• Darina Barrett, Leadership |

As we welcome International Women's Day 2021 and celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, let us as asset managers firmly embrace what I believe is a unique opportunity to attain new heights of awareness, action and inclusion on gender equality. 

Under the 2021 IWD theme #ChooseToChallenge, this year’s call to action urges the world to accelerate progress on diversity and inclusion. “A challenged world is an alert world,” event organizers proclaim on the IWD website. “We can choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequity. We can choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let's all choose to challenge .” 

Yes, let us all choose to challenge – including each of us working in today’s asset management industry. There is no doubt that the sudden and profound impact of the global pandemic has already engulfed us in a world of unexpected challenges that test as never before our resources, willpower, creativity and flexibility.

The pandemic has prompted investment firms everywhere to abandon, practically overnight, traditional ways of working in favor of new business models. These are quickly reshaping our workforces and how we serve our markets. Challenging days indeed. But as the wave of pandemic-induced modernization reveals new paths to success, we should also recognize these disruptive times as an unprecedented opportunity to push forward as never before on gender diversity.

A golden opportunity for progress

I believe we are positioned to capitalize on the pandemic’s impact on how we do business, turning disruption into a catalyst for the creation of modern workplaces that are designed to foster new progress on gender equality. And this is particularly good news for an industry which, truth be told, has traditionally demonstrated a lack of workforce flexibility that unfortunately has endured at the expense of women’s professional advancement. Not only is it the right thing to do, it makes business sense to help ensure that our sector attracts and retains the talent it needs to thrive and prosper.

Like every sector, we are unlikely to see a complete return to the office as the ‘new normal’ emerges, leaving us to ponder for now just what our post-pandemic world of work should look like. But as firms advance their technological enablement, it seems clear that designated work-from-home days will become a permanent feature for most staff. Such hybrid working arrangements could ideally combine research and ideation done from home with in-office discussion, decision making and innovation.

At any rate, we will continue to effectively level the playing field as the pandemic transforms workforces everywhere and catapults WFH into the mainstream. Make no mistake, our newfound embrace of workforce flexibility poses historic opportunities to advance gender representation. The decisions and innovations we pursue today will have lasting repercussions for many years to come. It is crucial that we use this opportunity to rethink the future and create gender-balanced workplaces in which women can function, flourish and play an instrumental role in the future success of every organization.

Embedding diversity into our cultures

But let’s be clear on the challenge ahead. Realizing productive new levels of flexibility across our workforces and workplaces goes beyond simply devising new WFH schedules. True flexibility that fosters new heights of inclusion will entail a significant cultural shift in our industry’s long-held, if sometimes unspoken, assumptions about the value, or even legitimacy, of home-based work and productivity. 

Embracing the new normal for work by embedding its advantages into every workplace culture will in my view do much to destigmatize flexible working arrangements that we’ve traditionally dismissed as potential career killers. Implementing policies that define and promote flexible new cultures will also send a powerful message to today’s employees – particularly young professionals who are voicing preferences to work for modern organizations that reflect their values regarding inclusivity.

That said, we need to be careful to avoid creating two-tier organizations that simply reinforce the mistaken belief that professionals going into the office are more committed than their ‘less ambitious, under-productive’ colleagues. Let’s avoid falling into the trap of thinking that as asset managers, our success is underpinned by a traditional office-bound workplace. Thankfully, those attitudes are waning by the day and I am confident that we will position ourselves to innovate while preserving the cultures that we are proud to possess.

Ultimately, the challenge we face is to reshape our organizations in ways that make workplace flexibility the default setting as our businesses move boldly into new, exciting and productive ecosystems. The transformation will take time but the opportunity to leap forward is upon us. Let International Women’s Day 2021 inspire each of us with its mantra that “from challenge comes change, so let's all choose to challenge.” An inclusive new future awaits.