Equality should be about improvements all round not swapping one set of discriminations for another, says Rachel Meadows.
The theme for this year's International Women's Day really got me thinking. It goes without saying that I ardently agree with the principles involved; especially as a woman who has progressed in a career within a male-dominated industry. It gets less clear though when I consider what ‘equal' actually means.
When I consider my own experiences, it is commonly known that the pensions and financial advice community is on the whole ‘pale, male and stale'. A slightly tongue in cheek reference perhaps, but nonetheless true. While the number of women at seminars and events has noticeably increased over recent years, it remains the case that women are significantly outnumbered. The challenge isn't just increasing the number of women and other under-represented groups in the industry, but doing so in a way that is meaningful in terms of true equality of opportunities.
The pensions and financial advice industry is actually a great one for women in so many ways. The technical knowledge needed is blended heavily with empathy and personal relationship - areas where women are often strong. As I experienced myself, it's also possible to have periods of part-time work and remote working functionality that make striking a successful work life balance much more achievable. And things continue to improve on that front - I remember being the first adviser (of any gender) in the business to work a four-day week when my boys were little, one of which was from home (another first) and, in honesty, feeling the pressure of making that work so that I didn't spoil it all for anyone asking after me! I have to admit to a very clear recollection of needing to rustle up a healthy snack for two under-threes while a conference call ran over (and over!) - one hand free, block of cheese, chopsticks, and the "Cheese Lolly" was born!
Happily the ability to work flexible hours, and to work remotely is now well entrenched in both the business and wider industry, which is a brilliant way to retain advisory talent of all genders. This option as an absolute norm is critical to making sure that the industry keeps talent, and from an individual perspective means you don't need to ‘step off the ladder' at key life stages. This isn't just relevant for staff earlier in their career, who may balance work with young family life, but also for staff further along the road that have pressures related to caring responsibilities for older relatives. I know from personal experience that offering flexibility makes so much business sense. Staff can focus clearly on work when they're ‘in', safe in the knowledge that they can do a school drop off or pick up later in the week. All working parents will completely understand the quite unique pressure that is ‘mummy guilt' - but in financial services these days it's nonsense to assume that you can't do it all. You just can't always do it all at once!
It's unusual these days to come across business people that aren't ‘talking the talk' when it comes to gender equality, but ‘walking the walk' is tougher. The biggest hurdle to gender equality that I have come across in my own working life is probably unconscious bias, from those of all genders. I've been fortunate to have progressed in my role over my time in the industry, but it's still the case that women need to speak up more - which doesn't come naturally to all. There are some great examples of firms in the sector that have overhauled things like their promotion processes to try to curb this structural stumbling block, but more need to follow suit.
I will admit that I don't think the best way to achieve equality is using quotas; although the pressing need for better representation for women in senior roles is obvious my personal view doesn't favour women-only vacancies. I want to be at the table, but I want to be at the table because my skills are the best suited from all available candidates. To me that seems the only route to real and meaningful equality - equality of opportunity, not outcome. This works both ways, and doesn't necessarily mean that all roles achieve a 50/50 gender balance. For lots of reasons (sometimes for little apparent reason) there will always be roles that appeal more to men, or more to women. I don't think there is anything wrong with that - the whole point should be personal choice for every individual. Equality should be about improvements all round not swapping one pressure or set of discriminations for another.
This interpretation of gender equality is just as relevant when I am considering the financial advice that we provide to our clients. Again, the emphasis here is providing equality of options - women on the whole favour cash, and shy away from riskier investment. The advice propositions within our offering focus strongly on ensuring that all our clients understand what their choices are, and how they are likely to impact on the outcomes achieved and their objectives. Our job isn't necessarily to talk women into risk, it's to empower them with the information that enables them to make choices that suit them.
To me, that's what #EachforEqual comes down to. Equality means the ability to choose how we shape our careers and lives, and no one size will fit anyone, male or female. The pensions and financial advice sector is an ideal sector to offer that array of choice, and ultimately will be all the better for it.
Rachel Meadows is head of proposition for pensions and savings at Broadstone
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