Kobre & Kim’s Swette on gender diversity, returning to work and intersectionality

What inspired you to become a diversity advocate for the financial services industry?

I have pretty much always been in the legal profession. I was a political science and legal studies major in college. I was a paralegal for a couple of years after law school, and then eventually went to law school in Boston. I have practised for about ten years now.

I have been at my current firm for about three years and was recently promoted to principal, which is partner in training.

Law is similar to finance, in the sense that it has traditionally been a male dominated field. But what is exciting is that, like finance, it is changing and we are seeing more women get promoted.

Visible or not, all facets of diversity must be addressed

I am also a woman of colour and I am a mother, and navigating a very competitive and demanding field while also raising your family is not for the faint of heart. This is why programmes such as The Diversity Project’s Future Female Fund Managers Programme exist – because there are unique challenges to being a woman and working in a demanding and male-dominated field. I am glad to see there are certain support mechanisms in place to increase representation for people like me.

What are some of the nuances that women seeking financial advice or services experience?

We are seeing that women are a fast-growing segment of wealthy and high net-worth individuals and business leaders across the globe, so the landscape is definitely changing.  

An example that comes to mind, and something I have been reading a lot about lately, is doctors. We hear a lot about women who go to the doctor, and they are either misdiagnosed or undertreated in a medical situation because of gender bias in the sector; they might be talking to someone who is very experienced in the medical field but that person is missing cues because they have natural blind spots.

The same goes for the legal and the financial industry; if you are talking to someone who is providing you a service, you want them to hear you and to understand your point of view. You want them to be empathetic to your wants and needs, and to the types of challenges you face.

As the landscape changes, and women become a greater proportion of wealthy individuals in the world holding assets as C-suite diversity improves, people who represent them really need to align their thinking in a way that accommodates their wants and needs.

One way to do that is to have more women in the room where strategic decisions are being made, in terms of how to invest assets or to protect clients.

The future of work for women in finance

Also, if you consider the needs and wants of a woman that has a family, that is one nuance, but there are so many others, such as the needs of women with disabilities.

Sometimes, it is just nice to have someone who has a similar background to and who can relate to you. That is why representation matters.

Is mentorship a good way to improve diversity across businesses?

For me, it has been important in an industry that can be unforgiving to women to have somebody to look up to and think to myself, “they did it, so I can do it too”. Just having an example that can guide you is a big help.

When I had my first child, I asked my mentors when I should tell people, how I should tell them, how I should offload some of my work, and how I should position myself so that I could get back into the fold without taking too much on straight away.

I was terrified about coming back after six months. Will people trust me? How are they going to integrate me? Having people to talk to who have had similar experiences, who can give you sound advice and encouragement, is so important. People would reassure me that this is a drop in the ocean in terms of my career and that I have so much more to give.

For me personally, I have a lot of great mentors at my firm who have been encouraging and supportive, and who I can really rely on to help with issues like this.

I am still navigating this new terrain of balancing motherhood with work, and having the perspectives of people who have been in the industry for 20 years rather than ten is invaluable.

Why is the wealth management industry still struggling to retain female talent?

My understanding is that these industries are incredibly time consuming and demanding, and often require works on nights and weekends, which can be intimidating for someone who is starting a family.

Often in the financial and legal industries, we see increasing representation at a junior level but then at some point it plateaus and peters off. This could be for a number of reasons, but I suspect it is the demanding nature of the job and the perception it is incompatible with family life.

Aviva Investors’ Versey: ‘You cannot say ‘the talent does not fit the role’

There are ways to solve this problem, such as better leave packages and more support for women so that, they can stay late if they want to, but it is not a decision they are forced to make.

I think there are some industries like finance and law that tend to attract women and men at the same rate, but retention is a problem.

What advice would you give to companies looking to improve their gender diversity?

There are multiple components to this whole equation. Getting the numbers up is one part, but the other part is inclusion. This is not just having people in the room; this is including their point of view and treating them as valued members of the team.

Anecdotally, I commonly hear a complaint within my mentorship circle that a lot of women will make a point during a meeting and it will not get heard, then a man will make the same point and everybody will agree. A lot of men are trying to solve around this now by attributing the idea and redirecting the credit, but sometimes it is easy to get lost in a room full of men with strong points of view. There are little things like this which can be addressed.

What we are also seeing now is that diversity is moving beyond a choice, with NASDAQ-listed companies now requiring specific representation on the boards of its listed companies.

Companies can no longer get around this. It is no longer something that people are doing just to be a better corporate citizen – it is an industry requirement.

We all know the benefits diversity brings from a business perspective, so now, it is time for companies to put their money where their mouth is. If you are not integrating women across all levels of the corporate ladder, you are going to fall behind.

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