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Women in Finance – A Matter of Balance

Anne Richards, Global Head of Investments at Aberdeen Asset Management, tells Michael Wilson says that diversity is essential to corporate strength

Tomorrow: Julie Jones from Myddleton Croft Investment Managers discusses how women are challenging male assumptions  in financial services


Aberdeen Richards

Sometimes you wonder where people find the energy. When she’s not leading Aberdeen Asset Management’s investment committee – a role she’s fulfilled for the last eleven years – Anne Richards can be found sitting on the Financial Conduct Authority’s Practitioner Panel, or speaking at international conferences on all kinds of investment, pensions, economic or market related topics.

Or working on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council, or the UK Digital Skills Task force. Or maybe as one of the BBC’s #ExpertWomen team, or sitting for the Board of Leaders for 2020 Women on Boards. Then again, Ms Richards is also the Chair of the CERN & Society Foundation, the charitable arm of the high energy physics project in Switzerland where she first cut her teeth as a researcher back in the 1980s.

In short, we’d have had a hard time finding anyone with broader experience of what it takes to really make it as a woman in business. So how does Ms Richards see the equality situation shaping up in a sector where women have too often struggled for opportunity?

Patchy Progress

We’ll start with the good news. It’s encouraging, she agrees, that major companies in general are finally opening up their senior boards to both sexes. The last all-male FTSE-100 company, Glencore, acquired its first female director in June. And at present, according to Boardwatch, women hold 22% of FTSE-100 directorial positions – up from 17% in 2013 – and are taking up 26% of all new appointments.

But what about the financial sector? How have things been developing for women in the 22 years since she started in the business? Is the democratisation of the senior boardroom getting through to fund management? Unfortunately Richards’s answer wasn’t quite as reassuring as I might have hoped. Although she didn’t have any firm figures, she stressed, it did seem to her as though the proportion of women wasn’t improving – and indeed, “I think we’ve lost women from the industry over the last 20 years. We can see that we have some challenges there.”

About Those Attributes….

It was time to take a deep breath and ask the dangerous question. You know, the really sensitive one. Does she put this differential treatment of women in the industry down to any perceived difference between male and female abilities? Such as that trusty old saw about how men’s brains excel at maths while women are better at broader and more inclusive (and creative) thinking?

“No,” she said – rather nicely, I thought, but firmly. “I challenge that theory. I’ve worked with many women who were complete specialists and were utterly focused on their areas of expertise. Top-level analysts and so forth. And many who were ultimate polymaths. And actually I don’t believe that you can differentiate men and women that easily.”

But, she conceded, there did seem to be one key behavioural difference when it came to risk appetite. “Whether it’s the hormonal thing that men are susceptible to ratcheting up the testosterone and cortisol-which may make their ability to judge and balance risk and reward increasingly challenged – women are far less susceptible to that interplay, and less likely to display those extremes of risk-taking.”

“When that male risk-taking pays off, it’s ascribed to skill. And when it doesn’t, it’s ascribed to bad luck.” Testosterone-driven males tend to dominate higher-risk areas such as private equity or hedge funds, she says – which by no particular coincidence, are among the last bastions of old-style male-bonded culture. That’s got to change.

A Strategy For Reform

Achieving a gender balance in a team matters, she said, because effective decision-making relies on the optimum mix of personalities, talents and experience. “I believe in celebrating difference in general. Teams work better when people from different backgrounds and skills and cultures come together – incredibly powerful teams. You have to get over that initial hurdle of managing the differences, but then you’re going to get to a better outcome. Just by being female, you will have had a different set of experiences, and bringing that to the table is valuable. And I don’t think we have enough difference in the fund management industry at present.”

So what can be done to improve the situation and get more women into teams?

Firstly, said Richards, a firm needs to acknowledge that it has a Problem. That’s something that not everybody is likely to accept, or even notice, because it’s too easy to hide from the facts. So secondly, the firm needs to invest in data gathering that will make it completely clear whether or not similarly talented people of both sexes are being treated equally. Are the men being paid more than the women? Do they get promoted more quickly? Do you promote through an informal process that may mean a woman doesn’t even get a chance to apply?

Check Your Biases

And thirdly, we need to get down to some unconscious bias training. It starts by acknowledging the possibility that a company might be harbouring attitudes that are so ingrained that they’ve completely disappeared from view. “We all have biases. It’s not that we’re evil people, but we are humans, and we are the product of our society. And understanding that we might have a bias allows us to implement processes and systems that can mitigate this.”

Take a look at your website, she says, and count the male and female images. Listen to the language you’re using in your communications. Is it designed to appeal to men, or will it appeal to women? And when you do promotional activities, do you focus on activities which enforce biases? Do you, for instance, only sponsor male sports people, and could that be shaping your clients’ perception of you?

“Awareness that you want to attract a broader mix – not just gender, but a much wider definition of diversity – leads back to how you frame your appeal, how you encourage potential employees, and how you reach your clients too.”

 

 

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