Ladies who don't lunch: Maike Currie on whether investment management is a good career for working mums

Maike Currie
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Alexandra Jackson's restless spirit means she’s already packed in a lot at the age of 32

"I am rarely ‘at peace’…” laughs Alexandra Jackson, over a plate of blackened cod.

We’ve met at the Ivy City Gardens for lunch, and we’re on the subject of her career. Her restless spirit means she’s already packed in a lot at the age of 32, including two young daughters and a decade working in the investment management industry.

“I never went on a gap year and I guess with hindsight, one could say I should have. But that was never me. I just wanted to get on with things and see where my life and career would take me.”

It took her to Rathbone Investment Management, where she quickly climbed the ranks from graduate and general dogsbody to fund manager. Before turning 30, somewhere between having her first and second child, she was appointed as co-manager on the Rathbone UK Opportunities Fund.

Since taking on the fund back in 2013, performance has been stellar. And for a long time, Alexandra and her former co-manager Jo Rands were known as the only female “double act” in an industry still pitifully lacking in female representation. But with Jo leaving the company to pursue interests outside the investment industry, after almost two decades in the City, the reins of the fund are now firmly in Alexandra’s hands.

“I’d always hoped that I would run a fund. When I came back to work after having my first baby I thought: if I’m going to work full-time, and work hard, and be away from my baby, then it needs to matter. And it needs to matter to me. It was quite serendipitous that the manager of the fund, originally called the Rathbone Recovery Fund, left at the time, and I just decided to put up my hand.”

I wonder out loud if having a child made her “lean in” more, to coin Sheryl Sandberg’s philosophy about women needing to be more assertive. But somehow I don’t think Alexandra needed any words of encouragement – from Sandberg or anyone else for that matter. She seems like she was born “leaning in”.

“Well it does kind of intensify everything,” she laughs. “I mean, obviously, your day is intensified, your night is intensified… all kinds of emotions just become more intense. But also, you have to cram a lot more in and if you are going to make that choice, which luckily I could, I just felt it needed to be for something that I felt really passionate about.”

Alexandra is certainly passionate about the fund she manages, and explains the rationale behind the recent name change. “The term recovery has become quite confusing and ambiguous in the market.

There are a few big recovery funds that do different things and we found that every conversation we had with potential clients started with a question around how we define recovery.”

Is the fund name really that important? “Well, yes,” says Alexandra. “These funds have to be super clear. People should be able know from the name or reading something very short, exactly what you’re going to be doing with their money.

“More personally, I am sitting here thinking I want to run this fund for the next 10, 20 years – so it has to be the right fund for my skill set.”

She adds that, as investors, Rathbones is quite close to its clients because it’s mostly retail money.

“You know exactly the type of people you are working for – ordinary savers’ Isa and pension money. There’s money my mum has put into the fund, and I know she has to use these savings for home renovations. It’s my biggest personal investment too. You need to eat your own cooking.”

I ask her about her husband – who it turns out is also a Rathbones fund manager. “Wasn’t that awkward? Don’t you get fed up with seeing each other all the time?”

“Oh yes, I’ve built up my Bloomberg screens really high around me so that I don’t have to see too much of him.” Her warm laugh and sharp sense of humour answers the question with ease. “It’s reasonably unusual I guess, but it works for us – we spend a lot less time talking about work than the average couple.”

Not talking about work too much, doesn’t mean she doesn’t like it. “I really love my job… I found maternity leave quite lonely actually. You get into this bubble where you’re so focused on this tiny, irrational creature – trying to second guess them all the time. It can be very lonely.

“The office is very collegiate. We all sit every close together and talk about stocks. Stocks and Bake Off.”

Within asset management, there is a lot of debate about the single versus co-manager model.

Some argue the former makes decision making simpler and quicker, while others prefer the co-manager model given the thorny issue of key person risk. If your star fund manager keels over, or ups and leaves, you can expect the money to follow.

I ask Alexandra about her preference. “Both have their positives and negatives. The single manager model can work well so long as it doesn’t breed big egos. What’s quite nice about the Rathbones’ unit trust business is that the funds – income, global and fixed income – are all roughly the same size. It’s good to have those three pillars, rather than one person carrying everyone.”

She adds that it’s often easier to understand the process with a single manager. “Jo and I often used to get the question: if you two disagree, who makes the call?”

How did you respond to that?

“We have quite an objective process involving a scorecard we developed together. So if we disagreed, we would just go back to the process. It’s really powerful – rescoring the companies usually kicks out the answer. We didn’t disagree that much to be honest because the process leads you in the right direction.”

She pauses and smiles. “But I do remember one lunch where Jo and I were presenting the fund to a group of IFAs and a chap said, ‘what happens when you disagree?’.

The person across the table from him, who was another potential client said, ‘well they ask the man of course!’ I nearly spat out my lunch.”

The jury is still out on whether investment management is a good career for working mums.

Some argue the long hours and late nights make it nigh on impossible, while others like Helena Morrissey, mum of nine and industry doyenne, argue that fund management is a great career for anyone who wants to be judged on results, rather than hours at the desk, which makes it frustrating that there are so few women in the industry.

Alexandra maintains there’s truth in both arguments and it depends a lot on your investment style.

“I have never done another job or worked at another place, so my experience is quite focused. For me it works really well because of the flexibility and autonomy you get. You’re in charge of your own diary for the most part, so if there’s something you need to do, you can just tweak things and do it.

She continues: “Working on UK markets means I can be home for tea time some days, I am always home in time for bath time. There’s no weekend work. And you can do a lot of the job from everywhere, not all of it – but a lot. Reading, research – there’s a lot of thinking in this job and you don’t have to be glued to your screens. So I work from home some days, like when my daughter had her first day of school. I would never miss that.”

How was that? “It was bit emotional. When the teacher opened the door and said ‘welcome’, I realised its happening. But that’s exciting too. I like seeing them grow up, I don’t want to keep them as babies. It does become more complicated but it’s so nice seeing them grow up, becoming more independent– that’s the whole job, right? Helping them grow into little people.”

She pauses for a moment and then adds: “I hope that they will never feel that inferiority and separateness that a lot of girls often struggle with.”

She tells me about a recent article she read in the FT about research into the age at which girls begin to think that they are less intellectually brilliant than boys. According to the piece, it happens at age six – before they have lost the first of their milk teeth, little girls have lost confidence in their gender’s intellectual ability.

“My eldest daughter is now four and I do worry that in a few years’ time she might begin to believe in those gender stereotypes. Just the language we use. It’s so hard not to say to a little girl, ‘oh you’re so pretty’, ‘you look so lovely in that dress’, ‘you have got such nice hair’, rather than saying, ‘that looks like a really good dress to climb a tree’. It’s so subtle. I spend a lot of time thinking about that… and just gently try to push back on some of those things.”

Back to work. She describes herself as a “Rathbones lifer” saying that while the business has grown exponentially over the years, recently moving headquarters from the Mayfair to the City (to most employees’ dismay) it still feels like a smaller business where people know each other.

“Often in this industry, people feel they need to move to get promoted or get salary rises, but luckily I’ve been able to do that at Rathbones. I remember starting and feeling like I was Alexandra Jackson, rather than graduate number x. And I felt like my boss, Julian was just gently overseeing everyone and could see a path for my career. I think that’s quite unusual and quite special – to genuinely feel like you have that support.”

What have been her biggest lessons and mistakes? “I have made loads of mistakes,” she says without hesitating. “Something I probably need to work on is making sure that my experiences get properly wound into my instincts.

“People always say you need to follow instinctive managers – but instinct is a product of your experience and making sure you’re learning from that all the time. It’s something you need to develop.

I need to make sure I have enough time to do that – to learn from what’s happened, whether I have made a mistake or whether something’s gone right – you need to learn from both.

“That’s probably the thing I’d most like to teach my girls.”

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