Women in Asset Management: gender diversity exchange app tracks inequality

In our second Women in Asset Management interview, Sophie L’Helias, Founder and President of LeaderXXchange explains why she created the Gender Diversity Exchange app and the importance of having women in the Asset Management industry

Sophie L’Helias is nominated for the Corporate Governance & Engagement Leader of the Year at the Women in Asset Management New York Awards. We asked her why the need for the Gender Diversity Exchange app, and of the importance of supporting other women in the asset management industry.

Sophie, tell us about your experience in Asset Management and how you got to where you are today?

My first job in the asset management industry was advising investors when I was an M&A attorney in New York and Paris. I left the law to found a governance and shareholder activist consulting business managing investor campaigns and building shareholder coalitions. During that time, I worked for a broad range of investor clients – hedge funds, raiders, pension funds and other investors based in Europe, Canada and the United States. I later joined an activist hedge fund on Wall Street as a Managing Director.

I was extremely interested in the emerging field of corporate governance and shareholder activism and co-founded the International Corporate Governance Network (ICGN) in 1995. The ICGN grew from a small group of people who really cared about governance to become one of the largest investor organisations in the world and a leading authority on the topic.

In my years working with asset managers and as an asset manager – I was often the only woman with a decision-making role in the room.

When I was Managing Director of the activist hedge fund, I was responsible for identifying public companies’ governance vulnerabilities. This included assessing whether those vulnerabilities had an impact on companies’ valuations and whether we could take any action – or encourage a company to take action – and improve performance.

I left the hedge fund and later founded LeaderXXchange, a change-driven organisation that develops investment methodologies for investors and advises issuers on diversity, sustainability and governance strategies.

I also serve on the board of two asset management firms – one in Africa and the other in France – and am lead independent Director of a publicly-traded company.

Creating the Gender Diversity Exchange was a logical step for me. After spending years building shareholder activist screening methodologies, and developing engagement strategies in the areas of governance and sustainability, I found meaning and purpose in creating an innovative gender diversity app for a broader audience.


How does the Gender Diversity Exchange app work?

The Gender Diversity Exchange tracks the progress of publicly-traded companies around the world as they promote women into the ranks of their boards, executive leadership, and management levels. It works like a search engine and lets users track and map the gender diversity of companies worldwide.

Research shows that companies with higher percentages of female directors have better financial results. Consequently, when women are underrepresented among a company’s directors and top managers, the company is less well equipped to handle business challenges, understand customer needs, and approach problems from a different perspective.

Many companies make public internal data on how many women are in these roles – either out of a sense of transparency or because local laws mandate this disclosure. Some also publicise their commitments to promote more women or nominate more to the board of directors. But until now, there hasn’t been an easy way for investors, the media, or interested citizens to find out how individual companies measured up. Nor how close these companies came to meeting their own announced targets.

I created the Gender Diversity Exchange for positive impact to reward companies that do well and encourage other companies to do better. Those who want to know how companies fare and compare – investors, academics, journalists or employees –  can visit the app site to learn how the companies do on these measures.

The Gender Diversity Exchange currently tracks more than 3,900 publicly traded companies across 38 industries, 27 countries and three geographic regions: North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Using public data that the companies disclose, as well as proprietary databases from Paris-based environmental, social, and governance global data provider Vigeo-Eiris, the search engine app reveals how these companies stack up on gender diversity measures.

We’ve since developed gender diversity investment methodologies for institutional investors and created a customisable option that lets investors and companies upload their data to benchmark gender diversity against peers.

What inspired you to create the Gender Diversity Exchange?

For years, I was the only woman in the room: meeting investors, company CEOs and board members. While that has changed to some degree with a growing number of women in financial services and women serving on boards – thanks to gender quotas/investor pressure in some markets – the percentage of women in leadership roles remains low.

In 2011, I began researching how to build the leadership pipeline by engaging with investors, CEOs, board members and C-Suite executives as well as reading academic research and organising a series of workshops with investors such as CalPERS.

The Gender Diversity Exchange is the result of those years of research and engagement.

In your opinion, why is gender diversity in the asset management industry important?

There is a war on talent in the asset management industry. If you want to attract the right people, you need to make everyone feel they belong and have an opportunity to grow, succeed and be rewarded. This makes gender diversity important internally.

Externally, gender diversity is also extremely important. The asset management industry’s clients are increasingly focused on their managers’ diversity. CEOs of global asset managers are aware of these evolving client expectations and are focused on solutions that will produce measurable results.

What does the asset management industry need to do to encourage more women to join?

First and foremost, the industry needs a large number of male and female leaders to inspire and lead by example. Second, the industry needs to identify key indicators that track the growth and progress of employees in the industry – and women in particular – and making that data public.

Third, having mentoring programmes that not only provide advice and guidance but also build relationships within the industry and outside.

What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned throughout your career?

I learned to take risks and believe in yourself – even when you fail. Also, to never hesitate to ask for help and advice, or forget those who stood by you at important times in your life.

I have been extremely fortunate. Not only do I love what I do, but throughout my career, I have always had men and women who believed in me and offered encouragement and support, in failure and success.

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