Barclays joins the bet on women-led firms


(OLIVIA HARRIS/REUTERS)

Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In movement could be more than a manifesto. It may have helped to create an actual market for investing in companies that put more women at the top.

On Thursday, Barclays will begin offering its Women in Leadership exchange-traded note, an investment that tracks an index of 85 U.S. companies that are led by women. To be considered for the index, companies must meet certain financial criteria and also have either a female CEO or a board where at least a quarter of the members are women. "The primary goal is to give investors who want to vote with their money and express an opinion on women in leadership the tool to do that," says Sue Meirs, Barclays’ chief operating officer for equity and funds structured-market sales.

Barclays' move follows a similar announcement in June by former Wall Street executive Sallie Krawcheck, who owns the women's professional network Ellevate. Partnering with Pax World Investments, Krawcheck launched an index fund that invests in women-led companies. And early last year, investment firm Morgan Stanley and Bank of America's U.S. Trust unit launched separately managed accounts designed for high net-worth clients that screen companies based on gender issues, such as pay equity or the number of women on their boards.

The offerings build on a mounting body of research that shows companies with gender-diverse boards and management can outperform companies where such diversity is lacking. A 2012 Credit Suisse Research Institute report, for instance, found that companies with female directors performed better on measures such as return on equity, average growth, and price/book value multiples. Other studies have found higher profit margins and better priced mergers and acquisitions for companies with more women on the board.

And on Tuesday, Fortune magazine released numbers showing that Fortune 1000 companies with female CEOs outperformed the S&P 500 index over the course of their respective tenures. The average return during their time at the helm, the publication reported, was 103.4 percent. The average return for the S&P 500 index over the same time period was 69.5 percent.

The new offerings also come amid increased interest by investors in putting their money into companies with business practices they respect. A recent survey of more than 1,700 women by the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank that researches diversity issues, found that 77 percent said they wanted to invest in companies that have diverse leadership teams.

All the attention on gender issues in the workplace is also likely a factor. Robert Goldsborough, a fund analyst for the investment research firm Morningstar, says the move by Barclays didn't surprise him, given that investment firms increasingly want to distinguish themselves with unique products. Yet he also says the Lean In zeitgeist could be playing a role.

"We're in an era where there's a lot more attention being given to female CEOs — it's something everyone is talking about," Goldsborough says. "These things never happen in a vacuum."

Barclays' Meirs says the highly public discussion around women at the top did indeed contribute to the firm's decision to launch the investment. "There is so much focus on this right now," she says. Retail investors "are interested in acting on those feelings." She also says institutional clients, such as pension funds, are seeking to diversify the more liquid assets they're required to put into "socially responsible" investments beyond green energy companies.

The launch of the two projects also fits with a general shift in socially responsible investing, according to Goldsborough. The industry's strategy has evolved over the years from one of exclusion (leaving out companies because of their poor environmental track record or their involvement in businesses such as firearms or tobacco) to one of inclusion, designing funds that instead invest in companies with exemplary practices. While a single fund or investment won't move the needle, Goldsborough says, portfolio managers hope that enough pressure from investors could encourage more CEOs to make changes.

Such as getting their boards to add more more women to their ranks, for instance. Eve Ellis, who co-manages a portfolio at Morgan Stanley that uses female board membership as part of its selection criteria for investments, says part of the reason they created the fund was to urge more boards to recruit women. She says "the mere existence of gender-lens investments should put pressure on boards to look at this issue and look at the research."

If they're successful and beat the market, these new products could very well help promote the value of more women at the top. If they don't do well, there's of course a risk it could send the inverse message. "It absolutely could prompt detractors to criticize the fund's mandate," says Goldsborough. Yet that's a risk they appear willing to take.

Read also:

Sexism and tech

Indra Nooyi on why women can't have it all

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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