The womens event that isnt

Later this month, about 450 women from the US, Canada, Europe and Asia will convene on the Pacific coast of Northern California. These women, mostly institutional investors, buyout specialists and venture capitalists, will spend two days at The-Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay discussing what they know best (at least professionally): private equity. But for once, they won’t be surrounded by men.

The Women’s Private Equity Summit has been running every March at Half Moon Bay since 2008. According to organiser Falk Marques Group, the initial idea was just to give women another opportunity to network with each other. And the agenda looks pretty much like any other private equity conference: this year’s panels include “The hunt for deals: Investing insights for 2014” and “Diving into the middle market: What GPs must do to find deals, generate returns and keep LPs happy.”

“This is an industry conference; it doesn’t matter it’s only women,” says company founder Beth Falk.

In that case, the cynic might argue, what’s the point in having it? Why not run an event that men can also come along to?

Summit participants say they like having a chance to interact just with women because it allows the participants to talk openly in a “non-threatening environment”. Many men in the industry don’t want to talk about the challenges facing women in the industry, because they don’t perceive it as an issue, they argue.

“In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be necessary to have separate conferences about the advancement, acceptance or appreciation of women in the professional sense,” says one prior participant. “One would hope we’d be at a stage where we just don’t need to talk about that. But we’re pretty far from that.”

While there’s nothing specifically on the agenda about the challenges facing women in this male-dominated industry, these types of conversations do take place on the sidelines – especially among women who work at male-dominated firms.

“Many private equity firms don’t have a [gender] balance, so women might want to seek [time] when they can talk to other women who are balancing the same personal work/life challenges they are,” says one mid-market investment professional, who plans to attend the summit for the first time this year. “I think the industry has made strides in being represented by women. But it still lags, particularly at the senior levels.”

“The support and advice of other like-minded women on such things as navigating their processes – from getting their foot in the door, to being the first woman partner – is indispensable,” says Mary Strother, an executive at placement agent Snowbridge Advisors. “And this is true for both women with and without families and young children in the home.”

That said, most women say they attend to conduct fundraising or investing business, to meet with limited partners and to network both with senior figures in the industry and the next generation.

In fact, some participants don’t feel as though the absence of men at the conference has an impact at all.

“It’s not so much a ‘plus’ or ’minus’ – rather, it fosters a sense of togetherness amongst us women who have a fair amount in common, just by the very nature of being women in the traditionally male-dominated world of private equity,” says Strother.

And it’s worth pointing out that the conference doesn’t exclude men per se. The summit welcomed about five brave male participants last year.