The Conversation Continues: Progress Disrupted, Not Derailed

March 2021

It’s been a year since I wrote a piece to celebrate International Women's Day 2020, noting that the beginning of a new decade provided a good opportunity to assess progress with respect to gender in the workplace. At the time of writing, there was no sense of the impending crisis to come. Nor could we have predicted the scale of the pandemic the world has faced, or the ways in which our lives would change so dramatically.

The COVID crisis has underscored society's reliance on women both at work and at home, and the impact of the pandemic has, perhaps unsurprisingly, not been 'gender neutral.' The effects of this past year have been felt disproportionately by women who work in industries such as retail, food service, childcare/early education, and domestic work—which happen to be among the segments hardest-hit by the pandemic. Even in other sectors, tenuous progress in recent years is at risk given recently shifting dynamics of the workforce and the numbers of women who have had to downshift or leave their careers altogether in order to manage the home front and see their families through the changes wrought by COVID.1,2 Although all working parents, both men and women, have had to try to balance employment with childcare and remote schooling responsibilities, women were already behind the curve in this regard pre-pandemic, spending nearly two and a half times the number of hours on unpaid care work as men, a gap that has only widened in the last year.3 This data point and other dire statistics have been well documented (though perhaps not scrutinized carefully enough), but the question remains, where do we go from here as we look ahead to the post-pandemic landscape?

Against the backdrop of the grim realities and known setbacks women have suffered professionally in the past year, it is perhaps hard to find the positives. But I want to reflect on the ways in which we can progress, and not just to make up for ground lost during the pandemic, but to push beyond our historical baseline. Not surprisingly, given how I spend my days, I am focused on the potential for positive impact in the asset management industry – leveraging the industry as a force for good. The long-overdue conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) are, at last, becoming more meaningful in the corporate world, as well as the political one. The financial industry, amongst many others, is taking a much-needed look at itself and how, or if, it represents the investors and communities it serves. As ever, this begins with a reflection on where we have progressed and an honest look at how much more we need to do.

The theme of this year’s International Women's Day is #ChooseToChallenge. In last year’s post, I noted the importance of building the pipeline to lay the groundwork for greater female representation at the senior levels, by supporting women at a much earlier stage in their careers than the industry historically has. As one of the co-chairs of Acadian’s Diversity and Inclusion Forum, it’s a discussion I’m keenly involved in, and I choose to challenge us as a company to think of both creative and practical ways to ensure we are providing opportunities for, and developing, the next generation of our firm’s leaders, and breaking down the historical, systemic biases around gender and race that have characterized the industry over many decades.

At a more holistic level, it’s worth noting that 2020 saw a huge uptick in ESG investing, with investors focusing on ways to achieve positive returns with positive impact. More focus than ever is being turned to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—targets that include gender equality, quality education, and good health and wellbeing, all areas where women have historically been disadvantaged. The fact that these conversations are becoming more meaningful, and are increasingly expected from investors, energizes and excites me.

As the impact of COVID eventually begins to subside, and the corporate world considers what a return to the office-based environment looks like, there is an opportunity to focus on increased flexibility—a shift which is sure to benefit all workers, but which may prove to be particularly beneficial to women who still disproportionately take on caregiving roles for young children and/or older family members who need support. My hope is that we can start to tackle the often-overlooked issue of “deciding” between flexibility/family commitments and career progression.

Forcing the conversation about pay equity, flexible working, and the work/life integration can be difficult, but for those of us who are in senior, visible positions especially, it's imperative that we continue to challenge the status quo, and the historical inequities around gender in the workplace. As a woman executive in this industry, I believe I have a responsibility to ‘pay it forward’ to the next generation of female employees, and future leaders striving to make the corporate environment a more equitable place, so that the path for the women who come after us is easier. I challenge myself to continue to push. And I encourage all women to have the difficult conversations they may have been putting off; discuss your career development and aspirations, examine your compensation if you see worrisome disparities, ask for the small adjustments that will make a big difference to your work/life life balance, and #ChoosetoChallenge.