Firms must actively seek out diverse talent

Opportunities for women in the private funds industry have never been greater, but there is still a way to go, writes Gill Wadsworth.

The private funds industry has made great strides to improve gender diversity in what has been historically a male-dominated industry. However, there is still much work to be done to widen access to women, not only at the entry level but throughout their careers.

Women in the private equity and venture capital sectors make up 38 percent of the workforce, according to a 2021 diversity, equity and inclusion study conducted by the British Private Equity & Venture Capital Association and Level 20, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving gender diversity in the European private equity industry.

And women’s representation in the industry decreases as they rise through the ranks. Just 10 percent of senior investment roles in the sector are held by women, compared with 20 percent for mid-level roles and 33 percent for junior positions. Perhaps most troubling is that more than one in 10 of private equity investment teams – 12 percent – are entirely populated by men.

Although the results demonstrate the persistent gender disparity, they also reveal an improvement in the private equity industry from the BVCA and Level 20’s 2018 research, when just 29 percent of roles in the sector were held by women.

Much of the – admittedly gradual – improvement in female representation in the private funds sector comes from a change in many companies’ diversity, equity and inclusion policies. Quota setting, for example, ensures that women are at least guaranteed to participate in the recruitment process, even if they do not necessarily get the job.

Jordana Semaan, head of HR at Investcorp, says: “We implemented a very solid policy that all open positions have to have a minimum 50 percent diverse shortlist. This is a mandate.

“If we want to employ anybody or [even to set up] an interview panel, there has to be a minimum 50:50 [gender] split.”

Similarly, Line Heje Brekke, head of people at Summa Equity, says: “We always try to attract a 50:50 split of male and female employees at associate level, and if we have an imbalance, we make sure that our next hire corrects that. It hasn’t been difficult so far because we see a pool of both great male and female candidates.”

Formalising gender diversity in recruitment policies provides greater certainty that the pool of women within private markets firms increases. This in turn will make it easier to eventually redress the gender imbalance in senior roles.

Gurpreet Manku, the BVCA’s deputy director general and director of policy, says: “At a very base level, firms are hiring more women and therefore, as their workforce diversifies, there’s more opportunity for them to progress. More women in senior levels also improves recruitment as it sends a message to applicants that this is a firm [where] they can succeed.”

Yet finding those female candidates at the initial recruitment stage has historically proven to be a challenge. To overcome this, the BVCA says private markets firms are broadening their typical talent-hunting grounds.

“Private equity and venture capital firms are instructing recruitment firms and headhunters to consider industries beyond those that have typically provided the majority of their previous hires,” Manku says.

Sarah Miller, vice-president for manager research at Redington, identifies a similar trend: “One of our preferred managers used to only hire junior talent from investment banks but is now recruiting more directly from more diverse applicant pools.”

Schools and networking

Manku says there is also evidence of engagement with schools, colleges and universities to support work experience and internship programmes targeted at specific demographics. For example, Ranji Nagaswami, managing director, chief strategy and chief commercial officer at SVPGlobal, says the firm is a lead sponsor of Inveniam, a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania’s Engineering School and Steppingstone Scholars. The course helps students, especially those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and people of colour, to access opportunities, build networks and gain exposure to private equity.

In terms of encouraging more women into senior positions, women’s networks and mentoring programmes are also proving increasingly popular among financial institutions.

Semaan is clear that Investcorp’s mentorship programme has been crucial to developing female employees for more senior roles. “We’ve taken our private equity talents and signed them up to be senior mentors so they can give something back to other women in the organisation,” she says.

Carolyn Flanagan, partner and head of human resources at Adams Street Partners, says her firm has focused on a
“multi-faceted approach” that includes developing active partnerships with women’s organisations and events that “promote networking, self-advocacy and female empowerment within the industry”.

Although the firm has also implemented mentorship programmes, Flanagan says that for the diversity, equity and inclusion policy to be successful, it needs to be firmly embedded in company culture: “The real commitment comes in the form of ensuring that diversity is a consistently live discussion among senior leaders and acknowledging that we need to continue to listen to our female colleagues and evolve our strategy to retain, develop and promote these talented individuals.”

Summa Equity’s Heje Brekke shares this view and adds: “Private equity won’t be successful in attracting and retaining women without shifting from its historical alpha male culture to one that is more inclusive and team-orientated.” However, turning a male-dominated corporate culture into one with a better mix of voices may be easier said than done.

Marisa Hall, co-head of the Thinking Ahead Institute, says: “Many leadership teams don’t necessarily have the strongest grasp of what their culture is and what they can do about it.”

Miller at Redington suggests that firms carry out surveys and ensure the data is cut by different metrics such as gender. In addition, she suggests that insights should be reported back to the business so that they can set direct actions with team leads.

Miller adds: “We also run an engagement initiative called ‘perspectives’, which has been invaluable in ensuring the business hears about the different experiences, challenges and stories from a variety of employees around the business. This has helped break down the gender barriers as each have had a chance to understand one another better.”

Setting the tone

No DE&I policy stands a chance unless it is driven from people at the top of the organisation. BVCA’s Manku says senior leadership should set the tone and establish an organisational framework that promotes a positive culture that fosters diversity and inclusion.

“They are also crucial in ensuring the values of an organisation are embedded, embodied and well-communicated across all levels,” Manku says.

This can be through appraisals, leadership training, the approach to team management, affinity networks, social activities, discrimination and harassment policies, inclusive office environments and training.

By way of example, Flanagan says Adams Street Partners is implementing several workplace flexibility initiatives to encourage the retention of its high-performing employees, focusing more on performance than time spent in the office or traditional schedules.

Flanagan says: “The goal is to create opportunities for our employees, both women and men, to achieve results for our clients without giving up work/home-life balance, which we believe leads to longevity and career satisfaction.”

Investcorp’s Semaan agrees that ensuring women are not disadvantaged because of childcare has been important to redressing the gender imbalance. In addition to enhancing maternity benefits and taking them beyond statutory minimums, the company has ensured female employees are not judged for prioritising family commitments.

“We don’t want anybody in a situation where they feel they can’t say they cannot join a meeting because they need to take their child to school or attend a doctor’s appointment,” Semaan says. “Investcorp is a family so [for] anyone that works here, we will do whatever we can to make the employee’s journey that much better.”

It is a similar story at Redington where a shared parental leave policy is designed to prevent female employees being marginalised for taking time off to support family.

Miller says: “We’ve had senior members of staff take [parental leave] and speak openly about the benefits so that people don’t feel stigamatised taking the leave. We have also shortened our days, introduced core working hours and formalised flexible working so that people can work the hours they need to around their schedules.”

Remuneration

Although companies may be increasingly aware that there is more to redressing the gender imbalance than focusing on the pay gap, there is no escaping the importance of making sure female employees are fairly remunerated.

A 2020 survey by Investec Private Bank found that three in five women believe they would be paid more for doing the same job if they were male. This figure rose to three-quarters of women below partner level.

Flanagan says: “It is important to have an objective annual review of internal pay equity to ensure that women, who are often less likely to aggressively self-advocate despite their strong performance, are being rewarded at equal pay and advancement pace.”

The BVCA and Level 20’s Diversity & Inclusion Survey 2021 recommends that data on diversity within founders and management teams be collected, and that firms should set targets and pin down the multi-year plans required to achieve them.

It is clear that private equity and VC firms are moving beyond simple rhetoric and employing proactive policies to promote gender parity. The evidence suggests companies understand the importance of diversity of thought and that redressing imbalance is not just about improving life for individuals, but ensuring the company is more successful over the long term.

However, as the BVCA concludes, we are not quite there yet. “There’s still a long way to go in terms of proper gender parity, but these are steps in the right direction that we hope to see continue,” says Manku. “There is no shortage of diverse talent and firms need to consider how they can actively seek it out.”

How to improve gender diversity

An eight-step plan of action for private markets firms

1 Set quotas to ensure a better balance of female and male candidates in interviews

2 Broaden the search for talent beyond traditional hunting grounds and demand recruitment consultants provide a range of candidates

3 Work with schools, colleges and universities to ensure a diverse future pool of talent

4 Set up women’s networks and connect with other organisations

5 Develop a mentoring programme to encourage more career progression for female employees

6 Invest in initiatives that promote a healthy work-life balance

7 Review pay policies

8 Make sure the diversity, equity and inclusion policy is supported and overseen by senior management