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Finance execs make the business case for diversity

October 7, 2016 | By

(Pictured from left: Tujuanna Williams, vice president and chief D&I officer at Fannie Mae; Egbert L. J. Perry, chairman of Fannie Mae; and Charmaine Brown, D&I advisor.)

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) as a business imperative was topical at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) Capital Markets 2016 annual meeting held Sept. 26-27 in Washington, D.C.

The meeting brings together leaders in the financial services industry from across the country. Its first-ever D&I panel was the culmination of several years of hard work and focus by SIFMA’s Diversity Committee, say event organizers.

The panel was chaired by Erika Irish Brown, global head of D&I at Bloomberg L.P.

During the 55-minute session, about 250 attendees heard from panelists Egbert L. J. Perry, chairman of Fannie Mae; Pete Rodriguez, managing director and chief administrative officer for Asset Servicing with BNY Mellon; Chris Lewis, principal, general counsel at Edward Jones; Suni Harford, managing director, regional head of markets for North America Citigroup; and Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell (D-AL).

Driving Change

The panelists touched on the rapidly changing demographic landscape and the business case to actively respond to this opportunity.

Sewell, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, told the audience, “The success of our nation’s financial sector hinges on its most important asset  —  our people,” noting that diversity encompasses not only ethnic and gender diversity but diversity of “experience and voices.”

Sewell pointed to 2011 Forbes research that called diversity “critical to driving the creation and execution of new products, services, and business processes.”

“If you keep hiring the same people, you’re going to get the same views,” notes Lewis. “You won’t see innovation. You won’t see change.”

Proving the Case

Building the business case for diversity requires good data, says Harford, who added that internal data helped her to document “potential problems in the system” with regard to retaining female executives.

“Knowing why women leave the firm through documented and tracked exit interviews can combat the presumption that they all leave to stay home,” she says. “The reaction is different if you have data that shows they left to go to a competitor.”

“You can also use data to track the velocity of promotion for women versus men, as well as the rate at which high potential female talent leaves versus their high potential male counterparts,” she adds. “Having that data sets the stage for implementing change.”

Executive Sponsorship

The panelists agreed that D&I initiatives need to be prioritized at the executive level.

“The message has to be delivered from the top, and it has to cascade down to the troops,” says Fannie Mae’s Egbert Perry, adding diversity “has been in Fannie Mae’s DNA for the better part of two decades.”

Minorities make up 53 percent of Fannie Mae’s 7,000-person workforce, he says. Forty-six percent of Fannie Mae’s workforce is female.

“We are not just checking a box. We understand the importance of diversity and inclusion,” he says. “We see it as a very clear business advantage.”

Broadening the Conversation

While diversity is making inroads in the financial industry, the panelists said there’s still room to improve.

“You won’t achieve pipeline diversity unless you are intentional about it,” says Lewis. “While D&I is becoming the norm for large companies, there are medium and small companies too, where we may not see progress at the same pace.”

The panel pointed to incentivizing D&I. “We have to have goals without setting quotas, and measure people on achieving those goals,” suggests Lewis.

“Legislation and [public] policy should incentivize the world you’d like to see,” says Sewell.

Panelists noted that when D&I initiatives are present, the supply chain responds in a positive way. “It’s not just about your immediate workforce; it’s about who you hire to supply your product,” says Sewell.

The D&I panel received high praise from attendees, including members of SIFMA’s board of directors and SIFMA’s leadership team. Audience member Emily Pitts, principal of diversity and inclusion for Edward Jones, called the SIFMA panel “an important milestone.”

“Diversity should be part of the conversation, and not just an afterthought,” she says. “It was great to see the diversity conversation broaden this year at SIFMA.”

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