The value of gender-diverse role models

Brie P. Williams, Head of Practice Management, State Street Global Advisors

Anniversaries have a way of reminding us about what and who we truly value in our lives. With International Women’s Day on the calendar this month, I’m reminded of colleagues who have influenced my own career. More importantly, I’m reminded of the crucial role that we all play as mentors, coaches and sponsors, helping to groom a diverse talent pool throughout our industry.

I stand on the shoulders of many special colleagues because of the wisdom and constructive feedback they have so generously offered over the years—whether I’ve wanted to hear it or not. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier to see how a balance of constructive criticism, hard-earned praise, and a dose of reality shapes a career.

Career crossroads are especially key moments when a mentor is a critical sounding board, when a coach helps you move out of your comfort zone, and when a sponsor pounds the table to advocate on your behalf. These are different roles with different purposes, and each of us can benefit from these roles at different points in our careers.

But none of this happens in a vacuum. The way we interact as colleagues, the opportunities we see as team members, and the hiring choices we make as managers are influenced by corporate culture. Until recently, the gender gap in financial services had quietly reinforced a culture of exclusion, keeping career-advancement opportunities just beyond reach for many women. We’ve seen much progress in creating a more gender-balanced and inclusive environment, but there is still work to be done.

The Economics of Gender Balance

Why does gender matter? In short, it is an economic driver. If women’s economic participation was equal to that of men, it would add US$28 trillion to global GDP1. Research also shows that greater gender diversity throughout a firm can create greater cognitive diversity and lead to better outcomes—for investors and for our industry2.

This is not a call for quotas but for an even playing field, including at the most senior levels of leadership. It sends an important message in recruiting and retaining talent: Gender diversity is a strategic priority not only because it is the fair thing to do, but because companies with diverse leadership tend to perform better3.

We know that seeing truly is believing—there is real power in seeing yourself reflected in a role model. With more women in leadership roles, a rising generation of financial services professionals can envision what’s possible and be inspired by their accomplishments.

The Fearless Girl statue is a relatable and aspirational symbol. I am inspired by her; I see in her the faces of female colleagues who are confident and successful, owning the trail they blaze. Today she stands in front of a “living wall” that symbolizes real advancement and the importance of continuing to improve gender diversity across all levels of leadership. It honors this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, which is about building a gender-equal world. #EachforEqual reflects how our individual achievements add up to real societal changes.

In our own industry, we know that true progress takes significant commitment. This includes State Street Global Advisors’ work in engaging directly with companies that do not have women on their board and using the firm’s proxy voting power to effect change. Already, within the first three years of this work, we have begun to see results:

  • More women on boards: 681 of 1,384 companies went from all-male boards to at least one female director4
  • All S&P 500 companies now have female board membership5

The progress we’ve seen is echoed beyond the boardroom:

  • More women in leadership positions: Increased across all levels (entry to C-Suite)6
  • Greater commitment to gender diversity: Increased from 74% to 87% (2015 to 2019)7

These are great strides in the right direction, but they are only the beginning of the journey. We must continue to look in the mirror and evaluate how our own policies impact important issues, such as diversity and sustainability.

Understanding and solving the gender imbalance will take more than just acknowledging it. We need to ask the tough questions, to push for personal reflection by individuals and to push for organizational accountability in firms, including:

  • Are there policies and protocols that we can begin to implement today to help recruit, hire, coach, and mentor women for greater inclusion?
  • Where can we introduce bias interrupters to tear down real and perceived roadblocks?
  • Do we have programs to provide opportunities for junior- to mid-career individuals to work directly with firm leadership on strategic projects?
  • How will senior management improve transparency and communication to foster a gender-balanced culture?

Gender targets are one dimension of progress, but they are insufficient on their own. Firms must actively manage the change required to eliminate biases that hinder progress.

Click here to read the entire article, which first appeared on December 18 on the SPDR blog.

Photo Credit: WOCinTech Chat via Flickr Creative Commons


1McKinsey Global Institute 2017.

2Marcus Noland, Tyler Moran, and Barbara Kotschwar, “Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence from a Global Study,” Peterson Institute for International Economics, WP-13 (February 2016).

3McKinsey & Company, “Delivering through diversity.”

4State Street Global Advisors Asset Stewardship Team. As of February 2020, 681 of companies out of the 1,384 identified by State Street Global Advisors responded by adding a female director. In the US, 495 of boards of directors added a female member, while 33 and 13 made this change in Canada and the UK, respectively. In Japan, 101 boards added a female director and 30 added a female director in Australia,

5State Street Global Advisors Asset Stewardship Team, as of 2019.

62019 McKinsey & Company and Leanin.Org Women in the Workplace Study.

72019 McKinsey & Company and Leanin.Org Women in the Workplace Study. Measured by the question “How much of a priority is gender diversity for your company,” where percent of HR leaders answered “A very important priority.” The 2015 survey question was phrased “Where does gender diversity rank on the CEO’s strategic agenda,” and these managers answered “Top 3 or Top 10 priority.”


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