Championing the gender agenda

by: Alida de Swardt

Date: Jul 11, 2019

At RMI Investment Managers (RMI IM), we are passionate about playing a meaningful part in cultivating a savings culture in South Africa and transforming the investment management industry to better reflect the society we serve. In addition, we view the promotion of gender diversity and the empowerment of women in financial services as a key part of this transformation agenda. In 2015, I was fortunate to become one of the founding members of Athena, RMB’s gender equality initiative. Athena, in collaboration with other South African banks, has since formed “Women in Financial Services”, a network of women committed to making an impact on gender parity in financial services. One of own affiliate investment managers, Perpetua Investment Managers, is also resolute about the cause. On the 17th August 2019, Perpetua will be running its second Investment Management Career Workshop, aimed at female graduates, to promote awareness of the industry’s opportunities, as the lack thereof is still a critical inhibitor.


With this focus top of mind, we noticed during our client visits last year, that currently women successfully hold the Chief Investment Officer (CIO) position at 12 of South Africa’s prominent multi-managers. This was an encouraging observation for us and prompted us to explore how these women navigated their individual careers and what helped them to stay the course when so many of their female peers tend to opt out of the industry prematurely.


In our quest to improve our understanding of the challenges we invited these CIOs and our female affiliate portfolio managers to join us for a breakfast event in May to share their experiences and what they believed the major catalysts were, in their own careers, which paved the way to their current roles. The aim was to identify common themes to determine what we could do as a group that would be impactful to the industry and helpful to younger women entering asset management. Our discussion revealed some thought-provoking themes.


Culture can make or break your career
The most common contributing factor to the success of these women was a company culture supportive of their careers as women in financial services. This, very often, was not experienced at the start of their careers, but at some point, they worked at a firm that encouraged women’s career paths and offered them invaluable opportunities that helped them progress up the corporate ladder. These corporate cultures tended to be inclusive, offer flexible working arrangements and discouraged the view that women face a binary choice between career and motherhood. Unfortunately, this last point is still prevalent in the industry today: there is a perception that investment leadership positions are not conducive to a meaningful work/life balance, particularly given that these roles are perceived as high pressure. As a result, many women are deterred from even trying to get to investment executive positions, thereby putting their own ceiling on their career development.


Company cultures that promote flexible working arrangements are one way to address this, but this flexibility needs to be extended to men too. Not only is this simply fair, but also means that women are less likely to feel that flexible working somehow creates the wrong impression of their commitment. Companies that are results focussed and enable their employees to deliver on their work through flexible working hours have been invaluable to many women. In some cases, it has been the deciding factor in choosing to stay in the industry.


Another way to encourage women to stay the course is to provide them with the opportunity to manage their career progression in a less linear fashion. This can be achieved through reducing responsibility or a change of role for the period during which motherhood takes its greatest toll. An attractive advantage of this is that it can help broaden an employee’s experience and strategic understanding of the firm. A few of the women in our discussion cited these as contributors to their overall success. This non-linear career progression or “jungle gym” career path should not be viewed as taking a step back but rather as an alternative path to reaching your ambition and full potential.


Role models, mentors and sponsors
A further contributing factor for many women in deciding to opt out of a decision-making role is the lack of visibility of women who have successfully achieved these positions. Our discussion highlighted that if you don’t know women at the top, and how they have achieved what they have, it is harder to visualise yourself getting to this level because there is no example to follow.


This becomes a vicious cycle as these women don’t aspire to the top positions, resulting in fewer women in these positions for the next generation to aspire to. According to 27four’s 2018 BEEconomics Report, women represent 49% of the total industry, yet only 18% are portfolio managers. While it is pleasing to see more women being elevated into decision making roles with the number of female portfolio managers increasing by 21% between 2010 and 2018, there are still almost 5 times as many men in this role as women.


Acting as a role model, mentor or sponsor is probably one of the most important things women in investment executive roles can do to help other women achieve similar positions. Many senior women are role models without even knowing that others look up to them, so it can be a fairly passive or re-active undertaking. Most of the women in our discussion mentioned a meaningful sponsor or mentor that enabled their career progression and supported them in making career choices.


Sponsorship is globally cited as the most important factor in bringing about meaningful change. It means becoming personally invested in someone’s career path by opening doors for them, introducing them to relevant and influential people in your network, raising their profile and trying to connect them to growth opportunities that will help develop their career. According to research from the Center for Talent Innovation, it is sponsors (not mentors) that drive real career progression; those with sponsors tend to report the most satisfaction with their rate of career advancement.


Women need to support women
Sadly, all too often, women struggle to find role models, mentors or sponsors and mention that they frequently don’t feel supported by other women. A hostile, overly competitive playing field is clearly unhelpful and an unnecessary barrier to a woman’s career progression. The consensus view was that women need to deliberately support each other’s path to success, whatever that individual career choice might look like.


Bravery rather than perfection
Speaking up does not always come naturally to most women, whether it is to make their voices heard in a meeting room or to admit that they are struggling. The CIOs and investment managers we spoke to agreed that women are naturally more reticent than men to have their say, particularly in a large group. A lot of this comes down to confidence in their own knowledge and abilities, as well as a desire to be perfect (which includes saying the right thing at the right time). Studies show that women are more likely to strive to perfectionism than men, particularly in a work context, and often this manifests itself in an unwillingness to express a view in case it is seen as “wrong” or “stupid”. Building self-confidence and resilience are key tenets of overcoming this fear of failure and was raised a few times throughout our discussion.


Developing confidence and resilience
One way to build confidence and resilience is for firms to mindfully encourage all employees to participate and freely express their views in meetings. A suggestion from one of the CIOs was to change key performance indicators so that all members of a team are assessed based on their involvement in meetings. This is not about judging the quality of input, but rather on helping employees, especially women, become more confident at expressing themselves in front of other people. As everyone agreed, one does not need to have 100% of the knowledge to make an insightful or meaningful contribution, you just need to have the confidence that what you say matters. Very often, this confidence comes from constant practice and positive reinforcement that your views are valued.


Changing the narrative
There is no doubt that women have many strengths that make them valuable investment decision-makers; the question is how do we encourage more of them into these roles? There is a clear commitment from these senior women and role models of the industry to alter the narrative around women in investment leadership positions but, importantly, we also need men to help drive this agenda.


Our team would like to thank the women that participated in this event for sharing their experiences and valuable views with us in an honest and constructive manner. We are determined to collectively effect change through concrete, relatable and impactful action that will really shift the dial for women.


About the Author


Alida de Swardt

Chief Executive Officer, RMI Investment Managers


Alida joined RMI Investment Managers in April 2016 as Head of Distribution and Marketing and assumed the role of CEO in March 2018. Alida started her career at RMB in 1999 as part of the derivative structuring business where after she was responsible for establishing the institutional structuring business and financial markets research team. In 2008 she was appointed as the Head of Sales and Structuring for FICC and then Head of Financial Institutions for Global Markets in 2014. Prior to RMB Alida spent 4 years at the IDC in their International Finance division.