30 senior private equity professionals debated the issues around promoting and retaining females at PER’s breakfast briefing

30 senior private equity professionals debated the issues around promoting and retaining females at PER’s breakfast briefing

… John Cockburn, Associate at PER sums up the sentiments of the room

PER was delighted to welcome 30 senior Private Equity professionals to their breakfast seminar to discuss the important topic of “Retaining and Promoting Females in Private Equity”. Managing director of PER, Gail McManus, introduced the guest speaker – Jeryl Andrew – the new CEO of Level 20. Jeryl has been an investor with Abingworth, Vencap and Advent Ventures and so knows first-hand the difficulties that women face in reaching senior positions within funds.

Level 20 is dedicated to increasing the amount of females in senior private equity positions across Europe to 20% by the year 2020.

According to the recent gender survey conducted by PER, only 7% of the most senior positions within 100 funds are held by women (this can be compared to the FTSE 100, where women hold 26% of all executive board positions*). Of those 100 private equity funds, only 20 actually have women in top roles – 80% have no women at that level at all.

Since its inception, Level 20 has increased its membership to over 600 people – both men and women – and has received sponsorship from 36 GPs (ten of which were represented at this meeting).

The crux of the presentation was to describe the steps that Level 20 is taking to reach its goal. The organisation has three main programmes: Networking, Mentoring and Philanthropy. Jeryl concentrated on explaining the Mentoring programme, which was first piloted last year and has been expanded this year due to its success.

The programme paired 23 principal level female investors with senior mentors (five of whom were men) who then embarked on a year-long programme with five or six planned meetings where issues could be discussed privately and maturely. There was also a series of breakfast meetings to assist in developing “soft” skills such as building networks, personal presentation and the principles of coaching and mentoring.

This year there are 25 pairs of senior and mid-level professionals, including 14 senior male mentors, and 19 pairs of mid-level mentors and junior mentees. Several of the mid-level mentors are people who were mentees under the pilot programme. The programme of events has also been expanded, to include “hard” skill training as well, such as negotiation techniques.

Jeryl was very open that Level 20 are always looking for ideas on how to expand the programme, and are very receptive to suggestions.

The most important thing for the success of Level 20’s objective of inspiring more women to join and succeed in private equity is for more firms and funds to support Level 20 and its work. Convincing people it’s a worthy aim is relatively easy, but convincing them to take an active part is more difficult.

In order to support their work, and possibly identify the issues around the stumbling blocks faced by women in their careers, Jeryl and the team are in discussions with Judge Business School to commission a research project determining the career paths of 1000 PE/VC professionals of both sexes.  There’s nothing like hard data to prove a point.

Jeryl opened up the discussion to the floor, to see what different funds have experienced, how they are tackling the issue themselves, and if they had any “lessons learned” they could share.

The response was lively and informed; Zoe Lockwood of Cinven Partners, who is on the HR Advisory Council for the Level 20 mentoring project, brought up the point that the male mentors on the pilot programme had learned a huge amount by taking part. For example, some became aware that the unconscious bias that affects women on a day-to-day basis was creating a situation where women are hesitant to show their passion and ambition openly, for fear of being seen as aggressive.

Luke Jones, a Partner at MML Capital Partners, suggested that the best way of increasing the numbers of females at the top was to expand the funnel at the bottom. What makes his point different to what you may have heard before though, was the suggestion that the industry as a whole engages earlier with potential candidates, and maybe works alongside the Big Four and the banks to create training routes.  Level 20 has already started addressing this using outreach programmes to business schools.

The issue of fund size also came up – the comparison was made between larger funds and smaller funds, such as Beringea, represented by Karen McCormick. Larger funds have the upper hand when it comes to accommodating maternity (and paternity) leave, as there are more people around to share responsibility and maintain deal flow – vital to ensuring investment targets are met for LPs. It’s much harder to share the load in a smaller fund. As a point of interest, Beringea has a 50% representation of females at the senior level (three out of six).

Marijana Kolak of Bain Capital, one of the 20% of firms with senior female representation, summed up the entire issue very succinctly by remarking that one way of making progress would be to create a culture where fund leadership is comfortable with talking to female professionals about the issues that arise in planning their careers, and being able to address those in a customised way. In her experience, such atmosphere has given confidence to young women – and men – that they can have a successful long-term career with the firm.

Jeryl Andrew has a difficult task ahead of her, and a goal which will take a lot of effort to achieve. Environmental, Social and Governance issues have risen up on GPs’ agenda because more and more LPs are asking relevant questions, with investment decisions influenced by the answers. Gender opportunity questions have also started appearing on DDQs – perhaps the same trajectory of importance will start being given to the issue when investment decisions are affected by the answers.

It will take the entire industry to get on board to meet Level 20’s goal of 20% of senior positions in funds filled by women. Although, as Gail points out it, it would only take each of the 100 funds in our survey hiring one female into a senior position to reach that 20%, so maybe everyone should just start with one…

*Data from Hampton Alexander Report

About the author: John Cockburn joined PER after nine years as an officer in the British Army.  He now works on placing people into investment, IR and origination roles across the middle market.

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