The drive for gender balance in M&A: a Nordic perspective
Oaklins' female executives share their insights
In a world where the Nordic countries, led by Iceland, Finland and Norway, have been globally recognized by the Word Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2022 as champions of gender equality, contrasts still linger in certain sectors, including in mergers and acquisitions (M&A). At Oaklins, we're firmly committed to disrupting this narrative. We're convinced that diversity is the bedrock for improved client service, and we strive to ensure our teams reflect the vibrant, diverse reality of those businesses we advise.
In this article, we explore the gender balance in M&A through conversations with some of our Nordic colleagues: Inna Manko, Kristin Bratengen and Caroline Lindeman. We look at their regional environment, known for its strong stance on gender equality, and its influence on their careers. We also consider their views on the effect of female leadership on women's empowerment in various sectors, including M&A. Join us as we learn from their experiences, discuss the challenges and opportunities for women in M&A, and reflect on a future where diversity is not the exception, but the norm.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got into the field of M&A?
KRISTIN: After attending college in the USA, I wanted to stay and gain work experience and explore different job opportunities. I was introduced to corporate finance as a great starting point, where I could learn then later narrow down my path. I was fortunate to land a job as an investment banking analyst in a middle-market firm focusing on M&A. Although it was a heavily male-dominated field, there were a few female analysts and some female senior colleagues. Looking back now, it was inspiring to see successful women in senior roles. After spending some years in the USA, I became curious about working in my native country of Norway and sought out opportunities within M&A, which led me to Oaklins.
INNA: My career initially began with the intention of working in the field of psychology. However, while completing my master's studies in Kyiv, Ukraine, I took on a part-time job at a government agency supporting the internationalization of Finnish companies. What started as a part-time assignment soon became my passion and the starting point of my career in professional services. During my time there, I gained expertise in management consulting and market research, met fascinating individuals, and gained valuable backstage experience in the diplomatic world. I even had the privilege of shaking hands with the president and prime minister of Finland while organizing high-level meetings for official business delegations. This experience taught me that, regardless of rank, we are all humans. Equality at its best. For a recent graduate like myself, it was truly eye-opening.
Due to my versatile multicultural background and knowledge of both Nordic and CEE markets, I was invited to work for an M&A boutique in Helsinki, which later became part of the global Oaklins organization. It felt like a natural step from building market entry strategies for Finnish companies abroad to supporting growth through M&A. To complement my experience, I completed an executive-level program in management at Helsinki School of Economics. And, of course, I continue to learn every day as the M&A industry is constantly evolving.
CAROLINE: I hold a bachelor's degree in business administration and economics, as well as a master's degree in finance and accounting, both from Copenhagen Business School. My path into the field of M&A was quite natural given my educational background. It's a common path for students studying finance and accounting in Denmark to pursue careers in consulting or M&A. Additionally, many students in Denmark have part-time jobs alongside their studies, and I've already been working for four years even though I only recently graduated. Prior to my career in M&A, I also worked in strategy consulting for a couple of years but I missed the financial aspects of the job. During my studies, I had classmates who were already working in M&A, and hearing their experiences sparked further interest in pursuing a career in the field. That's when I decided to apply for a job in M&A.
What skills do you need to succeed in corporate finance? And what different skills do women bring to the table?
INNA: In corporate finance, a unique combination of numerical and social skills is crucial. Strong analytical capabilities are needed to evaluate businesses and industry sectors effectively. Additionally, interpersonal skills are essential as corporate finance is fundamentally a people business.
However, I prefer to avoid applying gender metrics to this topic. It's important to evaluate professionals based on their individual set of skills and qualifications, irrespective of gender or any other attribute of social identity.INNA MANKO, DIRECTOR, OAKLINS, FINLAND
Moreover, the landscape of corporate finance is constantly evolving. For example, Wharton has included an introductory course on brain science in its MBA program, and many business schools are exploring the neuroscience of financial decision-making in their research. Furthermore, the impact of AI and machine learning on the future of corporate finance cannot be ignored. Given these advancements, comparing men to women in this field seems outdated and irrelevant.
CAROLINE: While being confident with financials and having a strong mathematical aptitude is an obvious skill in corporate finance, effective communication and the ability to handle people are equally important. It’s a common misconception that success in the industry depends solely on numerical proficiency. While that skill is essential, the ability to communicate with clients, make them comfortable and gain their trust is just as crucial. This is an area where women excel and bring their strengths to the table.
Do you believe that the perception of Nordic countries as progressive and supportive of gender equality is accurate based on your own experiences?
Living in Norway, I am fortunate to experience first hand the benefits of a developed welfare state that includes supportive parenting policies and heavily subsidized childcare provisions. Both women and men are able to take the obligatory employment leave following the birth of a child, and it is common practice for both genders to be involved in delivering and picking up children from daycare/kindergarten.KRISTIN BRATENGEN, DIRECTOR, OAKLINS, NORWAY
In my experience, it is also common for men in various industries, including private equity, corporate finance, and law, to take employment leave. While I don't have specific statistics, this practice reflects the progressiveness and support for gender equality in Nordic countries.
INNA: The topic of perception and reality regarding gender equality in Nordic countries is complex. Witnessing Finland being led by a cabinet of female ministers formed around Prime Minister Sanna Marin was incredibly inspiring. These leaders, referred to as the First Five in the HBO Max documentary series, faced unprecedented challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine.
The corporate finance sector is more of an exception than the rule when it comes to gender equality in the Nordics. In Finland, for example, this industry is still dominated by men. Although we are observing positive changes, with the share of women in leadership positions in the finance industry significantly increasing, there is still progress to be made, especially in the area of equal pay.
However, it is important to note that women have been empowering women, which means that the change is happening, albeit slowly. Large Nordic companies and organizations have been actively advocating for and attracting more female professionals to the finance sector through events, publicity and collaborative initiatives. Economic policy has also played a role in promoting gender equality in Finland. Nonetheless, there is still work to be done.
CAROLINE: Based on my own experiences, I have not encountered gender inequality within the industry. Personally, I found it just as easy to secure a job in this field as it would have been for any man. Throughout my studies, there have been several initiatives to promote women in finance that I have actively participated in. For instance, I engaged in a mentorship program through the organization "Kvinder i Finans" (Females in Finance), where I had a female mentor who was also in M&A. This provided me with valuable guidance and a platform to discuss different aspects of my career and studies. This is just one example of the many initiatives aimed at increasing the representation of women in the financial industry. I believe that these efforts demonstrate the progressive and supportive nature of the Nordics.
What strategies or initiatives do you think can help encourage more women to pursue careers in corporate finance and break through the barriers in male-dominated industries?
I believe initiatives should begin early in women's careers, even before they decide on their industry paths. From personal experience, I've observed that many women dismiss corporate finance as a potential career choice early on due to its reputation for being a demanding industry with little work-life balance. However, in most cases, this perception is not entirely accurate.CAROLINE LINDEMAN, ASSOCIATE, OAKLINS, DENMARK
Unfortunately, we lose many women and potential candidates to this stereotype, as they do not see it as a viable lifestyle for their future. Therefore, it is crucial to highlight the numerous opportunities available to women in corporate finance, and debunk outdated rumors and stereotypes that do not reflect the modern reality of the industry
How do you balance your professional aspirations and personal life, and have you found the supportive social policies in the Nordic countries to be helpful in achieving work-life balance?
INNA: Finland is renowned for its strong emphasis on work-life balance, and I have found the supportive social policies in the country to be highly beneficial in achieving this balance. When I first moved to Finland 16 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the working culture. According to local legislation, regular working time shall not exceed an average of 40 hours a week. Additionally, employees often have flexible schedules and the option for part-time work, which proves advantageous when transitioning into parenthood.
Parental leave is another significant aspect that supports gender equality. Finland offers generous parental leave policies, allowing both parents to take time off work to care for their child. It is encouraging to see that more and more men are utilizing this opportunity and taking parental leave.
During the Russian attack on my home country of Ukraine, which started in February 2022, the flexibility provided by these policies enabled me to dedicate some of my time and energy to volunteer work. I was elected to the board of the largest and oldest Ukrainian organization in Finland, the Ukrainian Association in Finland. Serving on the board of this NGO during such turbulent times was a unique and invaluable experience for me. Such opportunities were made possible due to the support and flexibility shown by my employer and colleagues.
How do you envision the future of gender equality in corporate finance, and what role do you hope to play in shaping that future?
CAROLINE: I envision a future in corporate finance where a significantly higher number of women choose to pursue careers in this field. I believe that the M&A industry would greatly benefit from a more diverse pool of candidates, as it would bring in a range of perspectives and contributions. My role in shaping this future is to actively communicate that the industry is not solely focused on numbers, traditional masculinity or exclusive "boys' clubs." By challenging and breaking down these stereotypes, I aim to eliminate the stigma that still influences the way many women perceive corporate finance. Through open dialogue and showcasing the varied opportunities and contributions that women can make in this industry, we can inspire and empower more women to consider and pursue careers in corporate finance.
Do you believe that a more diverse workforce in M&A would benefit the industry as a whole?
KRISTIN: Absolutely. M&A deals involve a wide range of clients, management teams and boards that reflect the diversity of society. Therefore, it is essential that our advisory teams mirror this diversity. M&A transactions often present complex and dynamic situations. By bringing together individuals from different genders, we can tap into a broader range of the skills, knowledge and adaptability necessary to navigate these challenges successfully. Moreover, diverse perspectives enable us to anticipate and address potential issues from multiple angles, leading to more comprehensive and effective solutions.
CAROLINE: Without a doubt! The M&A industry currently tends to be characterized by a homogeneity in terms of the types of people involved, such as predominantly male individuals with financial backgrounds. While some level of financial knowledge is necessary, I strongly believe that the industry would greatly benefit from increased diversity that brings in a broader range of ideas, perspectives and approaches to problem-solving. This diversity of thought and experience would ultimately result in better solutions and more successful outcomes for projects and deals.
What are the misconceptions about a career in M&A for a woman?
KRISTIN: One misconception about a career in M&A for women is the assumption that work-life balance would be challenging. M&A is often associated with long working hours and a high-pressure environment, leading to the belief that you may struggle to balance your personal and professional lives. However, women in various industries, including M&A, have proven their ability to handle these challenges effectively. In reality, it is possible to establish strategies for managing time, prioritizing commitments and seeking support from colleagues, employers, family and friends. Additionally, having diverse interests and activities outside of work can contribute to a healthy work-life balance.
CAROLINE: A misconception about a career in M&A for women is the perception that it is not a versatile field. In my experience, being involved in M&A has provided me with exposure to various industries and companies at an early stage in my career. This has resulted in a steep learning curve and a wealth of valuable experiences. I have been fortunate to work at Oaklins, where I have been given significant responsibility, and my learning and development have been prioritized. As a result, I feel well-prepared and eager to embark on my career in M&A full time.
From your perspective, why should more women choose a career in M&A?
From my perspective, more women should choose a career in M&A because it offers a unique and exciting combination of skills and experiences. In this field, you get to utilize your proficiency in finance, accounting, strategy and business. It requires a blend of analytical thinking and strategic decision-making, as well as strong communication and collaboration skills. Success in M&A is rarely achieved alone but through teamwork and shared efforts with colleagues.KRISTIN BRATENGEN, DIRECTOR, OAKLINS, NORWAY
Furthermore, a career in M&A allows you to work on diverse projects with deadlines and milestones, providing a dynamic and challenging work environment. It offers opportunities for personal and professional growth, as well as the chance to contribute to shaping the future of businesses and industries. By choosing a career in M&A, women can bring their unique perspectives and talents to the table, making a valuable contribution to the field.