Women fund managers are still underrepresented globally, and the ratio of the number of women compared to men who serve as portfolio managers has not changed, according to an eight-year study conducted by Morningstar.

Only one in five funds has a female portfolio manager, said Morningstar, a Chicago-based independent investment research provider, whose research spanned 56 countries.

The report examined the positions of 26,000 fund managers, and compared the ratio of men to women in other fields that also seek a similar educational background, including lawyers and doctors.

Women have made gains in passive funds, funds of funds and team-managed funds, and they were more likely to be promoted in larger equity firms, said Laura Pavlenko Lutton, Morningstar's director of manager research in North America. Women have an 83% higher chance to be named a fund manager at one of the top ten largest firms by global equity assets under management.

"The lack of progress was discouraging," she said. "The big firms who have very formal diversity programs and career tracks saw faster improvement on the gender equality front. The firms who are paying close attention are seeing results."

Diverse teams or those with mixed genders in the U.S. generated better returns compared to teams which were all the same gender.

"Intuitively, diversity should bring better fund results," Lutton said. "It is a priority since actively managed funds have had a difficult period outperforming the benchmarks."

The report also revealed that countries with large financial centers have a lower percentage of female fund managers compared to those in smaller markets. The data found that in Israel, Singapore, Spain, France and Hong Kong, at least 20% of fund managers are female. Countries with large financial centers, such as the U.S., Brazil, India and Germany, have fallen behind the global average of 12.9% female fund managers.

Women also tend to have more credentials than men in some asset classes. Female fund managers are 7% more likely compared to a male to have a CFA for equity funds and 4% more likely in fixed income funds, Morningstar found.

The odds of women running a passive fund, funds of funds and team-managed funds increases to 19% compared to men.

Adding women to portfolio management teams is beneficial, but this goal can only be achieved if females are exposed to the market and investing earlier, said Karyn Cavanaugh, portfolio manager of the Voya Global Perspectives Fund (IIPVX), whose performance is up by 9.5% over the past year. Her team was given $40,000 in seed money and is now "flirting with $1 billion in assets under management five years later, she said.

Women are being held back by a lack of confidence and commitment, Cavanaugh said.

"You have to be extremely self-assured to take on the responsibility of managing someone else's money especially when the financial industry has been cast in such a negative light following the recession," she said. "Culturally, I just don't think woman are as apt to let their ego show. That could be why I manage a rules-based portfolio based on empirical evidence - no ego involved."

Cavanaugh follows a strategy of global diversification to "cushion the bumps along the way" and her portfolios are rules based and fully transparent.

"Our portfolios tactically shift to a more defensive position based on corporate earnings - the tried and true canary in the coal mine," she said. "When corporate earnings are growing, these portfolios keep investors fully invested, preventing investors from shooting themselves in the foot by listening to their gut and rashly going to cash at the wrong time."

Managing portfolios is demanding because the market never stops, but women can get a foothold into portfolio management by obtaining a CFA, Cavanaugh recommends.

"The designation really adds credibility and local CFA societies provide great networking opportunities with others in the field," she said. "Companies can do their part by offering good pay on par with men and flexible work arrangements so that women can make the commitment. It really is an exciting and rewarding profession."

Gender does not play a role in fund performance, but this unfair bias persists because of unfounded empirical evidence, said Fariba Ronnasi, a portfolio manager on Covestor, the online investing company, and CEO of Elite Wealth Management in Kirkland, Wash.

"Women continue to be a minority in the investment management industry despite female hedge fund managers outperforming the HFRX Index in both up and down years," she said.

Studies such as a 2013 paper by Margaret Stumpp in the Journal of Investment Management and a study in the Journal of Financial Research in 2003 demonstrate that funds managed by females do not differ significantly from funds run by males in terms of performance and risk, said Ronnasi. However, women significantly lag men in terms of the amount of assets under management.

"This is perpetuated by stereotypes of women's abilities and lack of trust in female led fund management by potential clients," she said. "We need to move past this discrimination."

Ronnasi runs two portfolios on Covestor and as of January 10, her Dynamic Option Strategy portfolio is the top performing portfolio out of 52 portfolios offered. Based on the past 365-day period, the portfolio has a Sharpe Ratio of 2.69 and is up 25.5%. She also runs a Tactical Long Short portfolio on Covestor, which invests primarily in ETFs. In addition, Fariba's options portfolio is in the top ten overall and is on the Covestor Champions list as a top three performer in the top risk category.

The lack of women in leadership roles could be attributed to the long-standing issues that investment research teams and trading desks have been male-dominated for decades, "discouraging many talented women from entering or staying in the industry," said Dan Kern, chief investment strategist with TFC Financial Management, a RIA in Boston.

"The 'old boys club' mentality still exists in many firms," he said.

While the imbalance of genders has improved, since Kern graduated from Berkeley Haas which was comprised of one-third women, there are still far fewer female CFA charter holders than male charter holders.

Aside from money market funds, the statistics in the industry remain "terrible" and women tended to make "greater inroads in the money fund segment of the business than in stocks, bonds or hedge funds," he said.

As the number of women in high profile positions leading major asset management organizations increases, this could encourage other females to follow suit and increase the "pipeline of talented women who choose to enter the industry and help the industry to become less of a men's club," Kern said.

"My former colleague, Linda Klingman manages several hundred billion dollar of money fund assets for Charles Schwab Investment Management, and is one of the prominent women money fund portfolio managers," Kern said. "Abigail Johnson at Fidelity, Mary Callahan Erdoes at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, Dana Emery at Dodge and Cox Funds, Marie Chandoha at Charles Schwab and my graduate school classmate, Luz Padilla at DoubleLine are among the leaders modeling the way for women who aspire to be fund managers."

Studies demonstrate that companies with gender-diverse boards "deliver superior financial results and stock market performance" are helping pave the way to increasing diversity in the asset management industry, he said.

"I think that gender diversity on boards is an important issue and there are relevant parallels between board diversity and portfolio management diversity," Kern added.

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