Board of waiting: How women are still being sidelined from PE portfolio company boardrooms


Huge strides have been made in ensuring women are equally represented on the boards of private equity-backed businesses, but that was from an exceedingly low starting point – and they still remain completely absent from the top levels of swathes of boardrooms, with women of colour faring even worse. In part two of our series on gender diversity in the alternative assets, AltAssets’ Karin Wasteson spoke with execs at firms including Bain Capital about the changing face of diversity in the boardroom.

A first-of-its-kind study tracking gender equality on private company boards showed the number of women of colour surpassed the number of board members named “Dave” in 2022 – the first time that has happened since the study began four years ago.

But more than three quarters of company boards, or 76%, still do not include a single woman of colour. Women overall held 16% of board seats among the companies studied, up from 14% in 2021 and 7% in the inaugural study in 2019.

Even though the number of seats held by women has more than doubled since the annual tracking study was launched, women are still missing from the boardrooms of almost a third of the companies studied.

The fourth annual report on board diversity, led by social impact venture Him for Her and Crunchbase, included 667 US based private companies which had raised at least $100m in cumulative funding.

Prior to this, only public companies had really been scrutinized for their gender diversity ratios. The ground-breaking study, originally published in December 2019, was created to look at the gender disparity in private company boardrooms and to track its improvement.

The latest report revealed that the percentage of all-male boards among the country’s most heavily funded private companies had decreased to 32%, from a high of 60% in the inaugural 2019 edition.

US-based asset manager Bridgeway Capital Management has been intentional since its early days as a firm to make sure that boards are getting more diverse. The firm’s former CEO and Board Director, Tammira Philippe, told AltAssets that women that are qualified to serve on boards have been “hidden in plain sight” for decades.

“It’s fairly standard for asset managers to only support diverse boards now with proxy voting, but that wasn’t standard three decades ago,” she explains.

“What we’re seeing now is that private companies are following what public companies have been doing. Bridgeway used to be one of the few tracking diversity but now it’s just one of many, which is great.”

“Diversity, when it’s well-managed, produces better outcomes. But when it’s not managed properly it can be quite challenging. It’s both about building a diverse team but also leading a diverse team that drives better results,” added Philippe, who also revealed that she used to be the only woman in the room, let alone on the board, in the beginning of her career.

When it comes to the challenging aspects of being a pioneering woman in a male-dominated industry like finance, Philippe says that she’s been lucky in the sense that she’s always been innately assertive and have managed to find male allies, but also that women learn to ignore many of the small “hurdles” along the way, otherwise they would never get as far as they have.

According to the study only 4% of all directors are women of colour, an almost imperceptible change from 3% in the prior year.

Vivine Cameron, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the Chartered Insurance Institute

“If you look at our society, London for example, it is a very diverse, multi-ethnic and multicultural city,” said Vivine Cameron, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Chartered Insurance Institute, the professional body for financial planners and insurers. On its board, six out of the 12 members are women.

“Finance, however, is historically and to an extent still quite a white male dominated profession. Our mandate is to grow public confidence in the profession. If the profession doesn’t reflect the public or the city it is servicing, then it’s not actually building up trust,” she continued.

“It’s important that we become more inclusive and diverse. It is happening. Its just not happening as fast as people would like,” Cameron added.

Diversity is not an exact science though, according to Cameron, as intersectionality needs to be considered as well. “It’s important to both consider gender diversity and the intersections where an individual sits in more than one underrepresented group, for example being female with a disability or black, female and having a disability. In doing so you are building a better relationship with your customers, because they feel like they can identify with you. If you don’t have a diversity of talent, then you are limiting your possibilities of doing business.”

“People who have money to invest tend to be of a certain age. They would like to see and be serviced by people with whom they can identify. It’s important to raise awareness, look at your talent pool and be inclusive in that talent pool, Cameron concluded.

Susan Levine is in charge of hiring the CEOs and C-level executives for Bain Capital Private Equity’s portfolio companies, as well as its board members.

Bain Capital tracks diversity on each of its boards following an acquisition, and the goal is to have at least two diverse directors on every board – including gender, ethnicity, and other factors – and overall to have at least 33% diverse representation on each of its boards.

In North America, 98% of its boards have at least one female, which amounts to around 62 women in total. In Europe, 69% of the firm’s boards have at least one woman and in Asia 91% of them.

Levine says that she focuses mainly on capability required at the company – while tracking diversity- and attracting a certain skill set regardless of gender. Bain Capital works with recruiting partners who are willing to “roll up their sleeves” and do the hard work in order to find a broad pool of qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds, fresh pool of candidates, she says.

“We tend to see a lot of repetition in board candidates ‘recycled’ from board to board, therefore it is important search firms do the work and research to source candidates who are ready to be directors, including first time directors. Over the last five years we’ve worked with firms that have done primary research to find qualified people who are women and people of colour to fill some of those seats,” she explained.

Levine’s team also keeps a record of the number of diverse candidates they have been presented with. The firm requires recruiting firms to provide qualified diverse candidates from a broad set of experiences and backgrounds in each search.

Philippe also echoed this point – that the excuse that “we couldn’t find enough diverse candidates”, is not valid anymore – if it ever was. The objective has to be to reflect the population that the financial industry needs to serve, in her view.

She does have a positive outlook on the future, despite the highly incremental progress: “I believe in the tipping point mentality, and maybe I’m just being too positive, but I do believe we can accelerate change. I would like to see 50/50 representation on all boards, whether it be on public or private companies.”

Read Part One of this series, The Power of Women in Alternative Assets.

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