When Theresa Whitmarsh promotes gender equality, she is not only concerned with fairness, she is focused on her bottom line. As executive director of the Washington State Investment Board (WSIB), one of the largest pension funds in the US, diversification is critical to meeting the organization’s long-term mission. But much of WSIB’s money is managed by third-party funds that all too often lack the diversity of female perspectives.

Achieving gender balance remains a significant challenge in financial services. Less than one-fifth of senior executives across finance are women. That’s significantly less than most other industries. Signs of progress are slow.

Private equity firms face a particular uphill climb: in 2015, on average only 10.5% of senior employees at buyout firms were women. It's a trend we see across the asset management industry.

After being one of only a few senior women in finance at the Forum’s 2014 Annual Meeting in Davos, Whitmarsh wondered, “What if we cracked the hardest nut first?” Soon after, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, the Women in Private Equity initiative was launched with the objective of raising awareness on the issue, tackling root causes and promoting a culture of diversity in the industry.

Since then, we’re starting to see the first results. In late 2014, the World Economic Forum hosted a private workshop with 30 senior leaders from private equity, pension funds and academia. The workshop explored the reasons for the lack of gender diversity and developed an action plan that is now being put into practice. As a result, the key players in the industry have committed to a realistic roadmap towards gender equity.

That’s great news. But even better, the exercise has provided some lessons that can be applied to the broader financial services industry:

1. Have an industry champion
Without the commitment, drive and operational involvement of leading figures in the industry, no transformational initiative can succeed. While under the umbrella of the Forum, the Women in Private Equity initiative was closely linked to WSIB and some of the world’s leading private equity firms, who brought deep industry knowledge of the issue and ensured high-level participation.

2. Keep it focused
By narrowing the scope, the initiative was manageable, not only in terms of objectives but also with regard to the people involved. A common sense of purpose that includes a sense of community and stakeholder involvement is critical for creating a shared mission.

3. Make it actionable
Lofty goals make for good press releases, but real change requires a realistic assessment of what’s possible and how to get there. Participants in the initiative stayed focused on setting objectives that were achievable and could be laid out in a roadmap that leads to success.

Two years on, women are still a minority in private equity. But first steps in a long journey will lead to the destination. Next month, we will launch a second paper, in collaboration with the WSIB, highlighting the shared responsibility of fund managers and their capital providers in promoting diversity in the industry.

The Forum remains committed to achieving gender parity in all industries. We believe a cross industry approach to shared learning can benefit us all. A decade from now private equity can become a beacon for women in financial services – and if lessons are learned and applied, this will drive change throughout the entire industry.