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Industry Spotlight > Women in Wealth

3 Ways to Address Our Industry's Gender Bias

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I have an idea: Let’s stop talking about Ken Fisher.

Instead, let’s start acting on the power dynamics that produced his crude remarks and related behavior in the business. While we have to call out bad behavior, and women can lean in all day long (and they do), the problems Fisher’s crass commentary exposed are not individual problems.

Turning the outcry over Fisher into a true tipping point for the finance sector is going to require structural change.

That sounds like a heavy lift, yet I know from personal experience that nothing is more energizing — for finance professionals and our clients —than moving money toward a more equitable society and benefiting from doing it.

In that spirit, here are three solutions we can all start working on right now.

  1. Hire and work with more women asset managers.

Not many people realize that fewer than 5% of asset management firms are owned by women (a key finding of a recent Knight Foundation Study). That imbalance not only makes it harder to change sexist cultures, it also robs our economy of the particular perspectives women bring.

Women tend to evaluate investments differently — focusing less on cap size and more on management quality and longer-term projections, for example — and that can uncover a different set of opportunities and risks.

Research on how well women manage assets is thin, yet what we’ve learned so far suggests that women perform as well as or better than men — and diverse teams perform best of all. (In addition to the Knight study, see this earlier Morningstar research.)

If every fund had at least one female manager, that would make a huge difference. More would be better. Financial advisors can help make this happen by adding gender criteria to their due diligence checklist: Check a fund’s management and if you don’t find any women, ask why not.

Right now the imbalance is not on many people’s radar, and yet it’s easy enough to put it there. I am finding that significant change happens one conversation at a time.

  1. Advocate for policy change.

California has mandated that all publicly traded companies headquartered in the state include at least one female director by 2020, and other states are actively considering similar laws. We can support this movement.

I would love to say we don’t need mandates, yet without them, progress toward board diversification has occurred at a snail’s pace. The advantage isn’t just representation for more than 50% of the population; there’s also evidence that women tend to shift the culture of boards, prioritizing better governance and reining in overconfident CEOs.

You may be surprised at how effective speaking out on this issue can be: the investor voice reigns. My firm undertook an advocacy campaign promoting diversity on boards, starting with letters and following up with phone calls. We’re filing resolutions if we don’t get a response.

Mostly, though, we are hearing back from companies, and they want to talk about how to incorporate best practices for promoting diversity and inclusion within their organizations. For example, one company said they’ve been working on board diversification, and our letters of encouragement and resolution provided the impetus needed to add diversity and inclusion to the board agenda.

Another part of this gender equity effort is making sure more women are board-ready, which means advocating for more women in executive positions. (The advocacy group How Women Lead is doing great work on this.)

I’m convinced that in the coming decade diverse leadership will generate alpha, and brand risk from inequitable practices will be even greater.

  1. Listen to clients — and urge them to speak up.

When clients say they want something, the industry changes. I urge everyone who is not OK with the current culture of finance to use the power of their voice to ask for investment products that promote both women’s leadership and gender equality.

Clients who ask about diversity in leadership or about building a portfolio with a positive impact are telling you they want to act, and if they feel you are dismissive of their concerns or unable to help them, they will go elsewhere.

They’re paying fees — they are entitled to portfolios that meet their values. If you know of a product that would appeal to them but you don’t have access to it, ask for it.

Both advisors and clients can request new financial products. I know this method is effective: The Nia Global Solutions Equity Portfolio is available on many platforms because investors asked for it.

When clients don’t ask about gender equality, advisors can spark engagement — and broaching the topic is a way to forge deeper connections with clients.

One approach is to say, “I reviewed your portfolio and see you’re not invested in many companies with diverse leadership. That could be a risk. Do you want us to look at that?”

Millennials in particular will jump on the suggestion: this is what they want. They feel empowered and excited when their portfolio reflects their values and the world they want to see. Your clients will appreciate you for bringing up these topics.

Once clients see their money is making a change, they may keep pushing for more. Meanwhile, it’s up to us within the finance industry to act on a simple formula: invest with women; invest in women. That’s how we can bring more gender equity to our financial system and put the past behind us in a productive way.

Kristin Hull, Ph.D., is founder and CIO of Nia Impact Capital.