The World Needs More Women Fund Managers, Says $49 Billion CIO

Thirty years ago, as a young person starting out in Australia’s finance industry, Sonya Sawtell-Rickson would often find herself the only woman in the room.

(Bloomberg) — Thirty years ago, as a young person starting out in Australia’s finance industry, Sonya Sawtell-Rickson would often find herself the only woman in the room. 

Today, she’s the investment chief of A$74 billion ($48.5 billion) pension fund HESTA, which also boasts a female chief executive officer and an investment team made up of 42% women. But that’s still largely the exception in fund management, and Sawtell-Rickson laments the glacial pace of progress in the industry.

“It was quite common to walk into a conference where 95% of attendees would be all men,” Sawtell-Rickson recalled of her experience in the 1990s, in an interview in Melbourne. “The rate of change is still slow.”

Women make up less than a quarter of fund managers globally, according to a new report released by HESTA. The biennial survey of about 80 listed and unlisted managers shows progress on gender diversity has marginally improved, with women making up 24% of investment managers compared with 22% in 2020. 

While Sawtell-Rickson does welcome the progress made — the rate stood at 17% back in 2018 — she cites key challenges that are still holding back gender balance in the top tiers of the investment management industry.

“Everything from gender discrimination, conscious or unconsciously, some stereotyping in terms of roles and behaviors, and also I think challenges linked to workforce participation and creating the flexibility that women might need,” she said, adding that supportive mentors and managers who encouraged flexible work were important factors in shaping her own career. 

‘Gender Lens’

Sawtell-Rickson stopped short of saying HESTA would stop working with managers who failed to show they were making inroads on diversity, but said the fund was increasingly applying a “gender lens” to investments. 

“That’s both in terms of the type of managers as well as the type of investments that they’re undertaking,” she said. “The classic example that is given is private equity funds tend to support more male-led entrepreneurs than female-led entrepreneurs.”

HESTA’s report adds to mounting data showing just how much progress is needed before workforce gender parity, including equal pay, is reached. A global survey published last year by Citywire, tracking just over 17,500 active managers, showed only 18% of the world’s funds are run by females or a team with at least one woman. 

Meanwhile, Australian data show there was a gender pay gap of 28.6% in financial and insurance services in 2022. The government has ruled that companies with more than 100 employees will have to reveal their gender pay gaps from next year, as part of new income inequality legislation. 

The Three-Year Plan to Double Britain’s Female Fund Managers

The HESTA report recommends that firms set time-bound targets for gender diversity, conduct regular analysis of the gender pay gap and have inclusive recruitment and promotion practices. Sawtell-Rickson is proud of the progress that HESTA has made in gender parity, but there’s still more to do.

“We’re also doing a lot of deliberate mentoring and leadership training to really make sure we’re bringing bringing diverse talent through the levels, which continues to be a challenge in the industry, including for us,” she said.   

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