Q&A Akin Gump: ‘It’s not just about getting a seat at the table’

Creating a culture where women feel valued is key to improving gender diversity in secondaries, says Akin Gump’s Mary Lavelle.

Law firm Akin Gump and secondaries firm Coller Capital launched the Women in Secondaries Network last year. Here, Akin Gump private equity funds and secondaries partner Mary Lavelle outlines the initiative’s aims.

Mary Lavelle
Mary Lavelle

Why did you decide to establish the Women in Secondaries Network?

The network was established by me, fellow Akin Gump partner John Daghlian and Louise Boothby, a partner at Coller Capital. We were all acutely aware of the extent to which women are under-represented in the secondaries industry. It’s the area of my practice where I am most frequently the only senior female in the meeting room or on a transaction. It’s a self-perpetuating problem where junior females then struggle to believe they can succeed or simply don’t want to be in that environment. We wanted to create a network to support and empower women in the industry with these issues in mind.

How is the network looking to support women’s advancement in secondaries?

Through quarterly networking events, which cover both diversity and inclusion considerations and industry business developments in a confidence-instilling environment. It may be a case of receiving informal mentoring advice over a cocktail, networking with a new connection that leads to a business opportunity or hearing about another firm’s progressive D&I policies.

We have held two online events with highly inspirational speakers – former US Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Colonel Dame Kelly Holmes – and for our next event we are switching to a business focus with a panel of female speakers from the secondaries industry. After that we hope to resume in-person events, which should bear even more fruit.

What are some of the barriers to gender diversity in secondaries and how can these be overcome?

The typical factors – subconscious bias, lack of visible senior females, career/family conflicts, imposter syndrome, cultural issues in male-dominated teams. Let me pick out three suggestions of how one can seek to make a difference beyond the obvious of recruiting and promoting females.

Firstly, have more proactive discussion with female employees about how much they are valued and how much you believe in their career path. More self-belief needs to be instilled in those in minority groups, generally.

Secondly, reflect upon your firm or team’s culture and consider if it’s truly inclusive and fair for female employees – beyond formal work opportunities, but down to the social environment and day-to-day interactions too.

Finally, have more open, transparent messaging around career and family balance. Make sure people know that having a family isn’t a barrier to promotion and success.

What do you hope the secondaries landscape will look like for the next generation of female talent?

Obviously better diversity, at all levels, and not just gender. An environment where the culture is truly inclusive for minorities irrespective of boxes having been ticked – where it’s not just about getting a seat at the table, but being genuinely listened to, backed and respected at that table.

Finally, more flexible parameters for work-life balance and total buy-in on this – lockdown has helped to expedite this progression, but there is always more that can be done and new initiatives to explore.