The private equity industry has a significant role to play in improving diversity in finance according to Rhonda Ryan, managing director and head of EMEA at Pavilion Alternatives Group.
Ryan, who is speaking at the 4th annual Women’s Private Equity Network Summit (WPEN) later this month, gave AltAssets her thoughts on the issue of gender diversity in the finance industry.
"LPs could help make a difference," she said. If large LPs ask about a GPs’ diversity policy or what they are doing to address what, in PE, is generally seen to be a lack of diversity, this would be helpful,” she said.
This doesn’t just include gender diversity but also racial diversity, another area ‘where private equity is falling down,’ according to Ryan.
“It may be that unconsciously people have chosen in their own likeness and they have not stopped to think about what diversity really means. If an LP questions a GP about diversity during the fundraising process it may have the effect of focusing the minds of GPs onto the topic more easily.”
Despite the power of LPs in this regard, GPs also need to be aware of the need for diversity at their boards and in the management of the companies they acquire, Ryan said.
“Given the large number of companies acquired in private equity deals, there is a real opportunity for private equity to make a difference to diversity both in finance but also at companies in general. Private equity has the opportunity to play a significant role in improving diversity.”
Ryan, who has been working in the international investment industry since 1992, is well placed to know first-hand why the industry struggles with gender diversity.
She believes one of the issues behind the lack of women is down to a shortage of female applicants, with much more needing to be done to encourage women to enter the finance industry in general.
“It’s not the only issue, as retention is also a problem. However, in my experience when you have an open position and review all the CVs you frequently find that there are fewer women applicants.
“More needs to be done to promote finance as a potential or future career for women. If you look at how finance is portrayed in movies, for example Wolf of Wall Street, and in general, it is frequently portrayed in a negative, aggressive light and that is probably unattractive to most women.”
Making the industry more attractive is just part of the solution, however, with more education at both university and high school levels regarding the options for women in finance also crucial, Ryan added.
She suggests an ‘outreach program’ which would involve senior finance professionals going into schools and universities to speak about finance as a career and their experiences.
However, for more applications and better retention, Ryan said it is essential that younger people identify with role models.
“If they see that they are very different from the rest of the industry, it is not going to be that attractive.
“I have seen some organisations where there is a prominent senior woman, and this has attracted other women to join as they can see that you can be successful at that company regardless of whether you are male or female.”
Quotas are not the answer
In the past there have been calls for gender quotas for company boards in order to improve the female representation. But Ryan does not agree that this is the right step to take.
“I don’t believe in quotas or giving a job to anyone other than the best candidate. Women don’t want to then face the barrier of people saying 'you got the job just because you are a woman'.
“Additionally, if you do follow that approach you may not get the best person, and a woman that fails because she wasn’t suited for the role isn’t going to help gender diversity in the future.”
While quotas might not be the answer, Ryan says established firms could employ a number of initiatives to improve gender diversity.
“Large companies could have a policy of including a certain number of women in their graduate interview list.” If companies aim to have a minimum number of women on their interview list, there is more chance that, ultimately, more women will be working in that company, she added.
Ryan’s advice to any woman looking to get into finance is to gain experience through internships and work experience to see if it piques an interest.
She also believes that speaking to other women that are already involved in finance can prove invaluable and just as having confidence in yourself.
“I have heard it said that if a woman is unable to do every single task listed on a job description, a woman will often say 'I am not qualified to do that', whereas a man will usually say 'I can do that' even if there are a few tasks with which he has no experience. Women should not be afraid of trying things, including things outside their comfort zone.
“Just as importantly: don’t lose sight of who you are and your beliefs. Don’t feel that you have to change who you are to fit into what is perceived to be an aggressive finance industry.
“Ultimately there should be room for different styles and personalities and this combination ultimately makes a better company.”