CIO Sonya Sawtell-Rickson

Industry super fund HESTA is surveying its 70 external fund managers to uncover exactly how many women are instrumental in investing its $43 billion under management.

The project is based on comprehensive evidence showing that greater diversity in the investment decision-making process leads to healthier returns.

Speaking at a CFA Society Sydney function to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, 2018, HESTA chief investment officer Sonya Sawtell-Rickson explained what she and her team are trying to unearth via the survey of their external managers.

“Increasingly, fund managers are publishing their statistics on gender,” Sawtell-Rickson said. “But what they don’t tell you is how many of those people are in investment decision-making roles versus support roles like HR and marketing. This can distort the gender numbers in key investment roles.”

“You’ll often get a lot more women in accounting and HR; and a lot fewer women in front office,” she said. “We’ve, therefore, been quite specific about wanting to know the gender numbers related to our investment decision-making the entire way up the chain.

“We’re really looking forward to seeing the results and forming a baseline that we can start to measure against.”

Sawtell-Rickson argued it is important to retain women in investment roles within teams early in their career. This is because they are often approached to transition into sales and client-servicing roles, and it can then be hard to make the switch back.

The CIO acknowledged that overall diversity is much broader than just the proportion of women in various roles.

“Diversity is very difficult to measure, but we’ve got to start somewhere – and we’re starting with gender,” she said.

Enticing women into the fold

Turning to the question of how more women might be encouraged to pursue a career in investment management, Sawtell-Rickson said she had been encouraged by speaking to female participants in HESTA’s three-month summer graduate program.

“They had no idea how rewarding finance can be, and just how extensive in terms of analytical capability, relationship management, strategy, research and academic links,” she said. “It was wonderful to think that we’ve got this great opportunity now to attract talent like this to our industry.’ ”

HESTA is also an advocate for gender diversity on corporate boards. The fund has been using its influence as one the country’s largest institutional investors to increase the number of women directors and senior executives at Australia’s 200 largest listed companies.

Last year, HESTA chief executive Debby Blakey wrote to ASX 200 companies asking them to think more broadly about diversity and its impact on performance. Blakey requested that companies set numerical targets and timeframes, and report progress annually.

And in a move guaranteed to make male-only boards sit up and take notice, Blakey said HESTA would use its shareholder voting powers to take action against boards with no women.

“She [Blakey] put them on notice that we would vote against the most senior director seeking re-election on an all-male board,” Sawtell-Rickson said.

Closer to home, HESTA is also putting its money where its mouth is, paying superannuation to its employees on both paid and unpaid parental leave, up to 12 months. In February, HESTA was named an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). And Blakey has been a WGEA pay equity ambassador since 2016.

More than 80 per cent of the health and community services industry fund’s members are women.

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