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How to create a more equitable, inclusive environment for employees and clients was the topic of a recent virtual panel discussion hosted by CFA Society Chicago’s CFA Women’s Network on July 14, 2020. Originally planned to help celebrate Women’s History Month in March, the event had to be postponed because of the pandemic-related meeting restrictions. However, that delay came with a silver lining: the discussion also considered the impact that remote working will have on the development of workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Laura Gregg, director of practice management and advisor research for FlexShares Exchange Traded Funds at Northern Trust served as the moderator for the event. Gregg is co-host of The Flexible Advisor podcast which covers timely topics for the financial advisory industry. She is also focused on leading the firm’s proprietary advisor and investor research and building programs to engage advisors and asset managers with industry intelligence and best practices, and thereby helping them expand their businesses.

Gregg was joined by panelists Laurie P. Barry, CFP®, a financial advisor at UBS, and Connie L. Lindsey, executive vice president and head of corporate social responsibility at Northern Trust. Barry has developed a unique financial advisor practice focused on women, who represent nearly three-quarters of her Chicago-based practice and 100% of her advisory team. Lindsey is responsible for the design and implementation of the global Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Investments, and Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategy for Northern Trust. Lindsey also provides oversight and leadership to the firm’s response to environmental matters and social issues.

Following introductions, Gregg listed the four topical questions that would guide the discussion:

  1. Are we in a moment or the start of a movement that (finally) drives the financial industry toward greater diversity?
  2. Have client expectations for wealth managers regarding gender and racial diversity, equity, and inclusion changed?
  3. Will the remote work structure become the norm and what would be the related benefits and drawbacks?
  4. How can each of us – no matter our level in our respective organizations – become agents of change?

Lindsey began by addressing the first question with “Both”. She pointed out that the reasons we find ourselves in the present situation are not new. We have had several “moments” in the past that proved not to be “movements”. But the current pandemic has caused us to go “inside”—not just physically by staying at home to work, but also by looking inside ourselves and reconsidering long held beliefs and practices. We must take advantage of this new perspective to enact historic, meaningful, systemic changes in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and avoid having it slip away as just another moment. As a sign of progress, she pointed out that she now reports directly to the CEO at Northern Trust versus through the Human Resources Department as was once the case. Advancing DEI goals is a top five priority for the CEO.  She provided the following descriptive rule regarding DEI:

  • Diversity is like being invited to a dance
  • Inclusion is like being asked to dance at the event
  • Equity is like getting to pick the dance music

Barry supported the point that we are in a movement by noting that higher management at UBS has been more outspoken in calling for action since the protests calling for change began in late May. This gives hope that the industry will finally provide more opportunities to the many groups that have been forgotten or overlooked in the past: women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, veterans.

Regarding client expectations for their wealth managers, Gregg referenced research Northern Trust conducted in late 2019 with financial advisors showing a low ranking for DEI matters. In fact, they ranked it eighth out of nine strategic priorities considered. However, clients when they really think about the topic, show a preference for working with someone with whom they share a group identity. Barry added that when she began her career in 1990, there was no focus on women clients as a category—perhaps because most advisors were men. The situation is very different now. She didn’t set out to build a team composed only of women, but it evolved naturally and has proved to be very effective at attracting and serving women clients. Lindsey reported that clients are very engaged in this topic and frequently ask about DEI metrics when considering to hire, or retain, Northern Trust. Meeting that challenge is a key to success for the firm (and the whole industry).

Regarding the impact of working from home, Barry offered the following observations:

  • While she was already comfortable with remote working because she often travels, much of her staff was not. UBS enacted a crash training in remote working during the week before closing its office. This proved very worthwhile and allowed her team to provide nearly seamless service to clients.
  • UBS has become more understanding of the personal needs and demands on time for staff. This presents an opportunity to offer greater flexibility for work arrangements after the pandemic restrictions are removed.
  • Greater flexibility will, in turn, attract more women to the field.

Lindsey noted that remote working is supportive to work/life integration, a feature that appeals to working mothers especially. Northern Trust shifted 20,000 employees to remote working very quickly without sacrificing client service. This bodes well for increased inclusion in the future.

A drawback to remote working noted was the loss of person to person contact that is vitally important to career development. Network building and mentoring are critical, especially to people who most benefit from DEI programs. To assure that they don’t miss out on this, Lindsey said employers must make the extra effort to offer virtual networking and mentoring programs.

For the final topical question of how each of us can be agents of change, Lindsey offered the following guidelines:

  • Understand yourself. If you feel uninformed about the specifics of DEI, make the effort to educate yourself.
  • Question your long-held beliefs about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Show empathy for others who aren’t members of your “group”. Listen to them without judging.
  • Pursue the world that can be.
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