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How Yahoo’s Marissa has more investors betting on women

Analysts seem to love to talk about a "Marissa Mayer effect."

When Yahoo's stock leaped in the year after Marissa Mayer took the helm as president and CEO, many believed it was partly due to her glamour. Later, when the stock slipped, it was owed to her pregnancy.

But as it turns out, there may not be much of a Marissa Mayer effect at all: One of the major reasons behind Yahoo's uptick in the beginning was largely driven by the company's Alibaba deal; the recent decline in the stock price coincided with China's turmoil. And while Mayer has failed to turn Yahoo around, the three previous CEOs failed, too.

But a growing number of investment experts believe not in the power of a single woman CEO but in what could more broadly be called a woman effect: the idea that women-led companies, or at least those with women in management, as a class perform better over time.

Read MoreWorld's youngest female billionaire — next Steve Jobs?

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo
Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

Two new products in the public equities space and a host of private-equity vehicles are available if you want to make a bet on the idea, either because you want to support women or because you're looking for an edge in the market.

"It's always good to fund an unfunded segment," said Sharon Vosmek, CEO of San Francisco-based Astia. Its program, Astia Angels, is a group of angels worldwide that invests in women-led businesses.

Research by Anita Woolley and Thomas Malone of MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence found that the more women there were on a team, the more the group's collective intelligence rose. And in another example, a small study of 15 years' worth of start-up data by Dow Jones VentureSource showed that although the number of women at the wheel of start-ups was tiny — only 6.5 percent had a female CEO — the odds of success increased by as much as 2 percent for every 10 percent increase in C-suite or board-level women.

How to invest in women

Women-led companies as a class are arguably an overlooked investment opportunity, too, which means there ought to be some bargains. Men are 68 percent more likely to be funded as entrepreneurs than women, based on research by MIT, Harvard and Wharton released in April 2014. The study was done by presenting investors with exactly the same pitch script and business; the only thing different was the sex of the entrepreneur.

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"There are a lot of blind spots in private equity," said Vosmek. "Hidden bias prevents you from seeing opportunities."

If you want to find an opportunity to invest in women, where do you look? Here are a handful of ideas:

The $80 million Pax Ellevate Global Women's Index Fund (PXWEX) trading at about $20 a share, is a collaboration between Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based fund company Pax World Management and Ellevate Asset Management LLC, whose principal is Sallie Krawcheck. The fund invests in 400 companies that score well on factors such as women in the C-suite and on the board of directors.

The fund, which is 58.33 percent in U.S. stock and 42 percent in international stock, had a one-year return of -3.58 percent compared with its benchmark MSCI World Index, which had a return of -3.87 percent. The fund's expense ratio is .99 percent; it roughly doubled in size since its relaunch in June of last year (there was predecessor fund that also invested in companies that supported women), and a spokeswoman for Pax pointed out that it has a lower risk profile than its benchmark: 8 percent less beta, 6 percent less standard deviation and 5 percent less downside capture.

An index tracking women-led firms

Meanwhile, London-based Barclays launched ETNs tracking a weighted index, called the WIL (Women in Leadership), which includes 85 U.S.-based companies with market caps of at least $250 million and with a woman CEO or board of directors that's at least 25 percent female. The ETNs, trading at about $50, have a weighted one-year return of -3.9 percent.

But all products in the public equities market have to overcome the classic problem of all investment schemes with an element of active management: Performing well enough over time to make up for the higher costs associated with stock picking, either in the fund or the underlying index, not to mention the vagaries of the public equities market, which has been especially brutal this year.

Angel investing to spot highfliers

If you are an accredited investor, meaning you have an income of at least $200,000, you can consider investing privately in angel groups and funds focusing on women.

There are a handful of financial firms and nonprofits springing up to connect investors with women-led companies. Astia had a big hit when New York City-based LearnVest, a financial site in which it was an early investor, was acquired by Northwestern Mutual for more than $300 million.

Astia is a 15-year-old platform to connect investors and entrepreneurs with women-led businesses and now includes 5,000 people who vet investing opportunities for their fellow members.

Two years ago Astia launched an angel investing group, which has been averaging investments in more than one company a month and now has 29 investments totaling $6.5 million in early stage women-led companies. The group has participated in deals that total $32 million, investing with funds including Catalyst Health Ventures and Google Ventures. Another of its interesting investments: FixSix, a hardware/software company that produces much smaller AC/DC power adaptors. Astia is also raising a venture fund.

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Two other companies that also offer ways for angels and venture investors to tap into the woman effect are GoldenSeeds and Belle Capital. The former, a New York City-based firm that includes an angel investing platform and three venture capital funds, has had a handful of exits, according to its website, including Design2Launch, which was acquired by Eastman Kodak in 2010, and Tikatoak, a children's publishing platform that was acquired by Barnes & Noble.

Another company, Michigan-based Belle Capital, primarily serves women investors who want to invest in women-led companies or companies that commit to putting women in leadership positions. It also focuses on underserved capital markets, meaning places outside the investing hot spots on the coasts.

If you want to be an angel investor in one of these organizations, Vosmet and Donna Harris, the CEO and co-founder of Washington, D.C.-based 1776, a global incubator, suggest asking a few key questions, including:

  • What is the mark-to-market value of the investments?
  • What happens after the check is cut: Are the investors active or passive?
  • What is the makeup of the angel group? If it's mainly men, the group may not deliver as many women-led companies as you want to see.
  • What is the strategy for filtering potential investments?
  • What are some of the exits?
  • What is the aggregate return?

All the new investment opportunities help develop new networks centered around women entrepreneurs. The fact that most powerful business networks in the past have been dominated by men is one of the reasons — perhaps the main reason — that women-led companies have historically been funded at lower rates than men-led companies.

"It's human nature," said Harris. "In anything you do, you inherently rely on your network, and we tend to know people who look and act and think like us."

—By Elizabeth MacBride, special to CNBC.com