This post was also published on FinTECHTalents
Diversity and Inclusion has become a buzzword in corporate America, on trend with phrases like “’lean in’ and ‘having a seat at the table’. No matter how well-intentioned these phrases and buzzwords are, they have done little to progress true diversity and inclusion for women, minorities, and people of color in the workplace. If we’ve learned anything from the recent MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, it’s that Americans are divided on how to handle complex issues related to race, gender, and inclusion within the workforce. Politics aside, problems persist within corporate America despite the best efforts of D&I programs. Now, these uncomfortable topics are at the forefront of the national agenda and discussions within every business organization, including the financial services industry.
In a Diverse America, Words Do Matter
As if reshaping the diversity and inclusivity within an organization isn’t difficult enough, there are the external challenges every financial organization must grapple with in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. There is an immense amount of learning and unlearning that the industry must do in order to understand and meet Black customers where they are currently at. As journalist and author of the forthcoming book, When Crack was King, Donovan Ramsey stated in an interview with financial journalist Farnoosh Torabi, BLM is not about equality, it’s about equity.
Equality implies all people or customers are treated the same and given the same opportunities, but that excludes those that do not have the same access to resources, support, or information as their white (and often male) counterparts. In essence, “equality” alienates and excludes the very people FinTech companies and financial firms are trying so hard to include.
Ramsey explains that Black Americans want equity – the same access to resources, tools, and support as everyone else based on their individual needs. Why? Because the needs of a White, Black, or Latino man or woman are vastly different, and each group begins at various starting lines compared to their counterparts.
Yemi Rose, founder of digital financial wellness platform, OfColor, and another guest on Farnoosh’s Black Wealth Matters podcast series, pointed out just how critical semantics are in the financial services space. He calls the “racial wealth gap” a “chasm,” and likens it to “economic apartheid.”
When viewed through this lens, one can see just how powerful words are to the various demographics within the United States. Colouring within the careful lines of political correctness makes FinTech brands appear less inclusive and more bias to the very groups they wish to engage through their D&I initiatives.
Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives are Failing
From a broader perspective, D&I programs across various sectors have seen little progress since its inception in the late 1960s. The top technology companies in Silicon Valley – Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft – were still overwhelmingly white and male in 2019, reported WIRED, five years after the tech giants declared their commitment to diversifying its workforce.
The rest of corporate America hasn’t fared any better with their D&I programs either. The Center for Innovation showed that Black professionals are regularly left out of leadership positions, overlooked for promotions, or experience prejudice inside the workforce.
On the gender front, a 2018 Lend Academy study revealed that only 37% of employees in FinTech were women. That may feel like progress when compared to previous years, but in year 2020 it appears D&I programs have barely moved the needle at all.
“Diversity and inclusion [are] intentional,” said Theodora Lau, founder of Washington D.C.-based Unconventional Ventures and speaker at FTT Virtual North America. “The onus is on all of us to make the ecosystem better and more welcoming to different voices and faces.”
This is easier said than done. Changing a decades-old ecosystem takes more than a revised mission statement or additional funding. Lau calls many D&I programs “largely symbolic.”
“A few institutions have allocated a pool of funding for diversity push efforts, but if you look at the allocation, it amounts to a drop in the bucket, likely less than how much they spend on marketing compared to their balance sheet.”
Sheri Fitts of Women Rocking Wall Street Podcast views diversity in leadership as a primary challenge for the financial services sector. “Most of the individuals making decisions for promotions are predominately white men,” she says. “Those individuals have a series of unconscious biases which have never been checked. Then, this selection criteria is amplified by the risk-adverse nature of FinServ organizations.”
Where do we go from here?
In the grand scheme of things, five years of D&I initiatives is hardly enough time to see considerable shifts or progress within corporate America. However, as we all witnessed this year, American businesses are ready and more willing to hold these tough conversations and begin unraveling the complexities of race, gender, and diversity issues within its organizations.
This will take going above and beyond posting a black square on social media or issuing lip service about equality and opportunity for women in the workforce.
FinTech companies and financial organizations must conduct a thorough audit of the company culture and investigate how systemic racism, misogyny, bullying, and harassment exists within their current structure. And there is no denying that all these things still exist.
Next, comes the unlearning and re-education of the entire organization with the understanding that this is a long-term, multi-step, and very uncomfortable process.
Some organizations are doing this well, according to Fitts, with ongoing education in the leadership ranks related to unconscious bias. The key is to rotate responsibility around these discussions and not designate it to a single D&I official.
“We all have unconscious bias,” says Fitts. “Shifting the culture toward a more inclusive and diverse organization requires more than a singular title. It must be the leadership team as a whole. In some cases, this role of being a voice for change is a rotating responsibility.”
Leaders of every financial organization have an opportunity to show employees that addressing the real issues of systemic racism, gender bias, harassment, and so on is a priority by doing the work themselves. The company culture must prioritize education on these matters as it pertains to the workforce just as it does when training new hires on its sexual harassment policy (We can all remember watching at least one video at a job orientation that addresses what sexual harassment is at least once in our lives).
Finally, there is the question of offering more seats at the table and providing more equity. This is part of the challenging and uncomfortable task all FinTech companies and financial institutions face. The seat at the table is not just in board rooms or C-suite. It comes down to the employees, products, services, and marketing the company offers.
Throwing more money at the problem will no longer suffice. The work is truly complicated and uncomfortable for many. What’s more, real progress of any kind can take decades to bear fruit. The Civil Rights Movement continues on today. Women’s Suffrage went on for a century and yet, women still face harassment, discrimination and discrediting comments in the workplace even at the pinnacle of success.
If financial organizations are to create real change with its D&I programs, it’s imperative that they recognize the time, financial, cultural, and personal investment that it requires to move the needle.
“Time will tell if this does become a movement and lasting cultural change — or simply a moment,” says Lau.