Gender lens equity investing developed from a substantive body of research demonstrating the financial, risk management, decision-making, and other corporate benefits of higher levels of women in leadership (WIL). In our coverage universe at Parallelle Finance, 27 gender lens global and regional equity funds are available to individual investors. Their assets under management (AUM) totaled $3.47 billion as of 30 June 2021, reflecting a growth rate of 32% during the first half of 2021.
Our coverage universe also includes an expanding group of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) funds that target companies with robust DEI policies for investment. These DEI funds totaled $154 million in AUM as of 30 June.
Gender-lens fixed income also saw strong growth during the first two quarters, particularly in gender bonds issued by private financial institutions and issued or sponsored by development finance institutions (DFIs). Latin America leads on the total number of gender bonds, with proceeds going to women-owned enterprises in various sectors.
As of 30 June, gender-lens fixed income totaled $7.71 billion in AUM, representing bond funds, US notes and certificates, a lending platform, and gender bonds in both developed and developing countries. This translates into a first-half growth rate of 68%, as AUM in DFI-issued gender bonds nearly doubled during the period.
A Push to Increase Women in Corporate Leadership
Elsewhere, progress for women in corporate leadership remains stubbornly slow. Government mandates, regulatory actions, and stock exchange listing rules have a role to play, particularly combined with shareholder activism. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) approved NASDAQ’s groundbreaking board diversity rule for new listed companies on 6 August 2021. Under this rule, most listed companies will be required to have at least two diverse directors, with some exceptions for foreign and small firms, or explain in writing why they don’t.
Prior to the proposal, more than 75% of NASDAQ’s constituents would not have met the criteria, although most had at least one female board director. Smaller companies, in particular, have the most work to do to meet the proposed thresholds.
In a similar move, the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) proposed that listed companies be required to comply with board diversity targets or provide an explanation, and to publish diversity data on their boards and executive management. In addition, a subcommittee of the SEC has recommended the adoption of required disclosure of gender and racial diversity of mutual fund boards. And since California enacted legislation on board representation for women almost three years ago, the number of female corporate directors has doubled, although women remain underrepresented.
The Role of Global Asset Managers
Global asset managers have a range of stewardship policies and statements in place to support growth in corporate WIL. In the face of criticism about the prevalence of all-male boards, more asset managers have signaled their willingness to vote against non-diverse boards. BlackRock announced late last year that it will push companies to disclose diversity data and information on measures to improve it. Similar statements from Vanguard, Fidelity Investments, and State Street Global Advisors (SSGA), among others, soon followed.
BlackRock, JPMorgan, and Goldman Sachs have since released their own 2020 EEO-1 data, with several others committing to do so or releasing partial data.
An analysis of the diversity voting guidelines for the 12 largest global asset managers by AUM as of 31 March 2021 found that their approach to stated thresholds may not be aiming high enough. These guidelines tend to “encourage” board diversity, with several identifying no specific targets and others naming thresholds of only one or two female and other diverse board members.
Advocating for one or two female board members places asset managers behind the curve instead of leading a charge toward board parity. A slight majority of S&P 500 companies now have at least 30% female board representation. Women hold 28% of Fortune 500 board seats, and 36% of FTSE 100 seats.
But who will be the first among these asset managers to call for board gender parity? Or for board parity that encompasses gender and race and ethnicity?
WIL at the Largest Asset Managers
Equally as important, which of the large asset managers will be the first to achieve gender parity on its own board and C-suite? Our analysis of the top 12 asset managers found that Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Asset Management have the highest female board representation, followed by BlackRock, Allianz Group, and UBS.
But female board representation is progressing faster than C-suite gender diversity. Women CEOs are found at only 6% of both S&P 500 and FTSE 100 constituents and just 8% of Fortune 500 companies. In keeping with the broader data, there is a scarcity of female CEOs among the top asset managers. Fidelity is the only such firm headed by a woman.
There are five female CFOs among the top asset managers and research on Russell 3000 constituents finds a correlation between an increase in profits and share prices and the first 24 months after a woman CFO is in place.
But six of the top 12 asset managers have no women in the four core C-suite positions — that is, chair, CEO, CFO, and COO of parent company — and four firms have only one. Fidelity leads with three, but two of these positions are held by the same person.
Only three of these asset managers have gender lens equity funds available to individual investors. The UBS Global Gender Equality UCITS ETF had $615.91 million in AUM as of 30 June, while the SPDR SSGA Gender Diversity Index ETF had $213.25 million and the Fidelity Women’s Leadership Funds a combined $133.78 million. BlackRock’s DEI fund, the iShares Refinitiv Inclusion and Diversity UCITS ETF, had $58.59 million. None of the 12 firms have sponsored or issued a gender bond, although some have had manager roles. In a unique step, Goldman Sachs recently announced it will commit $10 billion in direct investment capital to address opportunity gaps for Black women.
Global asset managers have two areas of opportunity to boost corporate WIL. The first is within their own ranks. Second, they should exercise stewardship and chart the path forward towards board gender parity and higher female C-suite representation.
This article first appeared in Enterprising Investor (CFA Institute) on October 6, 2021.