It’s International Women’s Day, but many women in private equity firms still feel they cannot ‘have it all’ – a rewarding career, a fulfilling personal life and meeting family responsibilities. Moreover, many women feel they are at a disadvantage compared with their male counterparts in this regard.

While the private equity industry has made great improvements in recruiting more women to entry level and junior positions, it is having trouble retaining them, particularly in investment roles. McKinsey’s 2022 diversity in private markets report found that the attrition rate for women in investing roles in the Americas is higher than for men across entry level, associate, vice-president, principal and managing director roles. The report also found men are promoted more frequently at all these levels than women.

For International Women’s Day, New Private Markets spoke to around a dozen women in private equity to hear about their first-hand experiences of working in private markets. All of these conversations were at a private equity conference in New York, held on condition of anonymity.

The answer was typically that if balancing these competing ambitions and responsibilities is possible, it is very challenging – and many women feel it is harder for them than their male colleagues or partners.

Fulfilled at work

The working culture of private equity can present additional challenges to women. A woman in investor relations said she often has to travel on short notice or stay overnight in a different city unexpectedly. “The guys can just wear the same suit the next day,” she said, but “I need my supplies” – toiletries, personal care products, fresh clothes. “People would notice if [women] wear the same clothes [the next day].”

Some women described being excluded in subtle, possibly unintentional ways. One woman who was previously on an operations team said “the guys” on that team seemed to keep holding key conversations and decisions without her, but “I don’t know where they happened… maybe the bathroom? But guys don’t talk in the bathroom”.

Another woman in this conversation said: “Yeah, the guys definitely hang out without us,” and speculated that her male colleagues would be more comfortable staying out late at a bar, while women had to worry about getting home safely.

“[Women] have to be more aggressive and shout about everything you do, or they’ll just ignore you and walk all over you,” said the latter woman – but this makes it harder to maintain friendships at work.

Another woman said she is on the investment committee, but has found investment decisions are occasionally “basically just made without me”. In one instance, she said she protested that she had been left out, and a male member of the committee said “I don’t need you to decide”.

Balancing personal responsibilities

Balancing family responsibilities and the busy and unpredictable schedules of private equity professionals is also challenging. Although there is increased tolerance for flexible working, “I still don’t get to choose my own hours,” said one woman, who balances work and childcare responsibilities. “If my boss calls or a client in Europe calls, I still have to take the call.”

While this should affect all genders, some women New Private Markets spoke to felt this affects them more than their male peers. “Most of our partners are [men in] also in asset management or banking,” said one woman, and are expected to have more flexibility and fewer personal responsibilities.

A woman who works in sustainability in private equity said she and her male partner “haven’t discussed it yet, but I think I’d end up taking a break if we had kids” because her partner, who also works in investment management, earns more.

Taking parental leave – which is much more frequently taken by women than men – can also set women back in their careers. A woman who previously worked in portfolio company operations said her responsibilities were shared out among other team members when she took maternity leave, “and when I came back, they wouldn’t give them back”. She added that she “didn’t really care” about her decreased responsibilities because she was more focused on parental duties, and she soon chose to move into the firm’s sustainability team because its schedule was less demanding.

Work to be done

In terms of headcount, women’s representation in private equity has been gradually improving: entry-level women in investing roles increased by nine percentage points between 2021 and 2022. But as these conversations with women in the industry show, there is still work to be done on inclusivity and supporting employees with competing responsibilities. As a result, private equity firms are losing out on a vital pool of talent.

Globally, women make up just 12 percent of managing director-level investing roles and 14 percent of C-suite roles, McKinsey reports. Even fewer women are on investment committees (9 percent). While experiences like those described above persist, private equity will struggle to retain women at these levels.