In February, my colleague Tom Secaur wrote an important blog about the transformative events of 2020 that included a global pandemic, its ongoing fallout, and widespread protests bringing attention to long-ignored racial inequity. Tom wrote about efforts underway on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) especially in the business world, and he shared some recent survey results on how the financial services and asset management business is woefully behind in these areas. Compounding these existing issues, the pandemic has upended the workplace, the workforce, and derailed many efforts towards parity, for women and particularly women of color.
As a corollary to Tom’s blog on racial inequality, I wanted to shed light on women’s equality in the workplace. Every year, March is designated Women’s History Month by presidential proclamation. The month is set aside to honor women’s contributions in American history. In keeping with the celebration of Women’s History Month, the UN has declared March 8th International Women’s Day and the theme for 2021 is “Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” While this theme is focused on women’s role of leadership during the COVID crisis, it is relevant to all areas of power and career advancement. Women need to be at the table in business and government as we move through the pandemic, implementing rescue packages, developing policies and initiatives to rebuild the global economy, and making advancements towards a future where race and gender are not deciders for who should be making decisions.
It is difficult for women to achieve these leadership roles if they are consistently left behind. In the financial services industry, women continue to have a slower advancement; it is my personal experience that there is a subtle negative (and paternal) implication in the corporate world that women are the family caregivers, that they will require a ‘pause’ to have children and will need to have flexibility in the early family years. Requests such as working from home, adjusting schedules, or limiting travel are accommodated but often in practice are met with the tacit understanding that one is not committed or fully participating, thus slowing down opportunities for promotion. Women would argue that their work and overall contribution is as valuable and consistent as their male colleagues.
In 2021, it seems that this is an old narrative, and it has more to do with the decision makers and their ingrained biases, but the results speak for themselves: slowing down one’s career in the early phases seems to be a barrier for future success. Perhaps a small blessing from 2020 is that many apprehensions about flexibility of schedule and working from home have been resolved.
At the beginning of 2020, the representation of women in corporate America was trending in the right direction. This was most pronounced in senior management: between January 2015 and January 2020, representation of women in senior-vice-president positions grew from 23 to 28 percent, and representation in the C-suite grew from 17 to 21 percent. Women remained dramatically underrepresented—particularly women of color—but the numbers were slowly improving.
But they additionally found:
Despite gains for women in leadership, the “broken rung” was still a major barrier in 2019. For the sixth year in a row, women continued to lose ground at the first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted. As a result, women remained significantly outnumbered in entry-level management at the beginning of 2020—they held just 38 percent of manager-level positions, while men held 62 percent.
As a practical matter, it is not a surprise that women have been at the forefront of COVID-19 by virtue of the roles they play in the home and in the workforce—and as a result, they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Women are primarily the health care workers, teachers, housekeepers, or working in hospitality and entertainment. The UN estimates that 40% of all working women worldwide work in the hardest hit sectors. This puts women either on the frontline increasing the risk of getting COVID, or out of work where entire industries have been forced to close their doors. The many women who work from home in ‘office’ jobs or in roles such as teachers where they must adapt to remote learning programs, are not free of challenges.
In many households, it is the women who, in addition to their job responsibilities, are monitoring the at-home schooling, caring for elderly parents, keeping up with the chores, and managing the fight against COVID. In this COVID time, it means women essentially have two jobs (and one that goes unpaid). This is a highly stressful situation and has made women rethink their career choices. If women are forced to step off their career paths it will further slow down the rise of women in leadership positions. This effect is highlighted in McKinsey’s aforementioned study:
Before this year, [McKinsey’s] Women in the Workplace research had consistently found that women and men leave their companies at comparable rates. However, due to the challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis, as many as two million women are considering leaving the workforce. If these women feel forced to leave the workplace, we’ll end up with far fewer women in leadership—and far fewer women on track to be future leaders. All the progress we’ve seen over the past six years could be erased.
So the challenge continues for women in the asset management industry and in workplaces everywhere. It gives me great hope to see so many organizations in our industry focusing on DEI efforts but women must not be left out of the dialogue, particularly during the pandemic. If organizations take their commitment to diversity seriously, the acceptance of flexible work will open the door for women to be promoted through the ranks and ultimately into leadership roles. If not, much of women’s progress in the workplace may be erased.