Lydie Chen @ WinFin
Investing in gender diversity with Soliane Varlet
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
At EDHEC WinFin (Women in Finance), we are inspired to promote gender diversity in the financial industry. We seek to increase young girls and women’s awareness on all the opportunities that exist in finance, one of which may be right for them.
Over the last few years, gender diversity has been a hot topic. Across all industries, initiatives have been launched, advocates have voiced their engagement, gender diversity, and more generally diversity & inclusion, has stepped into the corporate world. All those efforts share one common objective: lead us towards a more equal and more diverse future.
Embarked upon this path with optimism and confidence, as a member of EDHEC WinFin, I wish to share the inspiring story of Soliane Varlet, equity portfolio manager at Mirova, who kindly agreed to discuss with us. In this article, she will share her story and what efforts it takes to launch a strategy that invests in and promotes gender diversity. She shows us that the investment sector may have a big role to play in boosting gender diversity in companies.
Since March 2019, Soliane has been managing a thematic, socially-engaged global equity strategy named “Women Leaders Equity”. The strategy invests primarily in global equities, using i) a fundamental approach considering both financial and ESG factors (an in-house investment approach developed and used for all Mirova’s strategies), along with ii) three quantitative, gender diversity-focused criteria, which are as follows:
1) High women participation in the executive committee
2) A woman CEO and/or CFO
3) A good balance between women representation in the executive committee and the global workforce.
L.C.: Good afternoon Soliane. Thank you for your time. Could you introduce yourself and share with us some of the key stages of your career so far?
S.V.: My name is Soliane Varlet. I’m the manager of Women Leaders Equity, a global equity strategy dedicated to gender diversity at Mirova, where I also manage the Euro strategies.
I started as a sell-side analyst on the Media sector. Very quickly, after 4 or 5 years, I became a buy-side analyst at Ixis Asset Management. When Natexis AM and Ixis AM merged, I switched to asset management, and immediately to SRI (socially responsible investment) in 2008. Obviously, I started as a back-up, then became a co-manager and eventually became a lead manager in 2013, for the Euro strategies at Mirova. In summary, that’s my career path so far.
L.C.: What motivated you to work in finance?
S: I ‘ve always had an interest in finance and enjoyed handling data. I can recall one day, during a Financial Analysis class, the Professor started a round-table discussion, asking what we wanted to do after graduating. I answered financial analysis and it just started like that.
There are so many ways to do financial analysis. At that time, I didn’t quite understand all the nuances between sell-side and buy-side analysts for example. I didn’t know that the role of a sell-side analyst existed, and that such an analyst’s job was to sell research and cover very thoroughly a dozen companies.
Also, I completed some internships as an analyst intern and they all went very well. So this also motivated me to continue down this path.
L.C.: Women Leaders Equity is a strategy that you have managed since inception. It combines both financial performance and social impact. The strategy is rather niche and yet very innovative. How much time did it take to go from the idea generation to the actual launch of the strategy in March 2019? What was your role in this process?
S.V.: For very long (several years), I wanted such a strategy to exist at Mirova. On several occasions, I talked about a strategy that would focus on gender diversity and it happened that one day, I exchanged with my boss and the timing felt appropriate to launch such strategy.
When you look at thematic strategies on the market, you can find a lot of environmental strategies. Much fewer strategies focus on social themes. This is true at Mirova as well as among all asset management players. Typically, launching a socially-engaged strategy requires both a measurable criterion and good access to the relevant data. When it comes to data related to gender diversity, we are lucky to have a much greater access today compared to 10 years ago, and even 5 years ago. Yet, this access is still perfectible. To date, I don’t have access to gender diversity data for all public companies. Surprisingly enough, some public companies don’t even release data such as the percentage of women relative to their total workforce. A sharper analysis would require, for instance, the percentage of women in middle-management positions. And for such data, we are challenged with definition and reporting issues.
Basically, what we needed was i) a measurable criterion (or several), ii) access to gender diversity data to rank based on the criterion, and iii) the link between those data and the company’s economic performance. We had better access to relevant data two or three years ago, and much research has supported the relationship between gender diversity and higher economic performance.
This correlation is all the more important because at Mirova, we seek financial performance. The objective is to outperform the benchmark, which, in the case of Women Leaders Equity, is the MSCI World (dividends net reinvested). What differentiates us is that we also seek to make a positive, social and environmental impact.
In 2018, everything was combined to start working seriously on the strategy. We started mid-2018. So it took a year or so before we launched the strategy. Many people were involved in the process, to work on the data and the definition of the criteria and the universe of investment. All in all, the conjunction of many things led to the creation of this strategy: a strong desire to launch a strategy on my side, better access to the relevant data, and a true willingness from the top management to support the development of such a high-impact, conviction-driven strategy.
L.C.: As a long-term, engaged investor, what kind of dialogues do you maintain with the companies you invest in?
S.V.: We communicate with the companies we invest in at different levels. There are two main types of entry points: on the financial front and on the extra-financial front. We can engage in all ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) aspects to share industry’s best practices; for instance, when we believe a company may increase transparency on specific criteria and data or when a company may disclose on more criteria.
Engagement can also take the form of an “Investor Statement”. Some investors gather together and as a group, they write and sign a statement in which they call the recipients for action on specific areas of their business and organization. In October 2019, in collaboration with UN Femmes France (a body entity of the UN dedicated to promote women empowerment in France), we released an investor statement, with many other asset managers also signing it, and sent it to around 1,600 companies to demand support for the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles and more scrutiny and actions on gender diversity.
The objective is twofold: for us, the more investors look at gender diversity, the more companies will realize its importance, hence the more they will disclose on and pay attention to this criterion. We are primarily driven by the idea of making progress happen on gender diversity in the corporate world. These days, the topic is much discussed, yet much efforts are still to be made to show companies that gender diversity does resonate with investors.
L.C. : Have you observed a difference between the investor profiles of Euro strategies versus Women Leaders Equity? In other words, do Women Leaders Equity attract a specific type of investors?
S.V.: It’s complicated to answer this question. In fact, Women Leaders Equity can attract any type of investors, be it institutional or retail.
Many individuals want to give a meaning to their savings, whether it is an environmental or a social one. They really want to make an impact, and seek financial performance but not at any cost. The Euro strategies as well seek financial and ESG performances.
For institutional investors, what will make the difference is whether they want a global or euro-focused universe - as they may be constrained with respect to geographical allocation. Some would rather go for more generalist strategies, others would rather go for thematic ones. In the end, I think that Women Leaders Equity and Euro Strategies attract the same type of investors, and actually, any types of investors.
L.C.: If there was only one figure to keep in mind about Women Leaders Equity, what would it be?
S.V.: I cannot think of only one figure to remember.
Women occupy CEO roles in around 5% of the MSCI World companies (the strategy’s benchmark). In executive committees, women account for approximately 15% of all members. These figures are quite striking. We talk a lot about diversity and equality. Despite this, things change very slowly.
Let’s remember 5, because gender equality is the 5th Sustainable Development Goal of the UN and as said earlier, 5% of MSCI World companies’ CEOs are women.
L.C.: Another figure is quite alarming. It is said that in the world, women only manage between 1% and 3.5% of managed assets (Harvard Business Review, 2019). What do you think of it?
S.V.: It’s very little… We don’t see that at Mirova. For instance, our equity team is around 50-50.
L.C.: You have anticipated my following question.
S.V.: There are sectors which have been historically more masculine. Perhaps asset management belongs to that category. But there are other sectors too.
I remain convinced that diversity, in any sector, always drives performance. It’s always harder to work with people that are different from you. Here, we talk about gender, but it’s also true when it comes to nationalities. It’s harder, but so much more innovative and enriching. More gender diversity boosts performance, and I think this is true for any industries.
The figures you’re sharing with me are very shocking. And actually, I’m used to see many shocking figures. In France, I don’t have the stats in mind but I think we should be above the 3.5%. To make things change, young girls and women need to have interest in careers in finance. They need to have in mind that such careers are not exclusively masculine or a male preserve. We need to manage to increasingly attract them towards these careers and this requires much efforts in the recruitment process as well as inform them better when they start studying.
L.C. : To conclude on a more positive note, what advice would you give to young students aspiring to pursue a career in finance?
S.V.: To go for it, not hesitate and not undermine their ability to achieve their goals.
Today, there’s obviously room for women in the financial sector. There are many thrilling jobs in finance so I would tell them to go for it.
It’s been long since I graduated. I don’t know what vision of finance students have these days. Another piece of advice I would give is to do what you have done. A gap year can be very beneficial to try different things and see what you like and what you don’t like. There are so many opportunities in finance. Also, engaging with working professionals and students who are completing internships in positions that might interest you may help a lot.
Helping each other and sharing information can be very powerful levers for better understanding what we might like or not in a job.
L.C.: Many thanks for all your answers Soliane. We very much appreciate that you dedicated some time for this discussion and wish this discussion will inspire many!
For more information on the strategy:
**Update note: EDHEC WinFin is thrilled to learn that since the interview was conducted, Mirova has been involved in another initiative promoting gender diversity. The 30% Club France Investor Group was launched on November 11th 2020. Comprised of 6 asset managers, including Mirova, the Group represents €3tn of assets under management and promotes better gender diversity in French companies. Their action plan is driven by the ambition to help reach at least 30% of women representation within the executive teams of all SBF 120 French companies.
Our best wishes of success go to Mirova and the 30% Club France Investor Group !