The glass ceiling is cracking

Category: Asia, Hong Kong, Global
By Natalie Leung

Empowering women in the asset management industry

The asset management industry is still an old boy’s club. Just 1.1% of the US$71.4 trillion of assets under management in the US is managed by women or minorities in the country, according to a study from Harvard Business School and Bella Research Group published in May.

It showed that women- and minority-owned firms made up 3%-9% of the industry and controlled just 1%-5% of assets under management, depending on the category – which could be private equity funds, mutual funds, hedge funds and real estate funds.

Asia Asset Management talked to several senior-level women in the industry about their career in this male-dominated industry.


Anh Lu, portfolio manager, new Asia fund and Asia ex-Japan equity strategies, T. Rowe Price Hong Kong Ltd

The performance-driven nature of the asset management industry is conducive to women pursuing a career in the male-dominated field, according to Anh Lu, portfolio manager for new Asia fund and Asia ex-Japan equity strategies at T. Rowe Price Hong Kong Ltd.

“The ability to build a network and relationship is very important in many businesses, but it is hard for women to network with men in a male-dominated industry,” she says.

From the perspective of a portfolio manager, she thinks the industry can actually allow women to excel because success is determined by the performance of investments rather than networking ability.

Besides, the industry provides flexibility in terms of time and place of work that many women with children and family are looking for, she adds.

However, the number of women in the industry is still low, as most women tend to leave when they want to start a family.

The mother-of-two did have some struggles but chose to stay in the industry as she learned to prioritise and take advantage of the flexible working hours in her job.

“Choose the thing that really matters to your family and then make it the priority,” she says. “Some women think they have to be good at many things, but that is really hard to do, so you have to choose what is important to you.”

She says when women choose work over family, they consider it as a huge sacrifice; but that men are less likely to think this way because they see it as their responsibility to work.

“You have to decide what are the sacrifices you want to make, and maybe don’t view them as sacrifices,” she says. “But it is easy to say but hard to do.”


Shirin Ismail, head of alternatives, Fullerton Fund Management

Strong competencies in science and mathematics required in front line roles in asset management hold many women back from entering the industry, according to Shirin Ismail, head of alternatives at Fullerton Fund Management.

“These academic areas are largely not preferred by women,” Ms. Ismail says. “Even if they do, there are also many cases of competent women choosing to opt out of a personal career path for family reasons.”

As a mother of three, there have been times when Ms. Ismail felt overwhelmed dealing with home and work life, but a supportive family and employer helped her through those challenging times.

“Women are natural multi-taskers and they have very strong incentive to be productive at work so as to manage their work-life balance,” she says.

She sees her role as helping investors by providing the female view to complement investment solutions that are usually based on the male perspective.

“For example, women may provide a different perspective and feedback on product designs, which makes it possible to create well-rounded investment solutions for clients,” she says.

Her company has been part of an initiative by the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore to increase gender diversity in financial services, particularly at senior levels, to 30% – the figure often cited as the share of jobs that should ideally be held by women globally, according to Ms. Ismail.

“It is critical to make a focused effort to recruit, retain and offer women equal opportunities to contribute towards a sustainable diversified growth,” she says.


June Wong, senior managing director, head of Asia ex-Japan, State Street Global Advisors

Having been in asset management since the 1990s, June Wong, senior managing director and head of Asia ex-Japan at State Street Global Advisors (SSGA), notes that the male-female imbalance at senior levels of the industry is a worldwide issue. Cultural reasons and unconscious bias are among the factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of women.

“In different countries and cultures, family responsibilities often fall on women. They may end up slowing down their careers to balance those responsibilities,” says Ms. Wong.

The lack of gender diversity is also due to unconscious bias in the recruitment process, which results in managers hiring people who are similar to them in background, experience, mindset and other characteristics, she adds.

Employers can play an important role in easing these challenges. For example, SSGA offers female employees a flexible working arrangement programme, and ensures there is no unconscious bias in recruitment.

Although some believe that the male-dominated industry may be unfavourable for women, according to Ms. Wong, she has an advantage over male peers.

“Being a woman in a room full of men can help you stand out. People will take note of you and remember you more, which can turn into a competitive edge,” she says.

“This industry is evolving at a rapid rate and there are exciting opportunities for women in the industry. The glass ceiling is cracking but it can be smashed if we continue to strive for excellence, keep learning, and go the extra mile.”


Lauren Prendiville, head of distribution, Southeast Asia, First State Investments

“I don’t view the asset management industry as a man-dominated industry. I feel that there are equal opportunities afforded regardless of gender, race, age or religion,” says Lauren Prendiville, head of distribution overseeing Southeast Asia at First State Investments (First State).

She does not think of leadership in terms of gender. She believes women and men both have advantages in the asset management industry: “It’s about diversity of ideas, whether this be from a gender perspective or another, for example, cultural.”

Ms. Prendiville says she has seen many more female candidates applying for positions in the asset management industry since she joined 20 years ago.

However, retaining women in the industry is a challenge. First State allows flexible working arrangements and has introduced a parental leave policy to help deal with the issue.


Kerry Ching, managing director, AMP Capital

Some clients and business partners may be more comfortable dealing with men, but according to Kerry Ching, managing director of AMP Capital, women should maintain a positive attitude at all times.

“If you believe that being a woman will present challenges in this industry, you will see each issue and matter with the ‘challenge’ lens even when it isn’t,” she says.

Ms. Ching says women can bring different ideas to the industry. For instance, she and her female colleagues came up with idea of a women fund that invests in fashion, cosmetics, fitness and wellness stocks, which can resonate with women who tend to be less proactive in investing.

Women can also build closer personal bonds with colleagues, which helps in managing a team.

“Perhaps we are more sensitive in observing behaviour and habit. When there is any change, I usually will take the initiative to ask co-workers if there is anything which we can help,” Ms. Ching says. “The relationship becomes more personal rather than professional.”