The "Fearless Girl" statue. (Photo: Federica Valabrega)

Is State Street committed to pay equity?

“Absolutely,” Brie Williams, head of practice management at State Street Global Advisors, said during the Raymond James Women’s Symposium last week.

The question is a valid one. Earlier this month, the firm behind the “Fearless Girl” statue agreed to pay $5 million to more than 300 women to settle allegations that it discriminated against hundreds of female executives by paying them less than male colleagues. A Labor Department audit uncovered the alleged discrepancies, according to a settlement agreement.

State Street Global Advisors installed its “Fearless Girl” statue challenging the “Charging Bull” statue that stands in the Financial District in New York City in March. The statue is, in part, meant to call attention to the existing gender disparity in leadership positions, particularly at the corporate board level.

Williams admits that the statue was not a “statement of accomplishment” within State Street.

“Unequivocally it is important and imperative that we be transparent with what our commitment is about,” she said. “We believe in equal pay for equal work. And we stand behind what Fearless Girl represents. She’s inspirational and aspirational. She was never meant to be a statement of accomplishment.”

The statue is also part of a broader initiative at SSGA. The same day it put up the statue, SSGA called on the more than 3,500 companies in the U.S., U.K. and Australia that it invests in to take intentional steps to increase the number of women on their corporate boards. As part of this, SSGA developed a list of guidelines to drive greater board gender diversity through active dialogue and engagement with company and board leadership.

The statue’s installation was timed to commemorate International Women’s Day and the one-year anniversary of the SSGA Gender Diversity Index ETF (SHE).

When it announced the gender diversity guidelines, State Street also said that it would use its proxy voting power to influence change if any company fails to take action to increase the number of women on its board.

According to Williams, State Street followed up on that warning.

“During the proxy season this year, we actually did use our no vote to 400 companies,” she said.

She also noted that 42 companies in particular have been making good progress, and two of them have already put women on boards – which, Williams said is “amazing.”

“As you know, changing board makeup is something that takes a little more time to go through as a process, so to have that immediate makeup shift happen was exciting,” she added.

State Street is also working on its own numbers internally.

“We knew full well that we are not perfect,” Williams said, adding that “we’re actively working on our numbers because we have the same call to action in terms of inspiring ourselves to do better.”

According to Williams, “it’s a lot more transparent within the walls of State Street now.”

She said that State Street knows how many leadership positions there are within each of its respective business units.

“My manager, my manager’s manager all have responsibility for what that number is in terms of percentage [of gender diversity] that we are supposed to strive for as a total organization,” she said, adding that “you cannot jump into a parity situation overnight. This does take time. This is serious change. But we’re ratcheting up the metrics each year.”

“Fearless Girl” – which is considered a piece of public art – was originally give a one-week permit at its current location. Based on the overwhelming response, Williams said that was extended to a couple of weeks, then a month and then a year.

She added that State Street is working with the city to see if it can renew the permit.

“We would love to see her extend her stay for another year, decades perhaps,” Williams said. We’ll have to continue to go through this process. Even the charging bull is a public art fixture and that goes through the same process, and that’s been there 25 years.”

She added that if that location falls through, the firm does have “plans B, C, D in the works.”

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