We need a new ‘blueprint’

When imagining a path to equality for women in financial services, too often a ‘default blueprint’ of cis, straight, middle-class White women is used. But our identities are complex and interconnected and need to be considered as part of diversity. On International Women’s Day and every day, it isn’t enough just to tackle one ‘diversity box’ at a time.

Growing up, I thought almost all women were feminists. I attended an all girls’ secondary school where we were told: “Women died for your right to vote…” as frequently as we were told: “Tuck in your shirt!”. It was only years later I realised how wrong I’d been. It turned out that many of the women I most loved and respected thought feminism wasn’t for them. Because those with the strongest platforms who spoke loudest about women’s equality didn’t seem to speak for them.

The 2015 film Suffragette is an unfortunate example of this, having attracted criticism for its failure to represent the UK suffrage movement’s diversity. The film makers argued that it was only one film telling one woman’s story. When films about women’s suffrage are so rare, it’s unavoidable that most will unconsciously interpret Suffragette as a snapshot of the entire movement. It’s similar in Investments when we put together an event panel, an executive board or a project team. Those looking on can’t help but see those faces and assume they’re representative of the company and industry. If we want a diverse set of people to find the financial services industry attractive, they need to see themselves reflected in panels, events and leadership roles. As Marisa Hall wrote in an article on diversity: “We need more ethnic minorities, we need more, well… just anyone that doesn’t look like ‘us’. And sorry, did I forget to mention, we need it fast.”

International Women’s Day can highlight this issue in our industry. Women’s experiences vary by race, sexuality, socioeconomic status and countless other factors, which is generally not accounted for when conceiving a solution to equality for women. Too often a ‘default blueprint’ of cis, straight, middle-class White women is used, certainly in the UK, which falls short on diversity grounds.

From the Institute’s work on identity, it’s clear there’s no neat model or short cut to achieving equal representation. Our identities are complex and interconnected and need to be considered as part of diversity. We attempted to demonstrate this in our International Women’s Day video by including a range of women who reflect the full diversity of our society and industry. The challenge was finding them.

Senior women are still relatively rare within the financial services industry and it proved even more difficult to find senior women of diverse ethnicity within financial services. As Tracy Burton, Client Service Manager at Coronation Fund Managers said: “The retention, advancement and empowerment of our female talent is fundamental to the sustainability of our industry, if we fall behind on diversity we don’t just let down our clients but also our society and our planet.” And Deirdre Cooper, Co-Head of Thematic Equity at Ninety One, summarised this point perfectly: “My strong belief is that diverse teams will unquestionably do a better job of allocating capital more sustainably and this has been my personal career mission.”

Roughly half of UK Maths undergraduates; and half of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) graduates overall; are women. However, they’re less likely than men to express a desire to work in financial services. When race and socioeconomic backgrounds are accounted for, the number of STEM graduates reduces even further. That’s why it isn’t enough just to tackle one ‘diversity box’ at a time. As Marg Franklin, President and CEO of the CFA Institute said: “Today, we should reflect not only on the achievement of women, but also acknowledge the continued struggle for equality for everyone in society. The intractable problems of our world – racial inequality, widening economic disparity, and climate change – need diverse thinking and teams to solve them.”

The issue of attracting women into the financial industry is a chicken and egg problem. Without the visibility of diverse senior role models, we won’t attract new talent and without new talent we won’t increase our senior leadership’s diversity. A short-term solution is to do everything in our power to make the most of the voices we have. For women, that means standing in the spotlight and celebrating the things that sometimes make us feel different. For men, it means listening to and opening the floor to all women whenever they can. And for all of us, it means remembering that no woman speaks for all other women. The solution as always will lie in valuing and making the most of our diversity, and our diverse voices.

And no one should feel they need to wait to be in a position of power to start making a difference. Roger Urwin remarks in Leadership Under Challenge – A few personal thoughts: “Leadership is broadly defined as the acts of anyone who steps out of their regular tasks to help and motivate others.”

In a TAI podcast entitled: Talk About Black, Marisa Hall suggests we can all share stories which have the power to engage. And here is one story. A prominent Suffragette called Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh was an active member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in my home town, near where I went to school.

My teachers never mentioned her.

And I can’t help but wonder how my classmates might have been inspired if teachers had told us her powerful story and given her as much prominence as the others we studied.

Ruth McDonald headshot
Ruth McDonald