The last few years have caused so much pause for thought it’s often overwhelming. COVID, #metoo, the climate crisis, Black Lives Matter protests, and now war in Ukraine have all laid bare deep and continuing societal inequalities. Many of those that exist today are already well known. Some are less visible. Understanding the causes and finding ways to address them presents a significant challenge. Acknowledging the role we ourselves may play, and our own prejudices, is particularly difficult and confronting. At WHEB, we have been asking ourselves how we can address these issues as individuals, as a company, as an industry and as a society. And it’s causing some real soul searching.
Diversity and inclusion is a critical topic and the financial services industry is a laggard in addressing the issue. As a B Corporation and impact manager we are trying to be part of the solution but we know we are still a “work in progress”. We think that means considering our employees as individuals, the investments we make and our role in the industry.
In the past two years WHEB has become a company where nearly 70% of the team are women. This shift has brought with it diversity of thought, perspective, and some awkward conversations. One of these conversations arose during our book club with our latest read, “The Authority Gap – Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it.”
It wasn’t an easy read. For the women, it was over 200 pages of examples reminding us of the challenges we’ve all faced in our daily lives. For the men, it was eye-opening to hear story after story of their co-workers experiencing this authority gap and general second-class treatment their entire careers.
In some cases, the reaction was surprise that this exists. That surprise shows that one of the things we need to overcome is learning to notice things which don’t affect us the way they affect a minority or marginalized group. That can mean ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and disability to name just a few.
One conversation that followed on from that discussion came when we were asked by an investor about companies in the portfolio that might be furthering gender diversity from an impact perspective. We do own Cooper Companies, which generates approximately 25% of revenue from women’s health. While there is clear positive impact behind the products and services Cooper provides, it did prompt a debate about the role of contraception and the potential side effects. For example, why does the burden of contraception fall so heavily on women? And where else might there be inequalities in the health system? More broadly, access to finance for funding female health research is an additional challenge.
When it comes to impact in the listed equities space, our focus is on how a company’s products and services contribute to solutions. This can be challenging when it comes to diversity because in the listed space there aren’t many opportunities which directly address the issue, outside of women’s health.
In general, our industry looks at Gender Equality investing through an ESG lens. In other words, investors tend to explore how a company operates rather than what it sells. We would not consider this to be ‘Impact’, however it is an important part of what we do. For example, we consistently vote against company proxies where the Board comprises less than one third female representation. We also engage with our investee companies to report detailed diversity data across all levels of its organization. When this data is disappointing, we ask our companies to disclose what they are doing to improve female and minority representation and ensure equal opportunities.
The Cooper Companies discussion shows that diverse representation isn’t the only challenge, we also need to think about inequalities when it comes to accessing finance. We have seen various movements and initiatives trying to drive momentum in both. These are starting an important dialogue and enabling the industry to reflect and seek solutions.
We are also seeing increasing scrutiny from clients who want to know that their financial service providers are addressing the issue. We need to ensure these questionnaires don’t turn into box ticking exercises. We are committed to shifting the narrative away from a compliance mindset towards a meaningful dialogue that drives real cultural change and accountability.
As a start we have reviewed and updated our Diversity & Inclusion Policy. But we also need a better framework in how we can answer these important questions and how as a company we can move forward. As a founding member of City Hive, a think tank and advocacy group, we are planning to also become a founding signatory of their ACT standard of corporate culture. This framework will aim to help us develop a strategic approach to developing an inclusive, diverse and equitable work environment.
As a small business we are in a good position to build that culture from an early stage. It’s much harder to make that shift in a large, established organization. Scale does have benefits though, for example significant resources that can go into widening the candidate net. But resource isn’t an excuse not to do it. At WHEB we are committed to diversity in our growth. We are proud of our efforts so far, but we recognize there is much more we can do.
Having the difficult conversations is a great place to start, and we will continue to back that up with action. That includes internally, with our investments and with the industry as a whole.