women on their bicycles, on their way to work or day care … it makes you feel that everything is going really well. But when I became pregnant, I noticed that equality was not really as advanced as I thought it was.”

 

Because?

“My mortgage broker wanted to list my salary for 70% instead 100% in the mortgage application. I thought, what?! And everybody asked me how I was going to combine my job with being a mother. My husband, who worked for an NGO, was asked when he was going to start looking for a “real” job. He needed to make more money and I needed to stay home more often. This message is very strong in the Netherlands. Stronger than in France, where the partners of our French friends never started working less. School, daycare, and aftercare are very well organized in France. I remember being judged when I let my son stay at school for his lunch break. The message was, if you want to be a good mother, you do not work full time. But is it really better for a mother to do that? No. It is important to be financially independent.”

Today, Van Maasdijk’s three teenage sons talk with pride about their mother who works to support women’s rights. She doesn’t need to be home at a certain time and when asked how many hours she works a week, she laughs. “I am always busy with Equileap, but I love it. And when I relax, I get the best ideas. These days, I walk my dog every morning, that is the time I get to think.” This has benefited her organization. A number investment products have already been developed using Equileap’s gender equality data. Lyxor, a branch of Societe Generale, started an investment fund that tracks the top 150 companies with the highest gender equality score. UBS developed another Exchange Traded Fundr, and Rothschild will soon announce a new fund based on the data from the Equileap-Index.

 

Earlier this month, a milestone was reached: half a $ billion is now managed using Equileap-data. That is the goal that you had hoped to reach in two years, while you just started ten months ago. It’s moving fast, yet within the Netherlands there doesn’t seem to be that much interest. Does that surprise you?

“No, not really. The sector moves slowly, but it will happen. More and more investors are starting to ask the question, ‘Can my money also contribute to a better world?’ People want this.”

 

A few months after this interview, Equileap’s first Dutch client signed on: NN Investment Partners will be adding Equileap’s gender equality data to its sustainable investment strategy.

Stéphanie MorinIf the Emancipation Minister is Crying