Partners Group: We need to avoid cancel culture to achieve diversity

Private infrastructure investors discussed the ‘messy and imprecise’ but ‘noble’ and ongoing business of pursuing diversity.

Diversity goes beyond race and gender, and firms should be allowed to make and learn from their mistakes, said Partners Group’s Robert-Jan Bakker, who raises capital for the private markets firm’s infrastructure business.

“It’s not black and white. It’s about learning and failing now and then – people are allowed to make mistakes – and moving on. And avoiding what I sometimes tend to observe is emerging now – cancel culture. We’re all going to make mistakes along the way, but we actually need to grow from it,” Bakker told a panel on Tuesday at affiliate title Infrastructure Investor‘s Global Summit in Berlin.

Allison Kingsley, founding partner at North America-focused infrastructure firm NOVA, agreed: “The conversations are messy and imprecise; mistakes will be made. In six months’ time, we might think differently. Our strategies may have changed. I think it’s a noble goal. Diversity is necessary.”

Bakker also stressed the importance of creating an inclusive environment and facilitating more flexible solutions for people with disabilities, of different socio-economic backgrounds and people with young children. He relayed an example of a crisis situation, involving a trip to Toronto and “intense negotiations”. A mother with a young child “took her baby with her… and she breastfed it in the negotiations. We saw it made it a much more humane situation and it became much less them against us. I think that contributed to solving the issue. So, I think we should celebrate womenness and we should celebrate diversity… and let everyone be themselves.”

Panel chair Helen Beatty, partner at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, asked panellists whether firms should maintain existing cultures by recruiting diverse employees and “taking them to play golf”.

Bakker responded: “There may be people who have never played golf because they didn’t have that background or their parents couldn’t afford the lessons, or you may have a team member who sits in wheelchair and finds it difficult to play. It’s important that we’re aware of these things.”

But for NOVA’s Kingsley, investors also have a part to play in promoting diversity. “What strategies are LPs using to diversify their capital?” she asked. “Diversity will come… if LPs decided that diversity and supporting diverse managers… if they decided to allocate capital that way… it would actually change this space.”

The panel also emphasised the importance of not reducing individuals to their diverse identities. “I’m proud to be a woman and I play the hand that I was dealt,” said Kingsley. “But I would like to be judged by my performance and my ability to generate returns.”

Earlier this year, Partners Group said they had created a special budget to meet its hiring target for female senior executives. “We found that the competition for women, especially in investments, is extremely fierce. So, our hiring [of female MDs] hasn’t been as successful as we would like it to have been to date,” said Kirsta Anderson, global head of HR at Partners Group, at the online launch of the firm’s annual corporate sustainability report.