• Paula Smith, Partner |

The banking sector has made progress encouraging diversity and inclusion over the past few years. But there is still more to be done. This year’s IWD inspires us to continue to challenge the status quo.

It has taken time and significant effort but, in my view, many banks now see diversity and inclusion as key to their future success. They understand the link between diversity and growth. They recognize the impact of diversity on the customer experience. They appreciate the role diversity plays in their culture and purpose.

Most bank executives also understand that diversity and inclusion is a great way to mitigate the risk of ‘group think’ in the boardroom. Over the course of history, there have been several instances where ‘group think’ in financial services has had negative (sometimes severe) consequences (the Global Financial Crisis being a case in point). Bank executives rightly want to encourage diverse perspectives in the decision-making process in order to reduce this risk in the future.

Not without challenge

As the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day reminds us, diversity is most valuable when it comes with the ability to challenge. You bring the richness of diverse perspectives to a decision-making process by ensuring that all voices feel empowered to share their views. Simply put, achieving diversity without challenge is a hollow victory.

For banks, the point is clear: efforts to drive diversity must be accompanied by initiatives that encourage people – right across the organization – to challenge the status quo and to share their viewpoints and perspectives.

The ability to challenge can drive great value when used constructively and collaboratively. But it can also create division and polarization when used aggressively or negatively. Encouraging challenge while avoiding the creation of adversarial positions requires balance.

They key to success

The ability to challenge in the right way is also critically important at an individual level. Looking back at my years of experience in some of the world’s biggest banks and financial services firms, I am certain that my willingness to voice my viewpoints and provide challenge in a constructive way was critical to my success. Providing new and different perspectives – while bringing colleagues, clients and business partners with you on that journey – leads to much better outcomes than an adversarial approach. My willingness to challenge constructively continues to serve me well today as I work with clients across the UK and around the world.

I have also seen great value in mentoring. I believe women should seek out mentors both inside and outside of the organization. I would encourage leaders to offer themselves as mentors, particularly to female talent. And I would advocate for more formal and informal mentorship programs within banks and other financial services organizations. The role of a strong mentor relationship cannot be overstated.

Choose to challenge

I am encouraged by the progress that I have witnessed over the past decade. Many banks have worked hard to make diversity and inclusion a top priority on the agenda. Yet there is still much more to be done, particularly when it comes to empowering people’s ability to challenge.

As we commemorate International Women’s Day 2021, let’s embrace the call to action: let’s choose to challenge ‘group think’; let’s choose to continually challenge the existing culture and status quo by giving diversity voice.