The Senior Investment Role That’s Dominated by Women

Female investors are increasingly ascending to the senior ranks of their firms as newly appointed heads of sustainability.

Illustration by II

Illustration by II

In the greater asset management industry, women are still the minority — but in sustainable investing, they dominate.

“I came from a mainstream background. At large conferences, there would only be one or two women in the room,” said Sarah Bratton Hughes, global head of sustainability solutions at Schroders. “As soon as I went to my first sustainability conference, it was full of women.”

In October, Hughes was appointed to her current role, a new position that Schroders added as a part of a firm-wide effort to expand its sustainability investment team. Her appointment coincided with several other senior hires and promotions, including the appointments of Margot Von Aesch to head of sustainable investment management and Kimberley Lewis to head of active ownership, according to a press release.

Hughes said that she realized early in her career that focusing on sustainability and environmental, social, and governance investing presented an unparalleled opportunity to build a business and have an impact on the planet. She was advised to get into sustainability by Jenny Jones, the former head of small- and mid-cap strategies at Schroders who retired in 2019.

“For Sarah, I said, this is an area that’s going to get a lot of interest. Women may do very well in this area,” Jones said. “This is a very big opportunity in terms of how difficult it is. And if you can do it well, I think that will be very important.”

Hughes’ story follows a similar trajectory as those of other women who occupy high-level sustainability roles at major asset managers and financial services companies. For instance, Amy Hunter has worked as the global head of sustainability at BlackRock since 2017, Marisa Buchanan was appointed to the same role at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in July 2020, and Margaret Anadu assumed the newly-formed role at Goldman Sachs Asset Management in February.

“Inherent to many senior women’s experience in financial services is the need to have navigated organizations with entrenched ways of thinking in order to get the opportunities, influence, and recognition (including pay) that you deserve,” Anadu told Institutional Investor in an email. “Now we are faced with the urgent need to address growing inequality and climate change. Driving change here similarly requires challenging entrenched thinking at these same organizations. So it is not surprising to see women disproportionately leading the charge here.”

The opportunities for women in senior sustainability roles are not limited to finance: Among 650 global companies that have a designated sustainability officer, women occupied almost 45 percent of sustainability leadership positions worldwide, according to a September gender diversity report from Credit Suisse. This is despite women holding only 19.9 percent of management positions, the report said.

Likewise, in an analysis of the chief sustainability officers and equivalent positions at the Fortune 250 companies, management consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates found that 45 percent of senior sustainability leaders were female.

Sarah Galloway, a Russell Reynolds consultant who co-leads the firm’s global sustainability practice, speculated that the predominance of women in sustainable investing may be the result of a convergence of two parallel trends: “There is a real push to diversify senior ranks, and I wonder if that’s happening at the same time as sustainability. Plus, women are more interested in sustainability. It’s like killing two birds with one stone by appointing a woman,” she told II.

In the investment world, sustainability is historically uncharted territory. The relative newness of titles like “head of sustainability” and “chief sustainability officer” may allow companies opportunities for diversification, Galloway said.

“There’s no prescribed pathway,” she said.