Driving Female Representation in Financial Services

Wednesday 30th January 2019

Rob Baker MercerGBA recently welcomed Mercer, the world’s largest human resources consulting firm, as a strategic partner to support members to design and implement their gender diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies. Robert Baker, Senior Partner and Leader of Diversity & Inclusion Consulting for the International Region at Mercer, spoke with the Global Banking Alliance for Women about why gender D&I is important to Mercer and to the financial services sector, the company’s decision to support the GBA, and the work that we will do together in 2019 and beyond.

GBA: Can you give us some background on Mercer and the types of services you offer clients?

RB: Mercer started in Canada in 1945 as an employee benefit consulting firm and was acquired by parent company Marsh & McLennan in 1959. Since then Mercer has expanded into a global consulting company that helps employers address all aspects of their employees’ health, wealth and careers. That shift has taken us beyond benefits, pensions and investments into the health and well-being, talent, and HR consulting fields. The D&I practice, which is an important part of Mercer’s offering today, has come out of this expansion. The field has grown tremendously in the last few years – particularly in the US. We’re starting to see lots of demand for D&I consulting in other parts of the world as well and I think we’re going to see more growth internationally in the coming years.

GBA: Why should companies be focusing on workplace D&I?   

RB: In order to get the best possible ideas, innovation and relevance to customers, organizations really need to be looking across the whole talent pool. That includes people with diverse backgrounds, different forms of identity, different skills, different competencies, etc. If companies are only taking their labor forces from one particular segment – as so many of them are – they’re not exercising the full power of this diversity in thinking and approach, which in turn makes it more challenging for them to be innovative and creative, and potentially has an impact on how they deal with disruption and how they grow. In addition, if organizations want to retain this diverse talent, they need to build inclusive cultures in their workplaces, so that people with different identities, backgrounds, skill sets, personalities, can feel accepted, supported and can progress to attain their full potential. So as this becomes more and more recognized, we’re seeing a lot more interest from CEOs, company leadership and boards in how they can get more diversity of thought in their organizations, how they can attract and retain the best talent, and how they can better reflect their customer bases – which are increasingly becoming more diverse and inclusive themselves. Finally, investors are realizing that they earn higher returns from companies with diversity on their boards and in their leadership teams. All of this taken together means there is a real business case for why companies are focusing on D&I and becoming more committed to having a workplace that’s open to everyone’s skills, capabilities and backgrounds, and that has a culture of inclusion that enables people from all different backgrounds to thrive.

GBA: So we want to focus on both diversity and inclusion because it’s important to both have a workforce with a diverse makeup, and also to ensure everyone feels welcome and that they can contribute and succeed in the organization?

RB: Yes, we need diversity because we want to tap into all the facets of what people with different backgrounds can bring to the table, but unless we find ways to ensure everyone feels included as well, the approach won’t be successful. Historically, when organizations have brought in diverse talent but that talent hasn’t felt included, they tend to leave the company. The most successful approach lies in creating an environment where all people in the organization feel they can thrive, their colleagues respect them, their contributions are valued, and they feel included in the way the organization works.

GBA: Focusing specifically on gender D&I, what does the picture look like in the financial services sector?

RB: Financial services is a sector that has quite a few challenges in this space. When we talk to financial services companies, they often realize that a lot more needs to be done around gender D&I, but they struggle with knowing where to focus their efforts and implementing effective programs and policies. Mercer’s research has shown that across many financial services organizations, there tends to be very strong female representation among support staff and entry level positions, but as you go up the levels of the organization the proportion of women falls away dramatically. At the very top, we see many financial services companies struggling to get even 20 percent of their leadership positions held by women. So it’s very clear to many in the sector that a change needs to be made, and that’s why we’re working with the GBA to help shed more light on how financial services institutions can drive greater gender D&I – especially at the top.

GBA: What do you consider to be the main barriers to getting greater representation of women in the c-suite?

RB: The World Economic Forum did some research a couple of years ago on this very question, and they found that company culture was one of the main barriers that women cited. The culture at the top of many organizations is very male oriented and doesn’t necessarily respect the skills and competencies that women can bring into the C-suite. That environment is one that a lot of women – and increasingly men, as well – struggle to feel comfortable in.

Another barrier cited was the issue of work-life balance: A lot of those top positions are very much about the work and don’t enable the people who are filling the roles to have much of a life outside the office or time with their families. A lot of women say they are not prepared to accept this, so finding ways of improving that balance is key to getting more female representation at the top.

Women also talk about not seeing many role models who can make a C-suite role seem achievable – in an “If she can make it, then I can make it” sort of way. Where there are female role models, not very many of them have done it in a way that doesn’t strictly mirror how the men have done it, so it can seem very challenging for many women for whom that path simply isn’t an option. They need to see more women in these roles who really look like them.

It also seems to me that a lot of senior male leaders are not necessarily sure about how to advance female talent into the c-suite, nor see it as a priority.  However they can play a major role in terms of providing women with opportunities to advance by sponsoring top female talent, mentoring, making sure that women’s contributions are recognized and supporting them to put themselves forward for promotions for line management roles, etc.

GBA: How many of these barriers are exogenous to the financial services sector vs. specific to the sector?

RB: Of course there are still a number of structural barriers in society that are making it difficult for women to progress, but the financial services sector also has its own specific challenges. One of the things we see financial services companies struggle with, in particular, is being able to offer access to flexible working arrangements and technology that drives the ability to work more flexibly. This is perhaps part of a bigger barrier we see in this sector, specifically, which is a more conservative working culture overall. In other industries, for example, people work from home frequently, use video calls instead of having face-to-face meetings and maybe don’t have to travel as much. We call this “smart working” and it is a ”win-win” for the organization and the employee. Of course, not all financial services organizations are the same, but these are things the sector needs to be aware of and address if it wants to help enable more women to rise through the ranks.

GBA: What do you consider the main opportunities to get greater representation of women in the C-suite?

RB: The biggest opportunity is for more companies to recognize the kind of leadership skills and competencies that are increasingly needed in organizations today and that will be required in organizations of the future. These are the “emotional intelligence” skills and competencies that will help these organizations innovate, attract and retain talent and get closer to their customers. Women tend to possess these skills and competencies at high levels and as we see this being recognized, so we will see more women being promoted into leadership positions and into the C-suite.

There is also a fantastic opportunity for organizations to get access to the Women’s Market. It’s very clear from the stats that we’ve all seen that there’s enormous potential in the Women’s Market for financial services, and yet we’re not seeing enough women come through to the C-suite, which could really help organizations unlock the potential of this market.

GBA: As part of our strategic partnership, Mercer will be the Knowledge Partner for a new GBA Working Group.  Can you tell us about the focus of the Working Group?  

RB: The Working Group will focus on women in leadership – supporting institutions to get and retain women in c-suite roles. By starting with an initial diagnostic, members will be able to assess and benchmark how well they are doing and decide where they need to focus their efforts. Throughout the course of the Working Group, members will design tailored action plans so that they walk away prepared to tackle the most pressing challenges that their organization faces.  Each webinar will combine theory and practice and, along with expert input from Mercer, we’ll leverage insights from GBA members directly.

GBA: Who is this Working Group most relevant for?

RB: We aim to recruit leaders from both Women’s Market teams as well those from human resources and talent management.  What I’ve discovered in talking to many different financial services organizations is that they are often quite siloed in terms of departments talking to each other about their D&I initiatives. Sometimes leadership development doesn’t talk to the business areas, and neither are talking to their D&I colleagues, and so forth. We want to get everyone thinking and talking about this together so that they can understand what the institution’s current position is and what actions they can take to move the needle. A unified effort is the only way to effectively develop women in leadership in their organizations.

GBA: What other ways will Mercer work with GBA during this partnership?

RB: We plan to support the entire objective of the GBA, which is getting women greater access to financial services. Developing women’s representation within the financial services sector is a key lever for that. Very specifically, more and more financial services organizations are thinking about how they can become better employers for women so that they can attract and retain the talent they need, but they don’t know exactly how to do it. So we’re very excited to be working together on producing a “how-to” guide for financial services organizations to become employers of choice for women. We’re also very happy to help GBA develop D&I content for the 2019 All-Stars Academies as well as the 2019 GBA Summit.

GBA: How did you first hear about the GBA,and why did you want to work with us?

RBI heard about the GBA from my colleague Nigel Carter, who is the Head of the Financial Services practice within Mercer. When he realized D&I was a key part of what you were looking to work on, he reached out to me. GBA is attractive to Mercer because you have a hugely impressive list of organizations that you work with as members. You also have very important and ambitious goals in the area of women in leadership, so we thought it would be great for us to work with you on this. It’s of course a great way for us to raise our profile in the financial services sector, but the broadest reason we’re investing in this is we believe it’s part of our mission to help the business world become more diverse and inclusive. Financial services is a major sector, and we see it as very important to drive more female representation within organizations globally. We’re very happy to be working with you to achieve our common goals.

This Working Group will take place from March 2019 through the end of the year. Members interested in participating should email Hilary.Nichols@gbaforwomen.orgto nominate participants and inquire about next steps.