The undeniable fact is that there is continually intensifying pressure on corporate organizations to take a vocal stance on societal issues, and to ‘to do the right thing’.
This grassroots societal pressure on big corporates captures the zeitgeist of the time and is much needed to catalyze change.
But as companies rollout the rainbow version of their logo each Pride month, share a story from a Black employee on Black History Month, or a photo collage of a handful of smiling female employees for International Women’s Day (IWD) – we should ask ourselves – are businesses missing the point?
The financial services industry
The financial services industry is no stranger to being on the wrong side of public opinion, and has been fighting hard to redeem itself, and ultimately public trust, since the 2008 financial crisis.
Part of that redemption is a need to try and shift perception away from the notion of an “old boys club” to an industry that is more inclusive, diverse and therefore won’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
And so, it has become almost mandatory for firms to join the cacophony of social media posts on days such as IWD to publicly declare their support of a cause, which begs the question – has this clamor to shed the perceptions of the past, led to a dilution of the point and slowed down progress for the future?
Gender diversity is gradually improving in the industry, but progress is slow and the mainstream absorption of days like IWD now almost turn the point of the day on its head.
In our haste to say “we’re not like that either”, are we now unintentionally masking the fact that there is still a hugely disparate gap between men and women at mid-management and senior levels of financial service organizations? Because no amount of posts, shares, and likes on IWD is going to change that.
Gender disparity is by no means a simple issue to fix – but the first step for any organization is as basic as understanding and acknowledging where they are doing well, and where there are issues that need to be addressed – then finding ways to make a change where there is need for improvement.
This year, we’re calling on our colleagues, male allies, clients, and industry partners to address the uncomfortable truth rather than mask it, and to take action on IWD; a day that was born out of a movement of 15,000 women marching through NYC in 1906, campaigning for change in gender equality.
The day marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity which we are at risk of losing through social media whitewashing.
At Apex Group, it’s really important to us that on IWD we don’t just celebrate the few female leaders we have and mask the broader issue – but that we acknowledge that there is still inequality and inequity in our industry and therefore we are taking action to make a change within our own business.
Our gender split mirrors what we see in the broader financial services industry where research shows that at entry-level, over 50% of employees are female, with this figure decreasing to around 35% at middle-management and under 20% at the C-suite level.
Put simply – this is not good enough.
It is not sufficient to simply be aligned with our financial services’ peers on this issue, we are taking accountability and want to inspire others to do the same, by first understanding the issue and drivers contributing to it – and then putting proactive initiatives and policies in place to incite change.
This approach takes agility. As part of a change movement, the industry needs to evolve its approach to change in order to affect progress quicker.
So what should we expect to see from businesses within the financial services community in a year’s time, when we reach the 116th International Women’s Day in March 2023?
Reflection and transparency
Companies have good intentions, but are often too focused on trying to make the stats look good and not committed enough to implementing long actionable change – i.e. If the financial services industry just focuses on overall gender split, gender equality appears to be fine, but when firms dig into the data the trends are consistent, the reality is around 50%-60% of women in the industry are in the most junior roles of the business – so like greenwashing, gender washing is an issue.
Transparency is a problem when it comes to financial service employers exposing their own gaps and leadership teams should learn to challenge themselves to expose their own gaps and increase the pace of change.
Identify the inequity points
Change is not happening fast enough and there are often clear broken rungs in progression and a glass ceiling across the industry – too often there is only a focus on C-suite or board diversity, it’s highly visible.
But the inequity at the mid-management level is a huge problem and therefore we have to look at our organizations in their entirety, at every level, and across every department, to implement a sustainable change plan.
Companies could consider setting up a shadow executive committee, with the aim of bringing a diversity of thought to the leadership conversation.
This should have a 50/50 split in gender and represented a diverse set of younger senior leaders that were able to bring different perspectives to the C-Suite conversation, challenge the status quo, and demonstrate how diversity can help improve business decisions and drive innovation.
The next step is to promote members of the shadow committee to the executive committee – this shows that diversity commitments aim to achieve long-term permanent gains, as well as quality over quantity.
It can’t be a marketing exercise
It’s so important firms don’t fall into the trap of recruiting and promoting more women to give the perception of an “equal” workforce – but retain deeper issues of unequal pay.
There is still a massive issue when it comes to the gender pay gap and although it’s a hotly discussed topic, the financial services industry is one of the worst gender pay offenders; the median gap is 37% in financial services and insurance, and the bonus gap is 52% .
Firms need to get comfortable with analyzing and understanding this complex issue in order to adapt to a more inclusive and truly equal future.
It’s not all about women
With men still outnumbering women, particularly in positions of power, allyship needs to become the cornerstone for change. Allyship is when a person from a non-marginalized group uses their privilege to advocate for a marginalized group to drive for equity and equality.
We’re talking about gender equality in binary terms here, but in the 100 years since the first IWD, gender identification has become a far broader and more complex topic, and we have seen allyship become a powerful force within LGBTQ+ activism.
We need to make this collective change together, men need to join marginalized groups in the virtual march, and together create an environment where men, particularly those in positions of power, become change agents and allies by taking a proactive stance on the issue in order to affect change, and faster.
The financial services space has a powerful influence on society and therefore has a responsibility to be part of the change and strive to develop a more inclusive and diverse community within its ranks.
This needs to be more than just a strategy. People are ultimately at the heart of everything companies do, therefore it is important to create a culture of leading by example, inspiring and engaging others to empower people to reach their full potential.
I believe that diversity of thought is what makes a business competitive and innovative, therefore the more different sets of perspectives we can learn from, the better we can be together.
Our ability to do good begins with our people, our greatest asset, and through them we know we will make a real difference to the world around us.
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