The gender imbalance in secondaries: problems and solutions

Well-known faces from Debevoise, LGT Capital Partners, HarbourVest Partners and PJT Park Hill discussed why women may be especially suited to life in the secondaries market.

In early July, sister title Private Equity International sat down to discuss the role of women in secondaries with four heavy-hitters from the sector. You can listen to the full conversation here. Here are some of the highlights.

Female underrepresentation begins at university

Law firms aside, most firms involved in secondaries do not recruit directly from universities, which could be a root cause of gender imbalance. It is easier to attract women early and educate them on the upside of the industry than it is to ask them to switch specialisation a few years down the line.

“I do think there are slightly more women in law firms than there are in private equity generally,” said Kate Ashton, a partner at law firm Debevoise. “I don’t want to say the legal industry has solved all these problems, but I think it draws from a slightly different pool that draws directly from university.” Ashton added that women, from an early age, “know what being a lawyer means”.

Women may be particularly suited to secondaries

The interpersonal skills required to construct GP-led deals and the multi-tasking required to execute hundreds of transactions a year could make secondaries particularly suitable for female investment professionals, said Martha Heitmann, a partner at asset manager LGT Capital Partners. “You are reviewing 400 or 500 transactions per annum,” she said. “You have to work very quickly and screen through transactions, understand which ones you have an angle on and then go for it.”

George Anson, formerly of HarbourVest Partners and chair of Level 20, a non-profit organisation that promotes gender diversity in private equity, has found a strong interest in the venture capital industry among female university students who are drawn to its reputation for creativity and innovation. He believes secondaries firms can market themselves in a similar way: “You have to come up with creative solutions to problems [in secondaries] and I think women are very good at that.”

Covid could be a catalyst for improvement

The coronavirus means that, for the first time, many men are learning what it is like to juggle work and childcare. Although it has been difficult and occasionally exasperating, many have also appreciated the opportunity to spend more time with their kids. Hopefully, the flexibility that investment professionals have taken advantage of during the crisis will become a feature of the ‘new normal’, says Johanna Lottmann, a managing director at advisory firm PJT Park Hill: “Sometimes the calls are a little bit less professional than they would be if we were all sitting in our suits in a conference room, but it works.”

‘Sometimes we have to work crazy hours’

Even with more flexible working hours, there’s no getting around the fact that a job in secondaries, or any other transaction-based role, can be extremely time-consuming. Lottmann hopes that women do not get discouraged and that they understand that it is possible to have a fulfilling home- and work-life.

“We’ve all had our fair share of not attending parties and working on weekends,” she said. “But I hope more women will see not only the scary downsides, but also the upside of being part of this amazing and fast-growing industry.”

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