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A group of Europe’s largest asset managers have come together to try and put an end to the woeful underrepresentation of women and minority groups within the fund management market.

Companies including Aberdeen Asset Management, Schroders and Allianz Global Investors have joined forces in an attempt to address accusations that the asset management market is an old boys’ club that promotes and protects the interests of white, middle-aged men.

Almost 30 companies and industry organisations have signed up to the campaign, called The Diversity Project, which aims to ensure diverse recruitment across the industry in terms of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background, age, sexual orientation and disability.

Helena Morrissey, chairwoman of the Investment Association, the trade body, and a leading activist for gender equality in the workplace, said of the project: “The asset management market has gone backwards in terms of diversity and something had to be done about it. We have definitely gone backwards compared with other industries.

“Enough is enough.”

Research released last week showed that fewer than one in 10 of UK funds are managed or co-managed by women. According to research from Morningstar, the data provider, women are much more likely to become doctors, lawyers or accountants than portfolio managers. In the US, just 184 of America’s 7,000 US mutual funds are run by women.

Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser to Allianz, the insurer, who addressed fund management executives at a recent industry gathering in Berlin, said: “I was shocked by the number of white men in the audience.”

Brenda Trenowden, chairwoman of the 30% Club, a campaign group that pushes for greater female representation on boards, agreed the level of diversity in the fund industry has “definitely gone backwards” since the financial crisis.

Ms Trenowden, who is also head of the financial institutions group at ANZ, the Australian bank, added: “[The asset management market] has become much less balanced. Theoretically, it should be one of the most friendly places [for women and minorities]. It should be a meritocracy. But that has not borne itself out.”

Fund companies have previously blamed the lack of diversity in the industry on the fact that they receive very few job applications from candidates with diverse backgrounds. But Elizabeth Corley, vice-chairwoman of Allianz Global Investors, dismissed this argument as inadequate.

“We don’t have sufficient diversity, full stop,” she said. “The accounting and legal firms have overcome this. Why is that? We need to establish ourselves as a profession [and] make [asset management] look like a logical alternative to being an accountant or a lawyer.”

The Diversity Project will be led by a senior-level steering group that includes Irshaad Ahmad, Allianz Global Investors’ head of institutional business for Europe, Lesley Williams, chairwoman of the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association, and Maxime Carmignac, managing director of Carmignac Gestion, the French investment boutique. The group is chaired by Ms Morrissey.

Although the project is focused on the European market, Joe Sullivan, chief executive of Legg Mason, the Maryland-based asset manager, said the US investment industry also needs to tackle the serious lack of diversity within its workforce.

He said: “We have always tried to have an inclusive culture, but we need to put more emphasis on this and have middle management realise [that] we all look and think the same. This is not about hiring people from Princeton as well as Harvard and Yale.

“We can and will have rules on hiring [to improve the levels of diversity at Legg Mason], but really we want [managers] to embrace [the push for more diversity] because it is a smart business decision. Diverse teams yield better results.”

This is the first of a three-part series on women in asset management

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