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Column: Time to shout

by The Drawdown 29 November 2019

I used to shy away from diversity politics. As a black woman in financial services and technology, I felt leaning into the debate could be a booby trap. I didn’t want to be that black woman – writing once about diversity and then forever typecast.

Neither did I want to be labelled the angry black woman by speaking out about the prejudice I saw around me in the fund management and wider financial services space. Even if my reaction to bias or plain trolling was proportional and justified.

Instead, I played it safe, sticking to technical, uncontroversial aspects in my work and in conversation. I thought by showing my competencies and not shouting to be included, I could make a more credible contribution to diversity. And it remains paramount to my belief system to treat people on the human level first, instead of ascribing an identity overlay to them before understanding what they’re about.

But now I’m older and more accomplished, I’m not scared to blaze the trail, to show and shout about what’s possible. Because, despite so many women biting their tongues - showing instead of shouting - the pace of change has been glacial. The most recent stats from the BVCA on gender show only 29% of our industry comprises women, and further, that only 14% are on investment teams with a mere 6% in senior investment roles. This must improve. But how?

Men certainly have to give their female colleagues a leg up by being more inclusive, but women need to ensure they don’t exclude themselves too.

Whenever I am asked what advice I would give to young women or people of colour wanting to break into finance or tech, I tell them it takes cojones, and an open mind. I have often walked into a fancy hotel or law firm hedgie seminar and been confronted with a group of 95% white men.

In such situations I never decide upfront it is hostile and leave, because then I would be excluding myself before even exploring whether others will include me. Instead, I treat it like I would in any other situation; I smile and take an interest in what other people are saying, and 99% of the time, they smile back and take an interest in me, and moreover, are willing to help me.

Advocating for diversity is not about blaming men or excluding them from the conversation, especially since I have been helped by several amazing and inclusive white men in my career. And, the helpful ones have far outnumbered those who have elbowed me out the way.

That being said, the diversity debate in private equity and venture capital focuses too heavily on gender in the first instance, and ethnicity in the second instance. This is insufficient in its scope.

Diversity matters in corporate governance, not only because it is ethical, but because there are performance gains for organisations to be had by accommodating gender, ethnic, and national differences, which is proven through empirical research. However, if we want to improve even further, we need to think more widely about disability, neurodiversity, sexual orientation, transgenderism, while we fight for paternity leave and in the same breath, realise that people can be returning to the workforce after time spent studying, volunteering, and caring for aged parents as well as young children.

Clearly, men, and everybody else, must absolutely be a part of this conversation. Inclusivity cuts both ways.

Dr Desné Masie is an economist and investment professional

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