We know that women account for fewer than 2% of financial institutions’ chief executive officers worldwide. We know that fewer than one in seven partners at hedge funds and private equity firms are female. And recent research by the British Business Bank shows that, for every £1 of venture-capital investment made in the UK, less than 1p goes to businesses founded by all-female teams.

The government’s Women in Finance Charter encourages companies to improve gender balance, but what are the practical steps that each business can take, in the interests of both fairness and commercial advantage? And how can your firm reap the financial, cultural and psychological benefits of playing its part?

BOOST&Co, a leading provider of growth capital and working capital, is a member of ELITE’s Funding Platform, which gives the lender access to the 1,200 fast-growing companies that belong to the network. Unusually for the industry, BOOST&Co is led by one male and one female partner, with women making up two-thirds of its principals and 65% of its employees – “a style we’ve had since the beginning”, says HR and recruitment co-ordinator Olivia Field.

Here, BOOST&Co – a business that has integrated gender equality from the start – explains how to make it work for you.

Why gender equality benefits everyone

Building gender balance into a business is about addressing structural inequality, not making token gestures: it must begin in the C-suite and form a core part of a company’s approach. A 2016 review for the UK government by former Virgin Money chief executive Jayne-Anne Gadhia, who was recently appointed as the chief executive of Salesforce UK and Ireland, found that although more women than men were employed in financial services, just 14% of executive-committee members were female.

“Before I joined BOOST&Co, it was unusual to have gender equality at senior levels. In my early days in finance, I was told to behave like the men,” says partner Sonia Powar, who joined in 2013. Founder and partner Lance Mysyrowicz recalls a headhunting process in which he was sent the CVs of 30 men and three better qualified but unavailable women; he went on to hire Powar after declining to conform to the recruiter’s expectation that he would select one of the male candidates, “for ease”.

So, what are the benefits of recruiting a more diverse team? “If you increase diversity, you instantly get different perspectives,” says BOOST&Co’s organisational psychologist, Heather Bingham. “In our sector, we need a diverse set of thinkers to help us work with a diverse set of entrepreneurs, and there tends to be more discussion and exploration when there are more women in a team.”

The industry’s historical bias towards men has created “a cloning mechanism, whereby companies build teams that look the same as the people who are already there”, Powar says. “We all benefit from working in a gender-equal environment. It allows for a much broader range of behaviours, ideas and ways of working.”

How to recruit more women

“I always feel it’s important to shout about the fact that recruiting more women is eminently achievable,” Powar says. “The first step is always the hardest: how do you attract something that you don’t represent yourself?” Here are some of our top tips.

“We tailor our job descriptions to match our way of thinking,” Olivia Field says. Heather Bingham explains that checklists tend to appeal to men, who “get out their pens to tick things off”, whereas women are more likely to be attracted by detailed descriptions, which enable them to “paint themselves into the role”.

“We attract a diverse pool of candidates by telling recruiters: ‘We want you to send us the CV of every single person who qualifies for this role.’ You wouldn’t believe how few employers do that,” Bingham says. Meanwhile, Field has taken steps to tackle unconscious bias. “Gender diversity is a big focus for us, but so is equality of opportunity in all areas. So when a CV is sent by a recruiter, we ask for the candidate’s name, age, sex and address to be left off,” she says.

“Your interview panel should include at least one woman,” Powar says. “If you have male-only teams who continue to interview male and female candidates in the same way, there will always be a bias.” How does her approach differ? “Women do not naturally display overconfidence, so I test skills by asking detailed questions that enable them to describe their achievements without having to appear boastful about them,” she says.

Inside the office – create a level playing field

The stereotypical image of finance is still a trading-floor packed with men in suits. Given that women comprise half the population, creating a supportive working environment should not be rocket science in 2019, but as Jayne-Anne Gadhia notes in her report: “There is a ‘permafrost’ in the mid-tier where women do not progress, or they leave the sector. This is not just about childcare. Women are leaving because the culture isn’t right.”

Powar believes that women are less likely than men to tolerate “negative” cultures, emphasising the importance of a workplace that works for all. There is a male-to-female ratio of at least 50% in each of BOOST&Co’s UK offices, in London, Manchester, Bristol and Cambridge, and strong female role models are also important. “The fact that we have Sonia to look up to is really powerful,” principal Kim Martin says.

Policies that treat employees equally can rectify situations in which women have traditionally missed out. The UK’s gender pay gap was 11.9% in April 2019, with men more likely to ask for a pay rise and to receive a larger increase when they do, but BOOST&Co uses salary banding to ensure transparency. Field highlights policies that are not just female-friendly, but family-friendly, such as flexible working, guidelines on parental leave and enhanced maternity pay. 

Outside the office – put women in the public eye

Women are less likely to be hired for public-speaking engagements, to run for political office and even to ask questions in academic environments. Businesses may not be able to eliminate the structural factors underlying women’s lack of visibility in the public eye, but they can encourage their female employees to take the stage when opportunities arise.

BOOST&Co’s London-based principal Kim Martin, who often sits on expert panels – where she is sometimes the only female – says that women are “definitely still outnumbered” at such events. But she has noticed improvements in recent years, and feels that she has “broken down a barrier” each time she is approached by female members of an audience. “It’s important to lead by example; that’s one reason why we’re successful in recruiting women to our team,” she says.

Martin, who most recently took part in one of ELITE’s investor panels on debt, supports such events as a valuable tool in giving women confidence, “whether it’s to negotiate pay, give a speech or meet management teams, who nine times out of ten are male”.

Principal Lauren Couch, who leads BOOST&Co’s Bristol office, agrees. “Certain financial roles do play to the stereotypical traits of men, such as being comfortable with public speaking,” she says. “We need to encourage confidence – and reassure women that it’s OK to not succeed all the time.”

Slow and steady wins the race

Many companies have good intentions, but is finance becoming more female-friendly? “The industry has started talking about these issues, which is progress, but it will take time,” Sonia Powar says. “The big shift is that we can now be open about inequality, as opposed to accepting it as the norm.”

Recruiters have told Powar that a number of companies are actively seeking more women for their shortlists, while Martin is encouraged by initiatives such as the British Business Bank’s efforts to support female entrepreneurs, in collaboration with Diversity VC and the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association.

Meanwhile, Lance Mysyrowicz hopes that BOOST&Co’s approach to gender equality will continue to set an example. “I hope that when our employees go on to establish their own businesses, they take with them a progressive attitude and create a gender-balanced culture in their own firms,” he says. “I wanted to align my personal values with the culture of my company; I hope they have the strength to do the same.”

As the sector becomes increasingly aware of the need for change, actions taken by companies such as BOOST&Co are key in helping to create a happy, harmonious relationship between men and women in the workplace – aside from the perennial argument about the default temperature for the office air-conditioning, of course. Some things will probably never change.

• This article was originally published in the August 2019 edition of ELITE‘s newsletter, published by the London Stock Exchange Group

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