Women in Asia PE have come a long way, but there are still more senior roles they can fill, say veteran female private equity executives in the region.

Asia-based PE firms have the world’s highest proportion of women in senior roles, occupying an average of 12.8% high-level positions, according to data provider Preqin.  In North American firms, the proportion is 10.3%, and in Europe 9.9%.

“If you have a sound business model, the right competitive positioning and the right track record, you will get funding whether you are a man or a woman,” notes Michelle Leung, founding partner of Xingtai Capital, during a Women in Private Equity Panel this week.

However, “it's not a walk in the park”, acknowledges Wendy Zhu, managing director at fund of PE fund AlpInvest Partners.  She credits the commonality of domestic helpers in Asia as one likely factor behind the region’s leading number of senior female PE executives.

Members of the panel discussion, which is part of the AVCJ Private Equity and Venture Forum in Hong Kong, recount sacrifices they had made in the name of competitiveness.

Janine Feng, Carlyle Group managing director, recalls one particular deal she was assigned to not long after joining the buyout firm in 1998 as its first female investment professional. “[The deal] was supposed close the next week. I had a wedding that Saturday – it was my own wedding – and I thought, ‘Well, my honeymoon is going to be postponed’.”

Feng had planned to return to work the Monday immediately after the wedding until a male colleague intervened and offered to cover for her.   

Stephanie Hui, co-head of Goldman Sachs’ merchant banking division in Asia Pacific, and mother of three sons, says she didn’t take up flexible work arrangements offered by the bank during her pregnancies. “I didn’t want the guys to say, ‘Are you taking the easy way out?’ ”

Feng and Hui also humorously recalled incidences of mistaken identity in terms of their job roles.

Feng, while on a business trip to South Korea in 1999, was confused when she was continuously asked for the business card of her junior male colleague. “Then I realised ... they thought I was his assistant who carries his cards.”

Hui recalls an incident early in her 17-year career with Goldman Sachs when she walked into a room wherein a man told her: “Coffee, no sugar please.”

She handled the incident with aplomb. “I looked at him and said: ‘Yes, I’ll be right back.’ I got him a coffee and one for myself, and said: ‘We can start the meeting’, and he was like, ‘Can I get you anything else?’”

Attitudes have thankfully changed over the years, say panellists. “The last 20 years were probably tougher,” says Leung at Xingtai, as there were fewer women in senior PE roles. The next 20 years “will be easier for the next wave of women coming in”, she adds.

Young women who aspire to – or have recently joined – the PE sector, are encouraged by panellists to speak up and be assertive in the industry, which they maintain offers females the same opportunities available to men.

“Women are not great self promoters,” says Leung. “Men are more aggressive about pushing themselves.”

Men can also be delegated the task of drinking with clients. “Just because you can't drink until 3 a.m. doesn't mean you can't do a deal,” says Hui.  

Panellists agree that PE, in many ways, is suited for females. “Women have an advantage because relationship-building comes so naturally for us,” says Zhu’s AlpInvest.

“The portfolio company needs to like you,” adds Hui. “You need to [be able to] hold proper coffee conversations or lunch conversations.”

Women who persevere and take a long-term view of PE as a profession may find themselves in a rewarding, lifelong career, say panellists.  

 “This is a job where someone finds you money [and] you spend the money to buy whatever you want, as long as long it has good returns,” quips Hui. “So it’s a woman’s dream job.”