Glass ceiling shows first cracks in private equity

News Analysis 8 March

Glass ceiling shows first cracks in private equity

The infamous glass ceiling is finally showing its first cracks for female private equity professionals. 

“For a long time, I used to be the only woman among nine men also investing in industrial tech," said Lucille Bonnet, managing director of Alantra's Klima fund. "However, there is a real willingness to increase diversity in the sector, which has increased work opportunities for women."

Long gone are the days when funds’ annual team pictures showed a token woman or two. Female professionals now represent around 23% of all investing roles at private equity firms globally, McKinsey showed last November.

Female-led funds are also emerging, including France’s growth capital fund Revaia, established by both Alice Albizzati and Elina Berrebi. The vehicle describes itself as the largest European growth fund founded by women, which is a “source of pride” for Albizzati, she said to Mergermarket’s sister publication Unquote in January.

While some women are finally pushing their heads through the cracks in the glass ceiling, they are also working hard to help their peers follow behind them.  

Agnieszka Pakulska, a partner at Poland-based PE firm Avallon, runs a local version of Level20’s “Outreach”, a program which aims to familiarise women students with the private equity market and encourage them to consider careers in the space. Level 20 is an European organisation which aims to increase the number of women in both private equity and venture capital (VC).

Meanwhile, Valérie Gombart, founder and CEO at investment firm Hi Inov, focused last year on having more female professionals in her team. Instead of recruiting them one by one, which could lead to a failure to integrate them, she decided to target experienced women from other industries and train them in venture capital herself, she said. She recently hired five women in one go.

Advisory rhymes with sorority

Feminization isn't just an issue for private equity and VC funds. M&A boutiques are another area where the glass ceiling is cracking, leading to increasing numbers of leadership positions being held by women.

“When I started my career, nobody was looking at gender representation for entry-level positions," Oriane Durvye, partner at European M&A advisory firm Alantra said, adding that “today all M&A firms actively focus on the matter, and it has become a central topic”. 

Personal involvement has been key, including Barbara Sobowska’s, founder of Poland-based boutique advisory firm MOST Partners, who tries to “sponsor and do proper mentoring” towards her female colleagues, she said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as mentioning another female team member as a good candidate to run a specific project or giving credit for their hard work”, she added.

Female leadership in the advisory world also benefited from macrotrends, including the fact that working at home became more prevalent after the pandemic, Durvye said. “Even the most traditional employers have had to evolve, as well as clients," she said. 

There is now a greater tolerance towards not attending a meeting physically, Durvye said. "The focus is on delivering and doing your job well, rather on time spent face-to-face.” 

Fighting the victim trope

Although the glass ceiling is cracked, it hasn't fallen yet. Only 12% of managing director positions globally are occupied by women, according to the same McKinsey survey.

There should be diversity in all areas of the ecosystem, Iwona Cymerman from Poland-based told Unquote January 2023. That includes diversity among limited partners (LPs), as well as general partners (GPs), she said. 

A new approach is key for more parity in private equity, Sobowska said, adding that it is particularly important to avoid the pitfalls of referring to women as victims. “We need to be careful about how we talk about parity," she said, adding that tropes about victims can undermine female professionals. 

Instead, it is important to stress that hiring more women simply pays off, Sobowska said. "About 80% of our team are women and I see so many advantages of that – the women working with me are experts in their fields, they are diligent, ambitious and hard-working." 

Parity should be seen as quid pro quo, with competent women ascending to top positions and bringing added value to their firms. Research published by Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2018 showed that VCs that hired 10% more female partners tended to show a 1.5% spike in fund returns each year combined with 9.7% more profitable exits, as previously reported.  

Key M&A practitioners need however to be cautious that parity does not become the sole focus of their diversity efforts, hiding other social issues. 

“We also need to focus on parity regarding social origins or nationalities, as in our sector there are many people coming from privileged backgrounds," Mounia Chaoui, partner at private equity firm Turenne Groupe said. "We are lacking on this aspect, and it should be our next topic to work on.”

Did you enjoy this article?

Add the following topics to your interests and we'll recommend articles based on these interests.

Private Equity

Your M&A Future. Today.

Next-generation Mergermarket brings together human insights and machine intelligence to deliver groundbreaking predictive analytics.

Be the first to know with next-generation Mergermarket

Book a demo today