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Tonia Bottoms

Practice Management > Diversity and Inclusion

Financial Services Can 'Do Better' on Diversity: Pershing Counsel

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“The representation of someone who looks like you is literally the embodiment of possibility,” says Tonia Bottoms, a managing director and senior managing counsel for BNY Mellon’s Pershing, in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

She was talking about the ways in which financial services can become a more racially diverse and inclusive industry.

“While financial services has done a good job of approaching gender diversity issues, we still have a lot of work to do on ethnic diversity issues,” says Bottoms, a diversity and inclusion advocate for her firm.

By her presence and word, the attorney, who is Black, has “an opportunity to help drive change,” as she frames it.

Participating in BNY Mellon’s initiatives and strategies, Bottoms and her perspective — indeed, her voice — get attention.

“Is an action we’re talking about really going to address the intention that we’re trying to solve for?” she cites as an example.

Bottoms’ influence is also felt in her role as a diversity and inclusion public speaker.

In the interview, she discusses barriers to entering the financial services industry that clearly impede the effort to advance diversity.

Consistently focusing on raising awareness about opportunities will help attract more diverse individuals, she stresses.

“It all goes back to increasing representation” among “Blacks, Latinx, Asians, women, LGBTQ,” she says.

Boosting the number of female financial advisors across the industry is obviously a good thing for firms and clients alike.

In fact, 29% of women under 30 who already invest said that having a female advisor “would influence them to invest more.” 

That’s among the findings of a 2021 BNY Mellon study, “The Pathway to Inclusive Investment: How Increasing Women’s Participation Can Change the World.”

Further, as Bottoms points out, “It’s important to see women in more prominent roles as leaders in financial services.”

Her company’s senior leadership team is “fairly gender diverse,” she says. But ethnic diversity is “a place where we have an opportunity to do better.”

Still, the firm won two 2021 ThinkAdvisor LUMINARIES industry recognition awards for thought leadership and education in the area of diversity and inclusion.

In her capacity as a lawyer, Bottoms addresses all aspects of Pershing’s retirement business and delivers guidance about the oversight of retirement and education savings products.

Before joining the firm in 2010, she was senior counsel at Bank of America Merrill Lynch for 11 years.

ThinkAdvisor recently held a phone interview with Bottoms, who was speaking from Jersey City, New Jersey, where Pershing is based.

She talked about obstacles she herself has faced professionally because of her gender and race and the opportunities that have accompanied them.

Offering an optimistic forecast for the expansion of diversity and inclusion industry-wide, Bottoms sees heightened, action-oriented progress by “making sure that what we say is then backed up and demonstrated in what we do.”

Here are excerpts from our interview:

THINKADVISOR: Why does the financial services industry struggle so with diversity and inclusion, especially with diversity among financial advisors?

TONIA BOTTOMS: While financial services has done a good job of approaching gender diversity issues, we still have a lot of work to do on ethnic diversity issues.

Some of these relate to representation — being able to see yourself as having an opportunity.

What exactly is the “work” that you say needs to be done?

As an industry, we really need to do a better job of explaining [the opportunities] to people who might be interested: talent that’s already in the industry, people coming out of school looking for opportunity. 

There are many different ways you can work in financial services.

Is this largely a matter of consciousness raising?

Raising consciousness helps the industry lay out the framing for why we think financial services should be attracting more diversity and why it’s important.

It all goes back to increasing representation so there are active examples of diverse leaders in different places.

We need to have that because financial services serves a broad population. It’s really important that our industry reflects the community that we serve and that people see choice and opportunity for growth.

What are the barriers to entry?

There [can be] barriers that relate to the ability to have access to training or access to the technology that supports the training.

There are steps that we can take as an industry that might go that extra mile and not just say, “We need people working [in it].”

We need to figure out how to support more people who can move forward and have access [including] being able to attend school or take a class. 

But why aren’t racially diverse people more attracted to working in financial services? Do they think the industry has a bad reputation because of gender discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits or the “Wolf of Wall Street” movie, or TV series that depict bad apples in financial services?

Certainly having awareness about the broad scope of the industry [implies] great opportunity. [Financial services] is not necessarily what you see in a movie or on a television show.

Awareness is key. And having diverse individuals — Black, Latinx, Asian, women, LGBTQ — who have representation, people who look like [potential candidates], is a huge component.

The representation of someone who looks like you is literally the embodiment of possibility.

Why do you think more women aren’t attracted to working in financial services?

There are some factors that intersect: Women have a lot of obligations in the home, to family and in the community. 

But that’s not the only issue. It’s important to see women as leaders in more prominent roles in financial services.

What else is needed to raise the proportion of women in the industry?

A huge piece is how companies [establish] a culture that creates opportunity for everyone and where people of [a variety of] needs can thrive. 

How do you do that with flexibility? In the pandemic, when everyone was, kind of, forced to be at home, we saw how we could be productive and how that environment offered flexibility and balance for [both] men and women.

Part of your job is as BNY Mellon’s Pershing diversity and inclusion advocate. How do you advocate as the voice for this both within the firm and externally? 

I’m able to influence with my presence. I have the ability to advocate from the perspective of being engaged in leading and engaged in dialogue about how we’re going to approach initiatives and strategies.

I have an opportunity to help drive change.

I’m also able to be a leader with my ability to be in public spaces as an influencer, as a woman who is Black and is an attorney.

How else do you advocate within the firm?

I’m able to act as a leader in how we’re challenging ourselves: Are we considering all perspectives, or are we looking at [an issue] from a narrower point of view?

Please elaborate.

Is an action we’re talking about really going to address the intention that we’re trying to solve for?

Are you a lone voice as the firm’s diversity and inclusion advocate?

I’m not. We certainly have voices in addition to mine. We absolutely have the commitment of our senior leadership and our associates around diversity, equity and inclusion.

We stress that everyone has a role to play. No one has a monopoly on this work. We’re asking everyone to contribute.

We have expectations for how we’re working to support diversity, equity and a more inclusive culture within our firm. 

Is BNY Mellon’s leadership team mainly male?

It’s fairly gender diverse. 

What about the team’s ethnic diversity?

This is a place where we have an opportunity to do better. 

There isn’t a significant number of ethnically diverse leaders within financial services. So people of ethnic diversity in more senior leadership roles isn’t happening as frequently.

Has BNY Mellon made progress in increasing diversity and inclusion overall during the last few years?

Yes. we’ve made progress, and we still have work to do. There’s always an opportunity for us to continue to do better. 

Our leadership is really making sure that we’re looking at diversity, equity and inclusion in a global way since we have a global footprint. 

When you discuss ethnicity and diversity, are you including people of Hispanic heritage?

We talk about different ethnic groups, and that would of course include people of Latin descent.

There’s representation in the industry of Black and Latinx financial advisors and planners.

[But in terms of] creating attraction and opportunity, there’s so much more than the role of advisor or planner.

If you open the lens a little more, in addition to having planners and advisors, there are people helping to support them, working to help create product and working to enhance technology. 

In your own career, have you ever encountered any obstacles or hurdles because of your gender or race?

Yes. I’ve had experiences where, in the role I was in at the time, the feeling was that the person was reacting or responding in a certain way because I’m a woman, or a Black woman.

When you encounter those types of situations, you have to understand who you are and that you do belong in the conversation, in the role. It goes back to having a voice.

Is there a positive side to those experiences?

You can use them as opportunities to not just reinforce for yourself who you are but also to learn more and be able to drive and propel yourself forward.

What’s an example of when you felt you weren’t being treated fairly because of your gender or ethnicity?

Sometimes people will underestimate you. But that‘s fine, because it gives you the opportunity to demonstrate who you are, what you’re capable of, what your expertise is and to continue to push forward.

To what extent have mentors helped you?

I’ve been very blessed in my career. I’ve had great mentors and sponsors who have helped to guide and direct me.

They’ve used their voices to talk about me when I haven’t been in the room to be able to advocate for myself.

You’re co-chair of IMPACT, one of BNY Mellon’s several multicultural employee resource groups. Previously, you led the Black Leadership Forum, which is part of IMPACT. What’s IMPACT’s mission?

We seek to be an opportunity for associates as well as leadership of different backgrounds and nationalities to [show] how [this diversity] impacts our culture and the bank’s [business]. 

We host many educational programs and opportunities for associates to learn more.

What are some issues the group discusses? 

[For example], we talk about representation and how we [can] attract more [diverse] talent so that our company [demonstrates that] our values reflect the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as those being integrated into everything we do: how we engage with clients, with the community and how do business.

What do you see when it comes to the industry’s level of diversity and inclusion in the future?

I think this feels different. [I see more] action: making sure that what we say is then backed up and demonstrated in what we do.

We’re going to see the numbers change. We’ll see increased representation. 

We’re going to see the culture keep evolving and becoming more inclusive and attractive so others can see themselves thriving, being leaders and having opportunities for long, successful careers in financial services.

I know it’s a journey. But that’s what I believe we can achieve.

Your firm won 2021 ThinkAdvisor LUMNIARIES awards for Thought Leadership and Education in the areas of diversity and inclusion. Do such industry recognition awards have value in general?

Yes, because the industry is looking internally at itself, trying to be collaborative and recognizing what’s being done by firms. 

By sharing experiences and successes, we help each other.

These awards also shed light by speaking to firms who may be in a different place in their journey by helping to elevate their view and understanding about [opportunity and change].