Special Report:

Women in asset management: Battling a culture of ‘subtle sexism’

For the second year running, FTfm approached the asset management market regarding the uncomfortable topic of sexism.

The feedback from the 730 global respondents to FTfm’s Women in Asset Management survey remains troubling: a fifth of female fund staff have suffered sexual harassment at work, while a third experience sexist behaviour on a weekly or monthly basis.

The situation appears to be worse in fund management than elsewhere in finance. Just over a tenth of women in financial services said they have suffered sexual harassment at work within the past three years, according to a report published in October by Opportunity Now, a group that campaigns for better gender equality in business.

One female trader in the asset management industry says she is on the brink of quitting the industry altogether due to her inability to cope with the environment.

“[My bosses invent] perverted nicknames about parts of our bodies and fantasise about pornographic scenes. Clients hit on [me] nonstop. I can’t dress like I would in another job and I purposely don’t wear make-up,” she says.

Another female respondent adds: “It is not appropriate for male bosses to call me ‘sweetheart’ and ask me to take the minutes or type up the notes. I am management level, not a secretary, and to be handed these tasks over more junior males is clear sexism. Sexism is rife.”

These problems are not just reported by women. More than a third of male asset management staff also frequently witness sexist behaviour at work, according to the FTfm findings.

One male respondent says: “There are still an awful lot of sexist and derogatory remarks happening when there are only men in meetings. Women who have succeeded also tend to be labelled as ‘ball breakers’, which is an insult to them.”

The findings show that roughly a sixth of women have felt pressured to use their sexuality at work, compared with 6 per cent of men.

A female hedge fund employee, who said she was sexually assaulted by a senior banker that worked with her company, did not report the incident to her managers out of fear that it could damage her career. “No one wants to be the girl that screams,” she says.

Martin Gilbert, chief executive of Aberdeen Asset Management, Europe’s largest listed fund house, says: “Unfortunately, I am not surprised [this behaviour] still goes on, but I am shocked the figures remain so high. It is a huge concern.

“From a moral perspective it should not be happening, but it also makes no business sense. Research clearly shows that more diverse teams perform better. This kind of behaviour will discourage women from joining the sector, [which is] bad for the industry and investors.”

Daniel Godfrey, chairman of the IMA, the UK fund association, adds: “I am shocked at the findings and, if they truly reflect the situation across asset management, they make me angry. The biggest concern is that 65 per cent of women say that they have regularly [experienced] inappropriate behaviour. [This] would indicate a cultural issue that is more worrying than incidents that are disgusting and unacceptable, but which may also be rare.”

A number of large international fund houses, including BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, Vanguard, Pimco, Fidelity Investments, RBC Global Asset Management and Robeco declined to comment on the findings.

Although there is widespread recognition that recruiting and retaining more women in the industry is imperative to fixing these issues, the overwhelming majority of fund houses were unwilling to share statistics on the gender breakdown of their workforce.

FTfm asked the 10 largest independent fund houses in the US and Europe to provide information such as how many women they employ and at what level.

Aberdeen was the only fund company to share the information. The remaining nine groups declined, including BlackRock, Vanguard, Fidelity Investments, Franklin Templeton and Capital Group in the US, and Schroders, Union Investment, Lombard Odier and Pictet Asset Management in Europe.

A number of bank- and insurance-owned groups would also not provide a breakdown, including Pimco, Allianz Global Investors, State Street Global Advisors, Deutsche Asset and Wealth Management, Amundi, Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Invesco and Legg Mason.

Their reluctance to share such information will frustrate the many women in the market who believe they are fighting a culture of “subtle sexism”. Large technology companies, including Google and Twitter, began publishing a gender breakdown of their workforces this year.

One senior female respondent says: “Discrimination is endemic and continues to be a massive problem for women in the industry. Even worse is the fact that you are effectively gagged as a senior female if you want to be seen as a good ‘team player’ with your male bosses or influential male counterparts.

“That means it is politically unacceptable and a corporate career killer to speak out in any way whatsoever on what is really going on. It leaves you as a senior female in an almost impossible position and it is incredibly depressing.”

The survey revealed a wide gap in perception between men and women on the extent of sexism in the market. More than two-thirds of men believe the situation for women has improved in the past five years, compared with just 37 per cent of women.

Nearly a fifth of women, meanwhile, believe sexism is worse in fund management than elsewhere in finance, compared with just 7 per cent of men.

One female respondent says: “We need whistleblowing policies, stronger legal aid and awareness, and a serious clampdown on the entertainment culture. Had I known what I was getting myself into, I would have taken a different path.”

The consensus among several senior executives is that fund companies need to take a zero tolerance approach to sexist behaviour.

Saker Nusseibeh, chief executive of Hermes Investment Management, says companies should “make it clear that any such behaviour is totally unacceptable within the industry [and will] lead to termination”. Educating the workforce to recognise harassment and how to prevent it and promoting more women to positions of leadership are also important, he believes.

Maxime Carmignac, managing director of French fund house Carmignac Gestion, says: “Companies must raise awareness but should not impose too strict rules. ”

Helena Morrissey, chief executive of BNY Mellon subsidiary Newton and a leading campaigner for gender equality in the workplace, expressed exasperation at the findings. “It’s so tedious that there still seems such a problem,” she said.


Vox pop: Women in Asset Management survey

Alongside the 730 fund management staff who responded to FTfm’s Women in Asset Management survey, more than 95 women and 30 men provided detailed and lengthy comments on the issue. Here are just a few:

Women

“There still seems to be an adherence to cultural stereotypes in fund management. This seems to be worse in British companies than multinational ones. While beer and golf are seen as cultural norms in business we will struggle to get out of the dark ages.”

“The fact is that tough women are regarded as trouble whereas tough men are regarded as promotion material.”

“There’s nothing overt – people are too smart for that but in my department there’s a subtle suggestion that most women are only good for admin work.”


Men

“Much more work needs to be done on equal pay. Some companies seem to take pride that women they employ are subject to less discrimination than average, which is absurd and sums up the problem. It should be about achieving equality, not being satisfied with merely less inequality.”

“From a management perspective, women are far more difficult to control than male staff. This is due to inter-female competition, often resulting in ‘scenes’ in the workplace.”

“Frequently men are overlooked because of their sex and there is discrimination in favour of women.”

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