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How to retain and develop female talent in private markets

Is the goal of 50% female representation achievable in global investment and asset management firms?

By Isabel Ruiz Halter, Director, Sheffield Haworth

Senior HR managers in global investment and asset management firms agree that retaining and developing female talent is important but aren’t yet clear on how best to achieve it.

At the end of July, I hosted a roundtable discussion with human resources managing directors within leading global private market companies. The speakers shared the trends they were seeing within their firms regarding gender diversity before discussing the challenges of adapting to hybrid working and talking through examples of how else they have attempted to foster female talent.

A couple of points became clear early in the discussion:

  1. Increased gender diversity – in particular, having more women in decision-making roles – has helped Private Market firms to become more profitable by increasing productivity and innovation, strengthening team dynamics, and reducing staff turnover. Therefore, there is not just a social reason to retain and develop female talent, but also a strong commercial case.
  2. Firms want to achieve the target of 50% female representation at senior, middle, and junior levels, but this may be a slow process, and it is not yet clear how hybrid working may impact this goal.

Covid impacted women less than expected

Despite multiple studies suggesting the pandemic has impacted women worse than men in the general economy, within Private Markets this seems not to have been the case. Speakers reported that their firms had seen no specific rise in women being made redundant or choosing to leave work.

That said, lockdown and remote working had loosened the bonds between teams due to lack of face-to-face contact. Most firms are now looking ahead to hybrid working and how they could make it work successfully for them.

Pros and cons of hybrid working for senior leadership teams

Many firms see hybrid working as way to foster flexibility, trust, and high productivity amongst staff. Having some time in the office should help to restore collaboration and team spirit, while boosting engagement. They also see it as a means to become more attractive to top talent – including female talent, since many women favour flexibility, especially if they are working parents.

However, the speakers did say that many firms are apprehensive about how the hybrid model will work in practice. Some are worried that allowing employees to stay working from home may exacerbate the problem of employees not feeling engaged.  

Possible challenges of hybrid working for women

The speakers added that the hybrid model could prove negative for many women – particularly those who value the opportunity to spend more time working from home. The general feeling appears to be that those who spend the most time in the office will be most likely to get preferential treatment and progress their career over those who spend more time working from home.

Given that, statistically, working mothers are most likely to want more time at home to look after children, the risk is that men are more likely to spend more time in the office while women spend less time there. The result could be that women lose out on career progression opportunities, hampering the development of female talent across the industry.

At the same time, for working mothers, spending some time in the office and some at home could make it more difficult to arrange childcare, unless the specific days are fixed. Flexibility and reliable childcare do not go well together.  

How are firms approaching hybrid working?

Due to the high levels of apprehension and uncertainty about hybrid working amongst Private Market firms generally, speakers felt that firms were being overwhelmingly negative about it. One said that it was important for senior leaders, middle managers, and junior employees equally to approach hybrid working with a positive mindset, as a negative mindset would make failure more likely.

On a practical level, firms have been trialling a variety of approaches to hybrid working:

  • Some are starting hybrid working in September, while others are waiting until January 2022.
  • Larger firms are tending to give their business heads and managers more flexibility over how to implement hybrid working, for example how many days per week to expect their staff to come to the office.
  • Smaller firms are tending towards taking a more top-down ‘directive’ approach, with the most common approach being to ask employees to work in the office three days per week, with the days being fixed.
  • Most attendees and speakers agreed that some kind of commitment to returning to the office is important to mitigate the potential inequality between men and women, as well as to help support junior analysts, who will likely benefit most by learning from more senior employees.
  • Some firms are asking their employees to take lateral flow tests for Covid and, while some US firms are making vaccination mandatory before returning to the office, UK and European firms are not following this lead. Some companies are, however, making it a requirement for employees to fill out a health form every day unless they have been double-vaccinated. The thinking is that younger employees are less likely to be vaccinated and may need more monitoring or supervision.

What else are firms doing to support their female talent?

Besides hybrid working, the speakers discussed a number of other initiatives Private Market firms have been trying to help support women, with a particular focus on parents.

Many companies have updated their maternity and paternity policies to allow for more flexibility. During lockdown, several companies provided access to psychologists and coaches to support parents deal with home schooling while working and the mental health challenges of being a parent during Covid. These companies are tending to continue this kind of coaching going forward, for example by offering support to parents for returning to the workplace.

Other initiatives to support parents with younger children include:

  • A maternity ‘buddy’ system
  • Setting up parents resource groups

More broadly, during lockdowns several firms set up online groups for employee networking, such as ‘Friday clubs’, which aimed to offer a fun, social outlet to help relieve the pressures of lockdown. The speakers felt that this social dynamic could be particularly helpful for women, and that having employee groups where women can bond, share their feelings, and have relaxed conversations was key to fostering the team dynamic during remote working.

Some companies are providing training to employees returning to the office, in part to help improve engagement and business discipline. Such training focuses on how to have more productive meetings, collaborating more effectively, and so on. Speakers felt this would be beneficial to women.

What are Private Market firms doing to develop mid-level female leaders?

As in many industries, the Private Markets sector has seen increased gender diversity in graduate recruitment, as well as more women in senior leadership roles. The biggest challenge is how to develop women with around ten years’ experience into middle management, where they remain particularly under-represented. Here, the speakers discussed several initiatives, including:

  • Mentorship programmes, both formal and informal, including one-to-one mentoring where ambitious female employees are matched to appropriate senior mentors by HR.
  • Discussion groups, both those organised by companies and informal ones set up by employees, and focusing on topics such as networking, negotiating, and building confidence.
  • Paying for online learning platforms from third parties on useful skills – a particularly cost-effective option for smaller firms with fewer resources.
  • Motivational coaching focused on middle-management skills, behaviours and mindsets.
  • Investing in personal development of female talent.
  • Incentivising managers to spot and develop female talent.

Lots of ideas, but where to go from here?

In conclusion, Private Market companies agree on the importance of developing female talent. However, while the discussion highlighted several initiatives firms had already taken and were considering taking, there was no clear consensus on what works or is likely to work most effectively.

The main reason for this lack of consensus is the lack of data to prove what works, especially given the destabilising effect of the pandemic and the uncertainty around how hybrid working may affect women in particular. At the end of the roundtable discussion, attendees and speakers alike agreed that the desire to succeed was genuine, and firms were willing to try new ideas, and so agreed to organise a follow-up roundtable to focus on tangible, practical solutions.

The answer to the question of whether 50% representation is achievable for women in Private Markets seems to be that senior HR managers in the sector believe that it is and are committed to finding workable solutions. It will be exciting to see what comes next.

For more information, please contact Isabel Ruiz Halter, Director, Sheffield Haworth.