Respecting identity will bridge the diversity gap

The Women in Finance Awards’ Woman of the Year 2020 Marisa Hall discusses diversity in the investment sector and the importance of identity.

Companies need more comprehensive diversity policies that cover more than the “surface self” of gender, race and physical disability, believes Marisa Hall.

“There’s also the thinking and feeling self, which is your cognitive diversity,” she says. “Are you comfortable with risk? And then there’s the doing self. What’s your lived experience? By respecting every aspect of identity, you bridge that gap between those that are considered ‘diverse’ versus those who are not.”

Hall is an actuary and senior director at investment company Wills Towers Watson and co-heads the firm’s Thinking Ahead Institute, focused on mobilising capital for a sustainable future.

As the name suggests, the Institute identifies the big issues that the industry faces now and in the future and looks at ways to tackle any current issues. The research agenda covers topics on sustainable investing, organisational effectiveness, culture and diversity.

Hall mainly focuses on gaps in the market around sustainability. “That also brings in culture and diversity,” she explains. “To deliver value to clients, you need to have the culture that supports that. Part of that culture is diversity. As part of a thinking institution, we pride ourselves on being systems thinkers. So, it’s about connecting the dots and thinking about the world in loops, not lines – everything is connected.

“It is well to think in terms of diversity, but what about identity – who the person is? How do you achieve diversity beyond just thinking in terms of the need to hire a woman or ethnic minority?

“What the Thinking Ahead Institute does is bring together our 48 members, roughly half of whom are asset managers, and through deep analysis try and find long-term solutions to the problems faced by the industry.”

Woman of the Year

Hall was recognised for her work in financial services by being named Woman of the Year at the 2020 Women in Finance Awards. Like most events last year, it had to be held virtually.

While admitting to feeling fantastic and honoured by the win, Hall remains modest about her achievements. “It felt a little bit strange to receive an award for something that you just do and continue to do,” she admits. “The day after, it was back to work. But my kids were there, and it was a fantastic memory for them that you can achieve things when you work hard.”

Culture change

One reason why advancing D&I in the financial sector has been difficult is because organisations often have pre-conceived notions of what the right ‘fit’ looks like.  This often brings individuals from the same background, whether that be how they look, socio-economically or through the same lived experience. That said, Hall believes there is hope, having seen a shift away from the notion that an organisation’s culture cannot change.

“We’re slowly being turned on to the fact that culture is movable, and you can influence it,” she argues. “It’s no longer acceptable to just say ‘it’s the way we do things around here’. Organisations should now be questioning why and how they operate to foster more diverse and inclusive cultures.”

Several issues cloud the sector: one is perpetuating stereotypes by only putting the people in front of clients they expect to see. Another is having to prove that diversity adds value to an organisation.

“I would like to see more organisations articulating what diversity means to them, and that diversity is an important part of their identity and values,” Hall argues. “If you can’t prove that diversity changes your bottom line, does that mean you don’t do it?

“In my mentoring, I hear young professionals say that you have to bring a certain type of yourself to work. I had that for many years; I was a young Black woman from Trinidad working in the north, and people really struggled to understand where I came from and how I fit in.  

“It was strange to me, in the early years, that others were so keen to try and ‘place’ who I was.  It was as if I needed to fit into a set mould, only to be made worse that my surname had Scottish origins, which made things even more confusing. So, yes, the microaggressions that you receive every day can be incredibly off-putting and you either work through it, or you don’t.”

Hearts and minds

For Hall, achieving lasting change will involve hearts and minds. She highlights Jonathan Haidt’s book: The Righteous Mind, which talks about feelings first, socialisation second and thinking third. The idea is that, whereas people tend to believe that the way we think determines how we feel, it is the other way around.

“People get passionate about particular issues, and that influences the thinking,” she says. “This is why it important to share stories so that people can connect more with your own experience.”

“For example, when I lived up north, a neighbour said, ‘surely you’ve never experienced racism because your intelligence just shines through.’ Wrongly, that was their way of making a connection – to explain away my difference. Unfortunately, I’ve been told ‘you’re different, you’re the exception,’ a lot.”

She adds: “There’s an element of change that has to come from education. I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. You have to understand it for yourself.”

Identity can be fluid

Hall argues that systems of oppression – racism, sexism, colonialism – will continue to exist as long as they benefit individuals. Also, not speaking out helps to support this.

Hall cites the racist backlash that was unleashed when Sainsbury’s launched a series of Christmas adverts featuring a black family. It demonstrated why representation matters.

There is also, in her view, the problem of ‘what aboutisms’ where individuals try to marginalise the experience of others by highlighting other injustices.

“It’s not a competition; talking about one aspect of diversity such as race does not mean that there are not injustices experienced by other groups,” she points out. “Identity can be so fluid. Sometimes I’m a woman, sometimes I’m Black, sometimes I’m a mum. When I’m in the schoolyard, I’m not thinking, ‘I’m Black’ but a mum. To pick one aspect of your identity isn’t fair. This is why intersectionality matters.

“To address the ‘what about this’ we must respect that injustices exist, and help to fight the causes of anyone feeling underrepresented and repressed.”

Hall says she is looking forward to seeing diverse representation becoming the norm in the investment sector and elsewhere. She would like her children to grow up in a world where they aren’t defined by their race and are able to be judged by the value that they bring.
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