Just before International Women’s Day on March 8, a second bronze statue appeared directly opposite the famous bronze bull on Wall Street. The four foot tall girl, hands on her hips, stands with a defiant gaze leveled at the bull. A plaque at the girl’s feet reads: “Know the power of women in leadership. She makes a difference.” It was soon revealed that the statue had been commissioned by asset manager State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) and advertising agency McCann New York. Could this celebration of International Women’s Day be the shift towards recognizing women’s equality in business we’ve long hoped for?
SSgA CEO Ron O’Hanley made this statement in the company’s press release about Fearless Girl: “A key contributor to effective independent board leadership is diversity of thought, which requires directors with different skills, backgrounds and expertise. Today, we are calling on companies to take concrete steps to increase gender diversity on their boards and have issued clear guidance to help them begin to take action.” SSgA’s goal was to “raise awareness” and “drive a conversation” around gender diversity. Further, SSgA plans to take an activist role regarding their investments:
“Our preferred approach is to drive greater board diversity through an active dialogue and engagement with company and board leadership. In the event that companies fail to take action to increase the number of women on their boards, despite our best efforts to actively engage with them, we will use our proxy voting power to exact change — voting against the Chair of the board’s nominating and/or governance committee if necessary.”
This is welcome news for anyone who champions gender diversity. Yet, there is an unfortunate wrinkle that was quickly highlighted among news outlets that covered the story. Joe Rennison writes in The Financial Times:
“No woman has ever held Mr O’Hanley’s role at SSgA. Only 17 per cent of SSgA’s leadership positions—or 5 out of 28 positions—are held by women. Three of those women are on SSgA’s board of 11 directors, which puts SSgA just slightly ahead of the average S&P 500 company, in which women hold just a fifth of the board seats.”
SSgA seems aware of the dichotomy and willing to take action:
“But it is a tension that the company is conscious of. ‘You are not going to get us saying we are shining example,’ said Ms McNally. ‘We are calling on ourselves just as much as we are calling on those companies. We are not going to sit here and say we are good enough. We have work to do as well.’ “
I am optimistic. SSgA did open a dialogue and acknowledges that, like the majority of the business world, it has work to do regarding gender parity. SSgA publicly committed to gender inclusion within the organization and in the companies in which it invests. I would like to think that SSgA could be a change agent for financial services. The door is open.