When it comes to business and investing, gender diversity is still an aspiration.
On the business side, just 5% of Russell 3000 companies have a woman as chief executive, and just 18% of board members are women. When it comes to personal finance, only 29% of women see themselves as investors, according to a recent Fidelity survey.1
But a growing number of investment products are focused on companies that stand out on issues of gender diversity. This is part of a broader movement of investment options known as ESG—or environmental, social, and governance investing, which looks not just at the financial performance of a potential investment but also considers other dimensions of corporate behavior.
Nicole Connolly manages the recently launched Fidelity Women's Leadership Fund (FWOMX), designed to help those who want to invest in companies with women in senior leadership roles and a commitment to gender diversity while seeking long-term outperformance. Viewpoints recently spoke with Connolly, who joined the company in 2000 and is the head of Fidelity's ESG investing team.
How do you define a company with a commitment to gender diversity?
Connolly: My team looks for companies where women are playing critical roles on the senior management team and are influencing the vision and strategy of the company. This type of leadership can be present at the executive level or at the board level, so the fund also considers companies where women make up greater than 33% of the board.
My ESG team also takes a close look at each company, researching the company’s commitment to creating and maintaining an environment in which women can thrive. This could include a program to narrow the gender pay gap, the availability of child care services, the existence of a flexible work environment, and the strength of the parental leave program. Further evidence of a company’s focus on gender diversity could include the measurement of the annual progress of the hiring, retaining, and promotion of women. We feel that our assessment of these initiatives, as well as thoughtful discussions with companies on these issues, differentiates this fund from other products in the gender lens investing (GLI) market.
For example, Accenture has made achieving gender equity by 2025 an explicit goal, and recently named a woman CFO. The company also has industry-leading revenue growth and a disciplined capital allocation policy that rewards shareholders through stock buybacks and dividends.
In the Russell 3000 Index, which includes the largest 3,000 publicly traded companies in the US, we have identified about 700 companies that meet these criteria.
Is there evidence to suggest gender diversity is good for the bottom line?
Connolly: My team's research has shown that companies exhibiting gender diverse attributes—in this case, female representation in senior management and a minimum of 2 initiatives aimed at promoting gender diversity—have experienced higher returns than companies that did not. Since 2008, companies that meet these criteria have seen average excess returns of .99% on an annualized basis. I believe that when an organization taps into the knowledge and expertise of a diverse workforce, it has the potential to have a competitive advantage. (See chart below.)
From an investment perspective, do companies that meet these criteria look different than the market overall?
Connolly: We’ve noted that since we started our research, the investable universe is growing, which is encouraging. This is due to the hard work at many companies to address the leadership gaps mentioned earlier and to put effective gender diversity policies in place. The current universe of companies that meet our gender diversity criteria does align fairly closely to the overall market (Russell 3000) it skews slightly overweight to consumer discretionary and underweight to energy and industrial companies.
I am mindful of those differences, so when I construct the portfolio, I am, when appropriate, seeking to mitigate those differences versus the benchmark. In my investment approach, I try to invest for the long-term but adjust the portfolio to emphasize more growth-oriented companies or more quality companies depending on where I think we are in the business cycle. Ultimately, we are looking to outperform the market over time.
Where does a fund like this fit into an individual investor’s strategy?
Connolly: The Women’s Leadership Fund and other gender lens investment products aim to deliver return with a purpose—and in this case, the purpose is paving the way for future female leaders and helping women across all industries thrive in their professional life.
Gender diversity is one part of ESG investing. In surveying our retail investors, we have found that 7 out of 10 investors want to invest alongside their personal values.3 I believe that as investors come to appreciate the ability to achieve a competitive return in an ESG fund, interest in this area of the market will only grow.
These companies exist across sectors and market caps, so you can build a diversified investment approach. If you are an investor who wants to support companies that are leading the way on gender equality in the workplace, or if you are a parent who wants to show your children that female-led companies exist and can succeed, these investments could make sense as part of your diversified portfolio.
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