WIF UK Summit – Activism and advocacy will diversify financial services

Women have to be the change they want to see in the financial services industry

The Women in Finance Summit UK, a leading financial services summit, was a call to action for the financial services industry to create more female leaders, where it’s women who must move the needle, said the speakers.

Workforce diversity aside, they agreed that firms must act as changemakers in proving their authenticity about diversity and inclusion (D&I) externally and reach more diverse customers.

Sponsored by Aviva, BNP Paribas, and J.P Morgan, the summit began with opening remarks from Sakinah Adebola Abdul-Ibiyeye, Mentor at professional tech network, Black and Brilliant AI Accelerator, and Lola Ogunkoya, Founder of Black Women in Finance, a financial community.

Women as activists in the financial services workforce

Speaking on the theme of female self-empowerment and empowering others in the industry, Ogunkoya, who works in one of the most “traditional areas” of finance, explained how she wasn’t sure if she could wear her hair naturally at the start of her career. As a leader today, she now intentionally wears her hair in an afro to encourage other Black women to come to work authentically. She added that as a junior professional, she would have benefitted from seeing more women do this.

From the outset, it was clear that the speakers weren’t interested in empty sentiments about making financial services more inclusive. This was most clear during Ama Ocansey’s presentation called ‘Is Finance Racing Forward, or Regressing, with Diversity & Inclusion?’.

The Head of Diversity and Inclusion at BNP Paribas said that women should be diversity and inclusion activists and take inspiration from the suffragettes to do it.

While Ocansey acknowledged that the suffragettes represented the interests of white middle-class women, she said female leaders can embody this activism for the modern-day via bold, authentic, and reassuring leadership to advance diverse groups of women.

Ocansey explained that reassuring leadership is an attribute of inclusive leadership and gave an example of how New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reassured the country’s Muslim population of her allyship following the Christchurch Mosque shootings. Ardern’s example should be embraced by workplace leaders responding to traumatic incidents that impact other minorities, too, such as the trauma Black employees felt after George Floyd’s murder.

Ocansey advocates for “courageous allyship from men“, believing it is needed to accelerate diversity and inclusion in firms, where those in the C-suite must “talk openly and confidently” and indicate “what’s acceptable and unacceptable.” She acknowledged that education is needed for this to happen where firms must “embolden middle management” to see diversity and inclusion as integral to their job.

Ocansey then explained the most effective way to implement diversity and inclusion, which she called harnessing “the concept of transformation.”

Diversity and inclusion must be transformative rather than transactional, she said while referring to an incident at her son’s school where he was subjected to racist bullying.

Ocansey said that punishment is transactional, while a transformative approach would be teaching the bullies about colonial history or employing more diverse teachers in the school.

Applying this same approach in business would involve transforming systems, reviewing business norms, practises, and culture where it shouldn’t be left to HR to do on top of their day jobs.

The Women in Finance Summit conversations later shifted from internal workforce diversity and inclusion to customer inclusion as technological advancements drive greater accessibility to financial products.

Empowering diverse customers through technological innovation

During the financial services summit in a later panel discussion entitled ‘The Wins & Challenges with Democratizing Finance’, one speaker called the democratisation of finance “lowering barriers for access to financial tools to help life journeys and better financial education.”

Another speaker said it meant introducing products and services adapted to the “real needs” of customers. Both agreed that democratising finance had improved inclusion for marginalised customers.

During the session, delegates were reminded that cash transactions have advanced from sending a cheque in the post to sending money digitally in micro-seconds in only twenty-five years. Ben Thomas, CEO of TiPJAR, a cashless tipping business, said this proved that the democratisation of finance and customer empowerment has already started.

Aided by technology, the democratisation of finance had lowered barriers to investment for groups that were shut out before, said Meghna Mukerjee, Strategic Advisor, Wealth Management at Aite-Novarica Group. She added that the rise of fintech firms had spearheaded this via easy-to-use products.

She also said that customers could invest in these financial tools with little money, as there aren’t as many barriers to access compared with more traditional methods like savings accounts.

The speakers agreed that the democratisation of finance is an example of financial inclusion, bringing more people into the opportunities that financial products offer to enhance wealth and quality of life, where previously it was only in the hands of the privileged few.

The following presentation also proved that financial services firms could advocate for diversity and inclusion as institutions.

Activism and impact from financial services firms

Matt Williamson, VP of Global Financial Services at digital consultancy Mobiquity, said banks should shape themselves for future digital purpose around ESG, empowering more communities to “grow into financial inclusion”, benefiting society.

Procurement is a perfect example of where firms can accelerate purpose by directing funds towards diverse suppliers, leading to more job creation for underrepresented groups.

Williamson reminded delegates that when customers buy a product or a service from a bank, they are more likely to purchase if they believe the firm’s commitments to diversity and inclusion are genuine.

For businesses searching for a way to be genuine about their D&I strategies, he suggested that authenticity is a good place to start. This includes making these commitments part of everyday activities and part of the organisation’s DNA from “day one”, which stops it from being tokenistic.

This approach could lead to more sales and recommendations from millennials and Gen Zs, who prefer to engage with a business they can identify with.

For financial institutions to call themselves sustainable, Williamson said they must be introspective, where simply “not being involved in fossil fuels” is merely an investment strategy and does not equate to being environmental.

Firms had to do more and “look back down the food chain,” said Williamson referencing a large multinational firm that uses the heat generated from its data centre in Sweden to power the local town. This, he added, is an example of the changes firms can make along the supply chain, resulting in a positive impact.

The closing keynote session called ‘What Women Founders Want’ explored the power of female entrepreneurs as advocates for democratising funding access for female-led enterprises.

Female entrepreneurs stand up for funding accessibility

Speaker Nina Mohanty, CEO and Co-Founder of Bloom Money, a financial platform that helps migrant communities build wealth, said it is an interesting time to be a female fintech founder as there’s significant funding around. Yet, women still miss out, with only 2.3% of global venture capital funding going to them.

The female deficit in start-up funding was why fellow speaker Alex Daly helped set up a coalition of financial services organisations to lobby for greater female inclusion.

Daly, CEO and Founder of AA Advisors, a firm that raises capital in the alternatives industry, began her activism by speaking to the underlying investors of VC funds about whether they wanted their funds to go to female-led businesses. If they did, they needed to let fund managers know.

The next stage was to “set up one of the largest councils ever to be aggregated from the financial services sector to advise on this topic”, which was achieved with the help of her bank, RBS NatWest.

This became the Council for Investing in Female Entrepreneurs, where she is chairperson, an organisation made up of major banks, asset managers, consultants, advisors, and trade associations united in their desire to affect change in the industry.

If you enjoyed attending or reading about this financial services summit, you can find out about the upcoming Women in Finance Awards UK, please click here.

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