Recruiting women on board the Pantheon International way

In recruiting women on its board, publicly-quoted private equity investment company Pantheon International Plc is "a bit of a trailblazer."

Last year, Pantheon International appointed Dame Sue Owen DCB and Mary Ann Sieghart as non-executive directors, neither of whom has worked in the financial sector.

Here they discuss what attracted them to the position and what other companies can do to improve gender diversity in the boardroom.

“It’s not called an old boy network for nothing,” suggests Mary Ann Sieghart. “So many boards, when looking for a new non-exec director, say it’s got to be someone who is already a CEO or CFO. Given that so few women are CEOs and CFOs, you are automatically narrowing the pool for women and hugely widening it for men.”

What is needed is the type of imaginative recruitment that has led to her and Dame Sue Owen becoming non-executive directors of Pantheon International, a private equity investment company. Pantheon International eschewed the old boy network in favour of formal advertising and interviewing.

They used the online executive recruitment platform Nurole, which advertises board vacancies and was established to increase diversity in appointments.

“There was a proper interview process, and they ended up with two women,” Sue explains. “If they’d gone to a regular head-hunter, I think it’s unlikely they would have got me. My own experience of head-hunters, coming from the Government sector, is that they say, ‘ooh, you’ve got an amazing career. Of course, it doesn’t translate well to the commercial sector’. So, I was beginning to see that the easy option for head-hunters was to serve up the same old people.”

Women on board trailblazer

Having a long and distinguished career in the Civil Service – including 15 years in the Treasury and as Permanent Secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – Sue brings many relevant skills to the table that Pantheon International wouldn’t have tapped into through traditional routes. Although retired, Sue wanted to carry on using her skills, particularly in governance, and a non-executive directorship fitted the bill.

Similarly, Mary Ann has an impressive media background as a journalist and broadcaster. She was assistant editor at the Times and has also worked at the Independent, the Economist, the FT and the BBC

“I have sat on two investment trust boards before, but always investing in listed companies,” says Mary Ann. “I’ve never done anything in private equity, and I thought that was interesting; something new to learn. I think Pantheon International is interested in me because I’ve got a lot of experience in PR, communications, marketing and how to get the company better known and encourage more investors to buy the shares.”

Mary Ann and Sue are two of the three women on an eight-member board at Pantheon International, which is managed and advised by Pantheon Ventures.

As Sue points out: “For an investment manager, Pantheon is a bit of a trailblazer. They are very diverse on gender, and I think not bad on ethnic minority backgrounds. But they also see it as their responsibility in the sector to talk about these issues. And to go into schools and universities and talk about careers in the private equity world.”

Encouragingly, Mary Ann says that the focus on gender and racial diversity is part of the organisation’s DNA, rather than a response to reports and surveys. She adds: “One of the founders was a woman and it was one of the first to sign up to the Women in Finance Charter. One of the obligations is to have at least 30% of senior women, and they are at 42%. So, they are constantly evaluating and looking at how they can improve their processes, but it’s certainly part of how they do business. And, Pantheon is very successful globally, and in no small part I imagine to their approach.”

D&I champions

In their respective careers, both women have been involved in promoting diversity and inclusion. 

Sue was the Civil Service D&I champion, encompassing the whole range of protected characteristics. She also made a point of attending the annual Pride march. The Government had recognised that achieving diversity of thought led to better policies. 

Much of this role involved “championing the issues, getting your colleagues to think about them. But also being hot on the data in terms of how we were performing and actually supporting individual groups.”  Sue also led a bullying and harassment review in the wake of #MeToo.

Mary Ann is currently writing a book about how women are taken less seriously than men. While working as assistant editor of the Times in the mid-nineties, she was one of just two women at senior level. She was responsible for recruiting the paper’s first female op-ed columnist – Libby Purves – and helped set up Women in Journalism.

“Guess what the men called it?” she says. “Whinge. One of my fellow steering committee members worked on a tabloid. When she was leaving for a meeting, the men would shout, ‘Oi, are you going to burn your bra, love?’ It was really that bad.”

Mary Ann realised early on that she would need to act as confidently as the men in order to get ahead. She was rewarded by being caricatured in Private Eye as Mary Ann Bighead. 

She believes that, although things have improved, there is still a way to go for the media to be fully representative of the population. There need to be more women and BAME people in senior roles and less ageism when it comes to women on screen.

Advertise board roles

Based on their experiences, Sue and Mary Ann argue that the private sector has much to learn on promoting D&I. Sue says that the Civil Service was able to act through having the right data and that, “actually collecting data and exposing senior leaders to what those data show is really powerful.”

Mary Ann agrees, adding: “If senior leaders are held accountable for improving diversity, that’s when they’ll start to concentrate on it.”

They are convinced that the way forward for companies to attract more women to the boardroom, particularly in non-executive director roles, is to follow Pantheon International’s lead and advertise, rather than rely on head-hunters.

Says Sue: “You mustn’t think of it as a box-ticking exercise. I think you’ve got to believe in it and understand the business case for it. Very often it takes something having gone wrong to realise that there had been groupthink around. 

Says Sue: “You mustn’t think of it as a box-ticking exercise. I think you’ve got to believe in it and understand the business case for it. Very often it takes something having gone wrong to realise that there had been groupthink around. 

“It’s exposing people to the kind of underlying examples of where a better balance of backgrounds and thought on their board would give them different and better results. There’s a lot of research and evidence that shows that companies with more diverse boards make more money.”

For Mary Ann, an important move would also be to make senior executive jobs more compatible with family life, for fathers as well as mothers. That means adopting flexible working practices and making sure that these will not hinder career progression. She adds: “I also think jobs must be advertised with the flexible and parental leave benefits. Potential parents, male and female, are terrified of asking at the interview what happens if they have a baby, in case they’re not hired.”

Looking ahead to life on the Pantheon International board, Mary Ann faces two main challenges. The first is learning the jargon. The second is how to help ordinary retail investors to understand private equity and its benefits better.

Sue aims to help Pantheon International to maintain its progress. She also has her sights on other board roles and is about to become the only woman on a start-up board.

As more and more women move up the ranks within companies and stay in the workplace while having a family, the gender balance looks set to improve.

“I’m optimistic,” Sue concludes. “I think there’s work to do, but we’re on the right trajectory.”
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