Billionaire cabana meetings and secret confessions: Milken’s male-heavy conference for the global elite shows finance is all talk when it comes to gender equality

BEVERLY HILLS — Beside the pool at the Beverly Hilton sits a row of private cabanas where the deep-pocketed sponsors of the Milken Institute Global Conference held prime meeting spaces and the occasional catered meal.

On Tuesday afternoon, Steve Cohen, the hedge fund manager whose net worth Forbes pegs at $12 billion, sat beneath the awning rented by his firm Point72, leading a discussion with 10 or so men. Many of them followed the unstated conference dress code of a white shirt and blue suit.

A spokeswoman for Point72 said it was an “impromptu gathering” with a group of hungry college students who they had offered lunch to. “It was simply a friendly gesture,” she said.

Around the same time, on the other side of the hotel, a couple dozen women and a sprinkling of men gathered in a small conference room for a panel on closing the gender growth gap and the under-capitalization of female led companies. There was a problem with the air conditioning, leaving attendees freezing.

“Just have a look around this room,” said Megan McDonald, global head of investment banking and debt capital markets at Standard Bank Group.

“The vast majority of people in this room, attending these sessions, are women,” she said. “This for me is at the heart of the problem, for why we’re not making real progress as we’ve all spoken about. Men have to be part of this conversation.”

Better than before

Christine Lagarde, the managing director and chairwoman of the International Monetary Fund, said that climate change is more pressing than inequality.
Mike Blake/Reuters

The Milken programming kicked off Monday under the theme “driving shared prosperity.” The first session was an interview between Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker and Christine Lagarde, the managing director and chairwoman of the International Monetary Fund, who Baker described as the “queen of the economy.”

Lagarde spoke mostly about the global debt crisis but in the final minute she said that capitalism will face continuous threats as long as there is inequality, in terms of gender and otherwise.

“It’s one thing to flag it and to say, well, this is part of us and this is a problem and we have to own it. Second is, what do we do about it? And how do we address the issue of inequality and inclusion?” Lagarde said, before dismissing the topic altogether.

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“We will not be talking about that in 20 years time when the planet is completely gone. So I think the environment is far more important than any of that,” she concluded.

A Milken manel.
Milken Institute

Keynote speakers such as Lagarde, and Trump administration representatives Ivanka Trump and Elaine Cho, led Politico to declare before the end of Day 1 that “Women dominate at Milken.”

There was as the Equality Lounge, an outdoor patio space sponsored by Citi and the Female Quotient, with an elevated stage that held the occasional gender and diversity-themed programming. At a table in the corner were jars of candy and chocolate covered pretzels with a sign indicating that a bag of treats would cost men $1.00, while women would pay just $0.80 — a reference to the median gender pay gap in the US.

Still, Milken was overwhelmingly male.

Though the numbers aren’t final, roughly 30% of the conference’s 800 speakers and 4,000 attendees were women, a spokesman told Business Insider. According to the World Bank, 50.5% of the US is female.

A count of Monday’s speakers alone shows that Milken, like many conferences across industries, hasn’t fully rid itself of the so-called “manel.” There were 21 sessions with zero female speakers, including the moderator, according a tally of the conference agenda.

There were 25 sessions with just one female speaker, 23 panels had two or more women speaking, and eight sessions that were majority women. Many of these sessions had six people on stage.

The marketing is there, but the money often isn’t

Jesse Draper, founding partner at Halogen Ventures, spoke on the Equality Lounge stage with Shelley Zalis, CEO of the Female Quotient.
Milken Institute

Katie O’Reilly, an executive director at Milken and the gender growth gap panel moderator, said the conference has made a lot of progress since its first diversity panel around a decade ago, when there were just a handful of women at a single 6:30 a.m. session.

A safe space — with candy.
Becky Peterson/Business Insider

“Fast forward and we have probably 15 to 20 different sessions that are pretty well attended, so no question the momentum is moving in that direction,” O’Reilly said. “I often find myself moderating sessions where everybody is happy to agree that the data says one thing — there’s no question [gender diversity] impacts returns in a positive way and it impacts management and the companies perform better. So then why are we where we are?”

David Warren, the CEO of DW Partners and one of two men — and Davids— on the panel, had an answer.

Since arriving at the conference, five or six men had confided in him that they refuse to spend alone time with their female employees or colleagues in the post #MeToo era. Despite what gets said in public, Warren said, some men still openly discuss excluding women in private conversations.

“The statement is, ‘I will not be alone ever.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s at a ballgame. Lunch. Brunch. Drinks,” said Warren, who dismissed such men as misguided.

There’s also a disconnect between public facing diversity initatives at many investment firms and how money gets spent at those organizations, according to attendees.

Draper, whose venture firm has invested in 50 startups, said she saw 5,000 deals last year, all which had at least one female founder. Her struggle, she said, is getting support from limited partners — the people and institutions who invest their money in her fund.

“It is really difficult as a fund manager to raise for a female focused fund,” Draper said. “I walked into this pension fund somewhere in the middle of the country and they literally spat up their coffee at me when they saw the first page of my deck where I said it’s actually a great business opportunity to invest in women.”

Mina Pacheco Nazemi, managing director at the investment managing firm Barings, said she tries to institutionalize practices that encourage clients to invest in companies with strong gender diversity practices. But she’s not convinced that every investment fund sincerely cares about gender equality.

“People use it as a marketing tool. They use it as a way to let their clients know that they care. But at the end of the day, when you look at where they’re invested in and where they put their money, it’s not a reflection of what they say their mission and their values are,” Pacheco Nazemi said. “I don’t think that the market is actually there.”

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