Inclusion in finance: It is time to think ‘same, but different’

“That makes perfect sense, if you don’t think about it for very long,” is how I respond these days. I have long accepted my sense of humour is not for everyone.

Despite many such individual claims of identical treatment for all in the UK financial services sector, it is clear from the evidence that at some level – some very senior level – that people are not being treated “exactly the same” in the UK finance sector. 

Two in five (41%) financial services employees in the UK also have a parent in the same sector, compared with a national average of 12% across all sectors.  

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It seems to me joining from a historically excluded group is much like moving to another country with a different language. Many individuals from these groups are unfamiliar with the social mores, practices and insider language that those who have a familial link to finance may more readily understand – expecting them to slot right in is unrealistic. This is why we talk about diversity and inclusion.

Think tank reboot.’s recent Race to Equality report underscored just how pervasive the industry’s inclusion problem is. Two thirds of ethnic minority respondents report experiencing discrimination at their organisation, and almost half believe their career progression is slower than that of white colleagues.

Equal ≠ identical

Students of mathematics and logic know that ‘equal’ (=) and ‘identical’ (≡) are related, but quite different concepts. Extending that reasoning, treating everyone the same is not synonymous with treating everyone fairly – equality does not mean giving everyone identical treatment. 

We need to start thinking ‘same, but different’.

This is partly reflected in many organisations’ recent focus on changing the way they recruit and upskill talent from a wider spectrum of backgrounds and helping them build networks within the industry. I have spoken a lot lately about how individuals from diverse groups can seek to make twice the difference instead of working twice as hard, so these programmes which – speaking from personal experience – help people discover and define the difference they want to make in the world are incredibly beneficial.

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This means reflecting the advances in thinking in this area in the hiring and working practices we employ, and thinking about how we can remove barriers that prevent talented individuals from underrepresented backgrounds from advancing to leadership positions. 

reboot.’s report highlighted the importance of firms developing visible, senior role models who reflect a diversity of backgrounds and are nurtured by senior business sponsors. Four in ten ethnic minority employees across the sector currently report a lack of role models with a similar identity and background as a key barrier to progression.  

This does not stop with workplace practices though. The language used and the cultural mindset within and between organisations are also important. Incisive questions are increasingly being asked about whether the common terms that have recently been used effectively to bring diversity and inclusion issues front-of-mind are still helping, or actually hindering, progress. 

For example:

  • Do the benefits to awareness of using broad terms like ‘BAME’ adequately compensate for the drawbacks of obscuring the important differences between all the groups they refer to? 
  • Is it appropriate for a UK finance sector that proudly draws talent from all across the globe to describe people as ‘minority ethnic’ within that global context?

While there might not strictly be a right or wrong answer to those questions, there is much to gain from understanding the various perspectives that help form coherent answers to them.

For those of us fortunate enough to be in positions of leadership, it is important to recognise that there is diversity between diverse groups. Black colleagues, black women, LGBT+ colleagues, working mothers – to name four out of many examples – continue to face very specific and persistent barriers within the industry that are not encountered by other groups.

Also, as brilliantly explained by reboot. founder Noreen Biddle Shah, the “A” in BAME fails to account for the notable differences between the different ethnic groups comprising the Asian community. 

The importance of constant and candid communication

It requires constant and candid communication by all participants in the workforce to drive genuine progress in this area. Uncomfortable though it may be, sometimes we must develop a mindset where employees are comfortable discussing intersectionality. 

This spans several complex and personal areas: race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic background, neurodiversity, disability, sexuality, mental health… the list goes on. 

It is difficult territory to cover but it is well worth the effort. 

By being bolder about these things we gain a better understanding of the various perspectives and experiences in our organisations. This in turn drives the vital cognitive and experiential diversity that is well-understood to aid better decision making. It also provides vital role models for new entrants to the industry, helping not just attract but also retain the diverse talent that strong organisations rely on.

Lindsey Stewart is a CFA, a leading investor and stakeholder engagement specialist, and a senior leader finalist in the 2021 Black British Business Awards. 

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