In 2018, Ivanhoé Cambridge, the real estate arm of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, engaged the services of Women in Governance, an organization dedicated to increasing gender parity and diversity at Canadian employers.

“This program helps us ask the right questions to make sure we’re implementing the right policies to increase gender parity,” says Sunita Mahant, the investment organization’s senior director of legal affairs and head of global initiatives, diversity, equity and inclusion. “We specifically looked at the data and saw the gaps and opportunities. We’ve set targets for our investment and asset management teams and we’ve set targets for senior roles.”

Read: University Pension Plan integrating DEI into investment strategy

Similarly, Rachael Hanifan, head of human resources at Schroders, says the investment manager’s gender parity strategy is built on a strong foundation of data, noting it began voluntarily publishing its gender pay gap in 2016.

By the numbers

10% — The number of female CEOs at state-owned institutional investors globally

44% — The average turnover rate of female fund managers, compared to 31% of men

US$581M — The average portfolio size managed by a female fund manager, compared to $811M for male managers

Source: Global SWF 2022 annual report, Citywire 2021 alpha female report

“That’s an important step showing who we are in terms of gender diversity and the journey we still have ahead of us. You can’t improve what you can’t measure, so we’re continually monitoring our progress. Our senior leaders have specific metrics aligned to our strategy of increasing representation. That differs by region and function; for example, our technology business at the moment is proportionately more male than female.”

Like many other industries, the investment sector is seeking ways to draw more women to its traditionally male-dominated world. As more firms focus on gender balance in their workforces, they’re realizing the advantages of a diverse team.

Diagnosing the issue

Barriers for women can occur as early as the job application stage, says Mahant. “How is that job posting drafted? Is it inclusive and objective? You also think about all the practices and procedures – some might think, ‘If it’s working, why change it?’ But change is the constant. You have to first look internally at your entire organization — your systems, processes and policies. How were they designed? Are they inclusive or exclusive?”

Women are often overlooked for opportunities due to biases in the system or personal biases, such as traditional mindsets that assume women are solely responsible for childcare, she says. “Someone might think, ‘We’re not going to consider this person for this role because they might be going on maternity leave and we have a big project coming up.’ But why not give the person the opportunity to make the decision?”

Indeed, as women decide to have families, they may rethink their career aspirations, says Elena Palumbo-Sergnese, senior vice-president of HR at the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan. “Organizations need to [work harder] to retain women so we don’t see this drop off.”

Early engagement

Another key to increasing gender parity in the investment sector is early outreach to ensure there’s a progressive talent pipeline, she adds. “At the HOOPP, we’ve partnered with several universities and worked with them to bring in interns. We’ve hired a campus recruiter who works with schools in Ontario to be at their recruitment offices and career fairs.”

The next generation

Claire Foran has always had an interest in business and she’s now ready to focus on the world of asset management.

Foran is one of 33 students who joined the first year of the Ivey School of Business’ program for women in asset management. While she entered the program as a newcomer to institutional investing, she’s now taking her first step toward a career in the sector.

“I went in not knowing a lot and now I actually understand what asset management is. They put it into context and how funds are invested. I appreciate it’s not just about industry knowledge — [the program] also covered character development, confidence and hearing other people’s success stories. My biggest takeaway was the technical skills — it was a crash course in several topics from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. It was nice seeing how those presenting all this financial information were doing it with confidence and asking us questions.”

Foran recently completed an internship at the Royal Bank of Canada, developing an interest in global equities in the process. “We did a couple of fireside chats and sessions on global equities and what the market looks like right now. Equities in general are very interesting, especially with the current market conditions and oil valuations and how a recession could impact all of this.”

Accessibility and interest are the main barriers for women entering this sector, she says, noting the sector will draw more women if it overcomes these obstacles. “From what I’ve witnessed, once women are in, they’re in. Maybe there are some barriers to excelling and moving up, but I think the biggest challenges is getting them interested. I didn’t think I was good enough and there needs to be this message that says, ‘Girls are needed, girls are in demand.’

Cultivating an inclusive culture allows us to retain that talent. We have to walk the talk because employees are re-evaluating work amid the ‘Great Resignation.’

Earlier this year, Western University’s Ivey School of Business launched a program designed to open up the asset management sector to more women. Participants in the 14-week summer program, which is open to female students, complete a paid 10-week internship at one of eight financial sector organizations, including the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board. The four-week classroom portion includes lessons on portfolio theory, behavioural finance, stock valuation and skills such as networking, negotiating and leading presentations.

Thirty-three students — most of whom were getting their first exposure to the institutional investment sector — took part in the program’s first year, says Steve Foerster, the program’s director. “The majority of students hadn’t been exposed to the nature of what a pension fund does. After talking to pension representatives, students’ potential interest in the pension sector increased dramatically. It was revealing to them to hear the reach of Canada’s pension funds. For example, one of the speakers pointed out the amount of commercial real estate owned by Canadian pension funds in downtown Toronto.”

Read: CPPIB, PSP backing Ivey program for women interested in asset management

Sharon Hodgson, dean of the Ivey School of Business, says the program is helping to directly address institutional investors’ concerns about attracting a wide range of candidates, while highlighting the role of employers in supporting the next generation of workers in this sector.

“Some of the sponsors noted they’re also having difficulties attracting minorities. We understood that and it turned out we actually had an incredible diversity of women participating. I think this is just the beginning and partnering with the industry has been so rewarding. Students can see the pathway into a career and, for me, those partnerships are absolutely essential, in terms of time, content and the mentorship they can provide to these students.

“The [program’s] sponsors play a big role in giving the women experience and helping them build networks,” she adds. “They won’t stay in the industry if they don’t have great relationships.”

Maintaining ties

The HOOPP has introduced a “buddy program” for women who go on parental leave, so they can stay connected to their colleagues and workplace, says Palumbo-Sergnese.

“It’s up to them how and if they want to stay connected, but we want to provide the opportunity. The program [has been implemented] across the organization and many employees have decided to have a buddy to stay connected.”

Schroders offers a return-to-work program via external firms that hire women who have been out of work for some time, says Hanifan. The program, which has run for several years in the U.K., will be available to North American employees this year. “They come into internship roles for six to 10 months and, ideally, there’s a role for them at the end of the program.”

Read: Institutional investors seeking to plug data gaps in push for diversity

While in-person interaction is still important for the development of any individual, institutional investors can draw more women by focusing on outcomes and not hours spent in the office, says Naomi Denning, a principal in investment consulting at Eckler Ltd. “If they focus on results and they don’t allow opportunities to be given [mostly] to employees who are onsite, it will help [attract more women to the industry]. . . . The [coronavirus] pandemic has proven people can work from home part of the time and still deliver.”

Highlighting the importance of networking and mentorship, Mahant says Ivanhoé Cambridge offers several opportunities to its female employees, including through a long-running partnership with Commercial Real Estate Women, with chapters in Montreal, Toronto and France.

“Mentorship happens at all different times throughout your career and you can have different mentors, depending on the stage of your career. We look at it from a perspective of creating a program that’s accessible for all within the organization and we have different organizations we partner with.”

The role of childcare

While women are underrepresented in the investment sector, seven of the top 10 countries for female representation are in Asia, with Vietnam in the No. 1 spot at 43 per cent, according to a 2016 report by the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute. By comparison, Canada ranked No. 20 with 20 per cent.

Denning, who worked in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, says this is no coincidence. “There’s more affordable childcare in Asia [and] women come straight back to work after maternity leave. However, the leave is much shorter and women don’t have long career breaks. They’re in the workforce firmly — the dropout rate is much lower.”

Gender-balanced parental leave policies can help employers achieve parity, she adds, noting male partners need to fully participate. “Men aren’t always the main breadwinner and it may not make sense for a woman to take a full maternity leave. You also need men to take the leave and make it more socially acceptable. Even if it’s offered, men sometimes don’t want to take the leave.”

Similarly, Palumbo-Sergnese notes women’s education programs have traditionally focused on bringing women together while excluding men, but she says they need to be part of the dialogue. “It’s critical to communicate there are allies in the organization, people who have a privilege that women may not have and [for these allies] to lend their voice.”

Key takeaways

• Gender parity supports institutional investors’ financial objectives as much as employee attraction and retention efforts.

• In addition to HR policies, institutional investors can increase parity through measures such as enhanced parental leave benefits and policies.

• By supporting their female colleagues as allies, men have an important role in increasing gender parity.

Impacts on the bottom line

Gender parity and DEI are keys to making a company more innovative and conducive to attracting the best talent, says Mahant.

“We believe performance is linked to attracting and retaining the best talent. Everyone is growing in their own way and we’re there to provide that opportunity. We also understand one of the most diverse generations is entering the workforce and that’s going to be important to address. Cultivating an inclusive culture allows us to retain that talent. We have to walk the talk because employees are re-evaluating work amid the ‘Great Resignation.’”

Palumbo-Sergnese also notes the HOOPP’s focus on gender parity is a key differentiator in a very active job market. “Employees have their choice of employer and it’s important to differentiate from other organizations. It’s also a retention tool — if women see other women in senior roles, they’re able to see a career path moving forward. It’s critical to innovation, too — otherwise, you just keep getting the same results. Highly engaged teams perform better, so not only is it the right thing to do, there’s also a dollar impact.”

If employers truly wish to achieve gender parity, they must put in the work, says Denning. “You’ve got to try hard if you want this to happen. A phrase that trips me up is, ‘We’ve got to hire the best person for the job.’ If they say they can’t hire women because they have to hire the best person for the job, they’re not trying hard enough.”

Blake Wolfe is the managing editor of Benefits Canada.