Improving gender diversity in financial services

Penelope Gregoriou is an intern at Alexander Forbes Investments
Penelope Gregoriou is an intern at Alexander Forbes Investments

The asset management industry is one that has heralded many successes, but it could be said that gender diversity is not one of them. 

With a McKinsey study revealing that only one-fifth of women in the industry are in executive positions globally, the status quo around the industry is one that is rooted in outdated beliefs about a female’s prominence in it. 

As a result, the financial sector’s pervasive business model is one that has made it difficult for women to progress professionally. 

Another point of contention is whether this gender imbalance is being addressed with innovation and urgency – both from a moral perspective and a commercial one. 

It would be easy to assume that gender diversity fits within a “nice-to-have” category, but social development and the modern client would challenge that assumption and say that it’s a “need-to-have”. 

If culture is one that places more focus on maintaining the current state of affairs rather than improving inclusion, then trust and loyalty will be compromised as a consequence. 

The bad news is that a true commitment has not yet been made by the South African financial services industry, but the good news is that this can change. 

Invisible, but pervasive

Culture is as much a product of business strategies as it is of the perceptions of those that created them. 

There are two overarching issues that contribute to the barriers that prevent women from entering higher positions of power: structural and cultural. 

I am of the impression that cultural issues lead to the structural ones and thus, culture is what needs to be addressed with more urgency. 

What inhibits women’s vocation are the perceptions of the people that can impede on this trajectory – namely that women lack the ability and ambition to be key players in financial services and the perception that the one-fifth of women that already are, is enough. 

A gap is evidently present between perception and reality. 

Only once addressing the misunderstanding that a woman is not able to confront the demands of a business because of the demands of her family, can this trajectory be given the traction it deserves. 

It’s a pity that it’s not experience or qualifications that prevent women from progressing, but something as abstract as stereotypes. But again, this can change. 

Another misconception is that the nature of the industry isn’t complementary, or rather, complemented by the leadership and working styles that women have. 

Qualities such as assertiveness, strategic thinking and confidence are perceived to be mostly exclusive to men. If we were to maintain stereotypes, a case could be made for women based on them too. 

The “natural qualities of a woman” such as emotional intelligence and multi-tasking still seem to be irrelevant. 

The World Economic Forum (WEF) would beg to differ. In 2016, the WEF released their paper, The Future of Jobs, and they stated that the two new skillsets people need by 2020 are “emotional intelligence” and “cognitive flexibility”. 

Whichever angle you look at it, the input of female professionals cannot be underestimated.  

I find it odd how a woman’s working styles are called “different”, but never “wrong”. Yet the former seems to imply the latter. 

Instead of embracing different working methods and personal characteristics to complement what already exists, it’s regarded as necessary to assimilate women into the current corporate culture that is evidently flawed. 

The right time for top-down management

When leaders acknowledge the gaps that are present in the female talent pipeline, there should be a deliberate integration of HR responsibilities and business strategies that leaders initiate regarding both corporate culture and the bottom line. 

Data is vital for gaps to be identified and for promotions of current female staff and new staff to be tracked and reviewed. 

Data is impossible to overlook or argue with because it’s objective to the changes that demand to be made. 

To be included, we need to be inclusive. The people who can implement new policies are not included in these conversations and thus, our conversations have been counter-productive.

The catalytic client

Clients have the upper hand in their transactions with companies and this influence can prompt this culture that companies need to create. 

Once leaders recognise what it is that more clients are asking for and responding to – diverse and inclusive cultures – they are in a better position to motivate transformative behaviour. 

The modern client is an insistent one, and trust and loyalty are the attitudes that lead to long-lasting relationships that the financial services industry requires to thrive. 

Innovation should not start and end with the products and services that the financial industry provides, but should be a governing principle throughout the organisation and should reach the talent pipeline and the escalation of the women in it. 

Implementing innovation, not only for the goal of improving the bottom line, but in changing how the escalation of the female talent pipeline may contribute to that goal, is a categorical imperative. 

McKinsey said that gender parity could only be achieved by the year 2030. My question is the following: Why is this the case if we have everything we need to make this happen now? 

Penelope Gregoriou is an intern at Alexander Forbes Investments, working in marketing and communications.

This article originally appeared in the Collective Insight supplement in the 19 July edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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