AMERICAS: Out of the ghetto

A controversial paper published earlier this year by consultant Nori Gerardo Lietz, “Cloistered in the Pink Ghetto: Women in Private Equity, Real Estate and Venture Capital,” revealed the degree to which women are underrepresented in senior finance and investment roles at private real estate firms, and the numbers were not pretty. Just 4 percent of all senior investment professionals at real estate firms, according to the report, were women. 

“Women are not being hired and promoted within the investment divisions of these firms,” the report stated about real estate companies. “The data indicate this is an industry issue, not just an issue with individual companies, as the numbers are so consistent across firms in the private markets.”

There are, of course, exceptions. One of them is Scotland-based Aberdeen Asset Management, which actually has a rather high percentage of women in both its real estate division and among its senior investment staff. 

PERE recently spoke with Katherine Giordano, Americas portfolio manager at Aberdeen, to discuss her firm’s multi-manager real estate division being the exception to the rule and how the work culture and recruitment practices at Aberdeen has fostered (unintentionally) more gender equality among its senior staffers. 

PERE: What is the male-to-female ratio in Aberdeen’s senior finance department? 

Giordano: Within the real estate multi-manager division at Aberdeen, the senior management is 57 percent female. This includes the fund manager heads for the three regions—Asia, the Americas and Europe—all of whom are women. 

If you look at the composition of investment staff within the three regions, the female dominance also holds. In Asia, for example, we have five investment professionals, three of whom are women. 

In the Americas, we have two investment professionals, both of whom are women, so that’s 100 percent. We also have a third woman, Melissa Reagen, who is the head of property research for the Americas. So, if we include her, that’s three out of three in the Americas. 

Overall, within our 33-person real estate multi-manager unit, 48 percent is female. On the senior level, it’s 57 percent. 

PERE: Lietz’s white paper asserts that the vast majority of real estate fund managers have few to no women in senior finance positions. How has Aberdeen managed to be this exception? 

KG: It really was Nori’s study that made us think about the fact that Aberdeen is so heavily led by women. It’s not something we consciously targeted, and it’s certainly not part of any policy or plan. As we’re recruiting and looking for the right people to lead the team and contribute to the team dynamics, it really evolved to be this way by chance. 

PERE: What have been your thoughts on the findings in general? 

KG: The paper contains a lot of data and analysis to support the findings, so there’s no disagreement with that at all. However, I haven’t seen the evidence of what Nori’s talking about in the companies for which I’ve worked. When I was at Clarion Partners, I saw a fair number of women on the portfolio management track, and the same certainly goes for Aberdeen. 

After reading the paper, we asked ourselves how Aberdeen has bucked this trend. I think it’s because we are very oriented towards working in teams. The culture here is not built on star fund managers, rather we’re very much about team-based investment management. Maybe this is something that proves to be useful as women move into their childbearing years and need more flexibility in their schedule, although that’s certainly not why we work that way. 

One of the points that Nori made is the short timeframe in which women can establish a career. Typically, they graduate from college, get their MBA and then join a firm, at which point they only may have a few years to establish their career before entering their childbearing years. 

While other companies may focus on recruiting at the MBA level, what Aberdeen does is focus recruitment at the undergraduate level. So, even if they do leave to get their MBA and then come back, they already have had several years to establish themselves and they’re not starting from square one at 27 or 28 years old. 

PERE: Why do you think women are so underrepresented in this sector? 

KG: I don’t know if it’s generational, but I’m not seeing it in my cohort of people in the real estate industry. I see a lot of women who certainly have the potential over the next 10 to 20 years to grow into senior positions within their firms or other firms. 

The industry is still evolving. Over the remainder of my career, I certainly would expect to see the figures that Nori’s pulled from the various sources to curve upwards in terms of the female representation in senior investment positions.