From Golf to Negotiation: ACG’s Women’s Groups Are Closing the M&A Gender Divide
A look at the women of ACG working to promote the success of their female peers, share their stories and close the gender gap in middle-market dealmaking
The financial services industry has stubbornly resisted progress on gender diversity, most notably in senior decision-making roles.
While the causes of this persistent imbalance are complex and deeply rooted, women’s groups across ACG are finding new ways to chip away at the obstacles limiting entrance and advancement in the M&A profession—from showcasing women who’ve successfully blazed a trail, to breaking down barriers on the golf course and honing negotiation skills.
For ACG New York’s Women of Leadership group, the gender disparity at the upper levels of finance is a key focus of its programming this year. Only 23% of all investing roles and 12% of managing director positions globally are occupied by women, according to McKinsey research published in November that looked at diversity in private markets. On private equity investment committees, only 9% of seats are held by women.
Known as WoL, the New York chapter’s group aims to help women develop skills needed to advance into senior-level positions, says Meahgan O’Grady Martin, director of business development for Palladium Equity Partners and the chair of WoL.
“We’re saying, ‘You’re already there. If you are in this room, you already are a successful woman in middle-market M&A, so what’s next?’” says Martin. “Let’s focus on the skillsets that are needed—the knowledge as well as the network that’s needed to take that next step to put you in a position where you can be a decision-maker and change the makeup of private equity for the next generation.”
In January, WoL hosted a workshop focused on improving negotiation skills. The upcoming Women of Leadership Summit on April 19 will feature a fireside chat about transitioning from an employee to an owner-operator, as well as a panel focused on women on boards, among other sessions.
Telling Their Stories
The idea is to feature women doing deals and their successes. I think that has been illuminating both for men and for women.
Across the country in Dallas, Gemma Descoteaux, a founding partner in the Corporate Practice Group at law firm Sheppard Mullin, credits meaningful programming with driving greater engagement in her local ACG chapter’s women’s group. About a decade ago, she noticed a lack of content showcasing successful women leaders. She went on to become chair of Women in ACG DFW, and under her leadership, the group reshaped its approach with an emphasis on featuring female dealmakers as speakers.
In 2014, as part of the chapter’s Capital Connection, Women in ACG DFW hosted a lunch session that signaled its new direction. “We put together just a phenomenal panel of private equity women, and it was sold out,” she recalls. “I would say that was probably the turning point for the women’s group in Dallas, where the guys who didn’t go to the luncheon were like, ‘Well, wait a minute, we missed out on something.’”
The group has continued to feature senior-level women as speakers at its monthly meetings. “The idea is to feature women doing deals and their successes. I think that has been illuminating both for men and for women,” Descoteaux says. “We’ve really tried to make each of those panels focus on telling more stories and what it’s like in the trenches—the fun part. I think that makes a difference.”
In ACG Los Angeles, storytelling has been an important component of the women’s group programming, too. The Women of ACG Los Angeles group hosts three events each year, which in the past have included fireside chats or panels with successful female entrepreneurs, such as Susan Sarich, founder of bakery chain SusieCakes.
Teresa Fisher, a financial advisor with Wells Fargo and the chair of the Women of ACG LA committee, says she’s seen attendance at the women’s events grow from 20 to 30 people in the early days of the group, to more than 200 right before the pandemic.
Building Business Connections
Beyond showcasing female leaders and providing career insights, ACG’s women’s groups can also be a powerful networking forum.
“What I’ve been really focusing on is trying to connect women with other women so they can develop stronger relationships with centers of influence,” says Margaret Jordan, business development director at KIKO Company and a past president of ACG Cleveland’s Women in Transactions Group. “They can send business their way.”
Descoteaux points to the many women she knows who have grown their practices through involvement in ACG and its women’s groups. “It’s really important to have the network that allows you to build a book of business,” she says. “And that’s where I think the changes are really happening.”
Making those connections can be especially valuable for women at the early stages of their careers. At Women of ACG LA functions, Fisher regularly sees senior-level women taking younger women under their wing to mentor them and make introductions. “I don’t see that as much at other events,” she says.
Like any affinity group, the women’s groups serve as a place to connect around common experiences.
“If I’m going to a women’s event, maybe the conversation’s going to be different. Maybe we’re going to talk about our kids more; maybe there’s going to be a difference in connection,” says Fisher. “But at the end of the day, why are we networking? We’re networking because we’re trying to build a community and we’re trying to build connections with people who work in the same industry that we do, so we can refer business to each other.”
Leaders of the women’s groups emphasize that their goal isn’t to pull women out of the room where men are doing business. In fact, many are paving the way for women to feel more comfortable entering those spaces.
And that includes the golf course.
“Men tend to still golf only with men,” says Jordan of ACG Cleveland’s Women in Transactions group. “As we know, a lot of the discussions and opportunities for investing, for information about things that are being bought or sold, happen on the golf course and in those social circles.”
Known as WiT, the Cleveland group is planning a summer golf league, scheduled to begin in May. It’s the second year WiT is running the league, aimed at helping members learn how to play or feel more comfortable on the green.
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Similarly, Women in ACG DFW hosted a golf clinic last year designed to help its members feel at ease on the golf course and not worry about how well they’re playing—“because even if you’re terrible, so are the guys,” says Descoteaux.
The group hopes to host the clinic twice a year going forward, given the role that golf plays in the dealmaking world, she adds: “Not only historically has it been important for business, but I think it’s even more important now.”
Leaders of the ACG women’s groups say they’ve seen an increase in gender diversity in their chapters and at events over time. That’s reflected in ACG’s leadership too: In ACG Dallas/Fort Worth, for example, a different woman has been elected to lead the chapter’s board as president for three consecutive terms through 2024.
Progress has been slower in the broader mergers and acquisitions industry, where women remain statistically less likely than men to hold senior-level positions.
Jordan points to disparities in pay across gender lines, too, particularly in accounting, legal and professional services firms. Women also continue to be underrepresented on corporate boards, she adds. Politico last year summarized findings from a report by women’s advocacy groups that showed men held 86% of board director seats at private companies in 2021.
Market conditions have changed. Those firms that don’t adapt will lose their competitive edge.
Meahgan O’Grady Martin
Palladium Equity partners
“I think we still have a way to go in terms of pay and access to opportunities,” says Jordan.
Long hours and unpredictable schedules are another major obstacle to career advancement for women, who often juggle work with family obligations like raising children or caring for aging parents.
In addition to increased access to professional opportunities, greater flexibility in the workday is cited as necessary for meaningful change in the gender makeup of the financial services industry. ACG’s women’s groups can help provide the connections and resources for women to excel in this profession, but for many, climbing the ladder also requires a new mindset from firms about how work gets done.
“I think that we need to get rid of this idea that to be great at your job, your day needs to look linear from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” says Martin. “That’s not necessarily true.”
Working from home during the pandemic helped accelerate a trend toward greater flexibility, and firms that resist it risk being left behind. Martin predicts organizations that don’t adopt a more flexible mindset won’t be able to attract the best people, including talented women with obligations that don’t mesh with a rigid, outdated approach to work.
“Market conditions have changed,” she says. “Those firms that don’t adapt will lose their competitive edge.”
Katie Mulligan is ACG’s content director, based in Chicago.
Upcoming ACG Women’s Events
April 17: ACG Detroit – Stories of Success: Two Women in the Business of Wellness
April 19: ACG New York – 10th Annual Women of Leadership Summit
May 1: ACG Cleveland – Women in Transactions FOUNT Leather Studio Event
May 9: ACG Columbus – Women in Transactions Luncheon – State of Venture Capital
May 17: ACG New York – Women of Leadership Soiree Series – Spring Soiree with Raymond James
June 7-9: ACG Pittsburgh – Executive Women’s Symposium
July 20: ACG Orange County – Women’s Summer Bash Event: Networking & Fashion Show at Bloomingdales in Fashion Island
For a full list of upcoming ACG events, visit acg.org/events