ITL #167 Diversity as a differentiator: celebrating female success as a customer imperative

4 years, 7 months ago

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In the male-dominated investment world, asset management business Columbia Threadneedle is using comms to highlight a compelling business case for greater diversity. By Alison Jefferis.



Sadly, the financial services industry on the whole performs poorly in terms of diversity. Despite the fact it has been an issue on the radar for some time, certainly as far back as I can remember (and that’s a good 20 years at least, just between friends). Surely we are missing something?

 

Financial services firms typically approach diversity from a Human Resources perspective, in the worst case regarding it as a necessary evil to avoid litigation and at best as an employee engagement/CSR initiative. As a result, efforts are typically focused on recruitment practices, networking, shared interest groups, and general awareness-raising.

 

All of these activities are important and effective, and they must continue. They don’t, however, command the same attention and competitive drive to win that dominates more commercially focused pursuits. What if we were to consider diversity as a customer imperative rather than (or indeed as well as) a corporate one?

 

This was the discussion we started to have at Columbia Threadneedle early last year. From a communications perspective, we began to think about diversity as a potential business differentiator.

 

Lead the debate

Like many Corporate Communications teams, we aim to focus our core strategy around a small number of themes or issues where we seek to lead the debate and stand out from our peers. In identifying the right themes, we look for relevance and benefit for our customers and other stakeholders, along with material benefit for the business.

 

Finally, as all comms and marketing people will be painfully aware, it has to be an authentic message. That is, a genuine area of strength for the organisation.

 

So that’s three questions:

  1. Does diversity provide any benefit to our customers, and is it a benefit they care about?
  2. If so, can that contribute to improved business results?
  3. Can we genuinely claim to be better than our competitors?
 

 

Columbia Threadneedle is a pure asset management business. We provide actively managed investment funds and the primary outcome our customers value is fund performance after fees. We therefore needed to establish whether diversity was relevant in terms of delivering long-term net outperformance.

 

Supporting the case

Working with our Marketing and Thought Leadership teams to explore the idea, we found that there was existing research from a number of sources to support the business case.

 

Firstly, we found that mixed-gender investment teams were the best long-run performers. In research measuring results from 12 months to 10 years, mixed-gender teams came out on top.

 

We also found evidence that female fund managers produce more consistent and less volatile performance than their male counterparts. During the financial crisis of 2008, women comfortably outperformed men. This was attributed to women focusing more on downside protection than men, sticking to their investment choices (most notably through market turbulence).

 

This diversity of decision making and approach adds to the evidence that mixed-gender teams perform best. Finally, we found research which suggested that while female fund managers are rarely among the top performers, they are less likely to be among the bottom performers. This is linked to them producing more reliable and less volatile results. These are all outcomes our customers value.

 

Having established relevance and benefit, the final question was how does Columbia Threadneedle stack up in terms of gender diversity? Looking at our industry, the representation of women in asset management is persistently – and alarmingly – low. The proportion of female asset managers contrasts markedly with the number of women entering other professions: in the UK women now represent 44% of accountants, 48% of GPs and 24% of solicitors at partner level. Just seven per cent of funds in the UK are managed or co-managed by women (and this relative paucity of female managers appears to be a global phenomenon).

 

Our good story

However, at Columbia Threadneedle, 30% of our investment professionals in EMEA are women, including four out of 13 senior desk heads. So yes, we had a good story to tell, and our female fund managers were more than willing to tell it!

 

From a communications standpoint, the story from here was relatively straightforward. We developed a strategy, which included the release of the company’s gender diversity data for the first time and a commitment to annual disclosure (described in the Financial Times as a “Watershed moment for female fund employees”).

 

We enlisted our Chief Investment Officer and other senior management as spokespeople, published a white paper (Missing persons: Gender balance in asset management), placed articles, teamed up with the think tank New Financial to sponsor further industry research and hosted a range of internal and external events. Pleasingly, a Forbes article captured our core premise in its headline: “Gender targets needed to serve a diverse population”.

 

Our efforts are continuing through 2016. We have contributed a case study to HM Treasury’s report ‘Empowering Productivity: Harnessing the talents of women in financial services’, based on our business case for gender diversity from the customer’s perspective.

 

More than many other campaigns, this has been personally very satisfying, for obvious reasons. The approach however was driven from an objective business angle and that has clearly been a key factor in our success.

 

Columbia Threadneedle’s brand promise is ‘Your Success. Our Priority. As employees, we are challenged to consider everything from the perspective of our customers and to use that lens to continually question our own thinking and processes. This goes from the top of the house to the front line and across every role in every department. Re-framing the issue of diversity in that way enabled us to come up with a more compelling communications strategy, and has become one of the themes around which we are differentiating our offering in a very crowded and competitive market.


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The Author

Alison Jefferis

Alison Jefferis, Head of Corporate Affairs, EMEA and Asia, Columbia Threadneedle Investments.

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