Very often when I look around in meetings, virtual or physical, I’m aware that I am the only one representing my gender. For a very long time, I didn’t consider this as being anything unusual as it just was the norm.

When approaching the subject with my female peers within the industry, everyone would shrug it off and comment ‘we’re used to it’. Despite being asked if you’re sure you’re in the right meeting, often being talked over or proposing an idea only to have it overlooked and then – often – the next male to be applauded for suggesting it, we just get on with it. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, if it does, you’re probably a woman or a representative of another minority group in a male-dominant industry. Or, of course, an enlightened male ally.

Where we are today in financial services

Gender diversity is a topic that I would rather not be talking about as we should have an equal playing field in 2021. It would be great to look around the industry and see a good representation of all genders, ethnicities, social backgrounds, and ages. But we’re not there yet. Approximately 30% of financial advisers in the UK are women and our data shows that currently only 28% of clients with investable assets are women(1). Yet, around 70% of younger females with families are taking the lead in financial conversations(2), women are likely to live longer and 70% of women switch their financial adviser when becoming the main decision-maker; these statistics indicate the need for female-targeted or inclusive investment advice makes sense.

However, when switching focus to leadership, a statistically shocking factor of UK’s FTSE 350 leadership is that women CEOs are fewer than leaders called Peter. Or Steve or David. In the US Fortune 500, this can be replicated with leaders called John, Robert, James, William, and Michael. This statistic generalises the overarching issue that industries across the spectrum have – the lack of diversity in leadership roles. When we’re faced with the lack of diversity in leadership, this can lead to a lack of diversity in the overall corporate structure. This in turn generates fewer female role models.

More women role models = more female leaders and customers

A study reviewing participants’ behaviour during a challenging leadership task when exposing them to images of successful female leaders, successful male leaders, and no images at all, found that women in the group performed worse than men when exposed to a successful male role model or no role model at all.

Conversely, when exposed to a successful female role model, the gender performance difference disappeared, and women participants’ quality output improved. Women who were exposed to images of female role models also evaluated their performance higher than those who were exposed to male or no role models(3).

Role models are enormously important for people to see and be able to relate to. The more diverse the industry becomes and the more women we can attract to the industry, the quicker the image association of the financial adviser changes. The reputation of financial advice can still be an image of a 50-year-old man in a suit speaking hard-to-understand financial jargon. By having a more diverse workforce, this association could instead be someone who different people can relate to and who can give them the confidence they need in their financial planning. This will in turn drive the need for different language and behaviours resulting in more gender balance.

Why male allies are the key to change

So how can men and women start changing these statistics and cultivate more inclusive and diverse cultures? The real influencers are not just the female heroes breaking down the barriers and being visible role models but, perhaps even more importantly, male allies. Harvard Business Review defines male allies as members of an advantaged group committed to building relationships with women, expressing as little sexism in their own behaviour as possible, understanding the social privilege conferred by their gender, and demonstrating active efforts to address gender inequities at work and in society(4). By being supportive and as flexible as possible, considering the wider implications of their actions, offering truly inclusive opportunities and recognising unconscious biases, male allies can create and support an environment where anyone can thrive and prosper without having to consider gender, ethnicity, social background or age. Males in the workplace are in a statistically privileged position and can act as true catalysts for change.

Over the last decade, much has changed, especially how companies are hiring and thinking about cognitive diversity and gender representation. To impact change requires a conscious effort to promote the opportunities and often to incentivise recruitment processes to ensure that great candidates are drawn to the industry. There are ways that firms are addressing some of these challenges such as mandating candidate shortlists to have 60% representation of women, or paying higher incentives for employees for recommending women to roles. Culture drives a big part of this and firms need to offer flexibility where they can to juggle family and work-life balance, not just for the benefit of women but in general, so that it becomes more accepted and not something anyone has to feel guilty about. Cultivating a workplace culture where conflicting or different viewpoints are welcomed and listened to with respect is also vitally important.

The barriers have been lowered for women; however considerable data gaps and stereotypes exist. Examples of the way society represents these stereotypes are commonplace; baby changing signs always depict a mother and a baby, a chairman is most often depicted as a man and, probably the worst of all, ideal office temperature range is modelled on data consisting of male participation leaving women in offices resorting to blankets (women tend to prefer up to 5 degrees warmer office temperatures to be comfortable(5)). These are the reasons why we need more women to be represented across the workplace, to design and build products and services which are more inclusive all round.

Today, women are the largest underserved target market in financial services globally. Tailoring product propositions and marketing towards more diverse and inclusive imagery and language can help to serve this market. Great challenges remain, but with the right allies and culture, further progress towards a more equal distribution of wealth is possible.

To celebrate International Women's Day, Tiina Stephens, Synaptic Software’s COO took part in a panel discussion hosted by Asset TV on the advancement of women in investing. Tiina was joined on the panel by Bhavini ‘Bev’ Shah, Chief Executive at City Hive and Gillian Hepburn, UK Intermediary Solutions Director at Schroders.

View the webinar

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