How to correct the gender imbalance in asset management

Only 12 per cent of asset managers are women, Mackenzie's CIO of equities explains why she thinks that is and what firms like hers are doing to address the imbalance

How to correct the gender imbalance in asset management

Last year Morningstar released a survey of asset managers which revealed that globally, the percentage of women fund managers has stayed stuck at around 12 per cent for over 20 years. International Women’s Day this week brings that gender imbalance into focus for the asset management industry. Ahead of Friday’s celebrations of women, Lesley Marks highlighted the steps that this industry can take to improve its gender balance.

Marks is the CIO of Equities at Mackenzie Investments. She can be counted among that 12 per cent of female asset managers and prides herself on leading a team that exceeds that gender balance. Of Mackenzie’s investment professionals, over 30 per cent are women. While Marks says they still have work to do and miles to go before their goal of gender equity is achieved, she is proud of the concrete, tactile steps Mackenzie has taken to make more young women aware of asset management at the start of their careers.

“We haven’t done an effective job at marketing the roles that exist within asset management to women,” Marks says. “When women think about working in the financial industry, they can very easily see the banking industry. If they are seeking out the most competitive roles for business school students, they will go to investment banking, but there isn’t enough education about the roles that exist in asset management for women. We in the industry need to do a better job getting into the school systems and undergraduate programs to educate women about the opportunities and jobs that exist in our industry.”

Marks’ own route to asset management did not involve as many established pathways and processes. Graduating from business school she got her “starter job” in a back office which she quickly worked to escape. She was interested in finance and enrolled in the CFA program. It was there that her interest in investment research was awakened. She took a job in equity trading, doing equity research on the side of her desk. One of the portfolio managers on that team took her under his wing and encouraged her and she eventually worked her way into a portfolio management role taking on a Canadian small and mid-cap fund.

While the path that she took was not clearly laid out before her at business school, Marks notes that in the work of portfolio management she was able to gain some shelter from the implicit bias that can often stymie the careers of women across industries. Portfolio management involves objective daily management of performance. The numbers don’t lie. Subjective judgement around performance was largely taken off the table.

What Marks thinks keeps women away from these roles is a lack of earlier exposure. She notes that at universities and high schools many of the first places someone can gain exposure to the technical skills of asset management are male-dominated. Investment and finance clubs, for example, are part of the early streams that bring people into asset management. Those clubs are often male oriented and women can feel intimidated to join them. She thinks that by broadening the criteria for those entry level roles, the industry can help young women overcome some of those early barriers.

Mackenzie has already done some of that work on the asset management side, echoing some of the greater success the industry has had with encouraging women to become financial advisors. She says they spend a disproportionate amount of time working at and engaging with university students. They encourage women to apply for roles they might not have otherwise considered at that educational stage because the population mix is more gender balanced.

When they recruit for more experienced and senior roles, Marks notes that the applicant base may only be 10 per cent female. Business schools, however, are more than 50 per cent female. By focusing on that stage of the career path, firms like Mackenzie can build a pipeline of female talent able to come up through the industry.

Marks notes that Mackenzie was a founding sponsor of the Ivey Women in Asset Management program, which educates women in their second year of studies about asset management and the careers they can have. In the first two years of its existence, 74 women went through the program and moved on to internships at asset management companies across the country.

“Our best approach to make a material shift for the future is to focus on recruiting on new graduates and interns and ensure that we have a much more balanced gender representation from that pool, because that's our future,” Marks says. “That's how we can add more to the availability of female talent in our industry.”