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Private-equity firms may be finally waking up to gender diversity.

Atlantic Street Capital, a Stamford, Connecticut-based private-equity firm with about $325 million under management, said in a statement this week that it hired Susan Stautberg, founder and former CEO of WomenCorporateDirectors, a nonprofit organization, as an adviser on corporate governance.

Stautberg will help lead a first-in-industry push to recruit more women to serve on boards of Atlantic Street's portfolio companies, according to the statement. The parent company's own 12-member investing team, led by Managing Partner Peter Shabecoff, currently includes just one woman, according to its website.

Stautberg "will help us recruit extremely qualified operators for our portfolio companies and lend Atlantic Street a powerful advantage in performance and the governance space," Senior Operating Advisor Bryan Bevin said in the statement.

The new effort comes as a growing body of research has shown that corporate boards with more female directors are better at decision-making, and that the companies will reap higher long-term financial returns. Some experts say women can be more assertive in the boardroom than men and thus more likely to challenge CEOs on crucial topics, such as risk-taking.

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Under the glare of shareholder pressure, publicly-traded companies including the big U.S. banks Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) - Get Wells Fargo & Company Report , Morgan Stanley (MS) - Get Morgan Stanley Report and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) - Get Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (The) Report have added more women to their boards, with a heightened emphasis following last year's #metoo movement. Within the Standard & Poor's 500 Index of large U.S. stocks, the average share of women on boards is currently about 25%.

But private-equity firms, most of them founded as partnerships that were shielded from a similar level of scrutiny, have lagged behind. Preqin, a London-based group that tracks the industry, said in an October report that just 4.1% of the directors of private-equity firms are female, trailing even the testosterone-fueled hedge-fund industry, which has a 5.8% share.

When searching for board members, "typically the guys just pick their best friends, not necessarily the best people to run the company," Stautberg said in a phone interview. 

It's not just about fairness, Stautberg said. With the growing ownership role of private-equity firms in the U.S. economy, better corporate performance could mean more jobs and economic growth, she said. Many big public pension funds are investing more money in private-equity funds, so retirees' savings are at stake.

"These private portfolio companies are buying some very substantial assets around the world," Stautberg said. "Why wouldn't you want those private companies to be the best they can be?"

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