Three ways to boost diversity in the asset management industry

Three ways to boost diversity in the asset management industry

When I joined the asset management industry more than a decade ago, an industry stalwart at a networking event asked me, "Where did you school?".

I took it as a genuine welcome from an established face, telling them my state school background and previous jobs in pubs, shops and petrol stations. He listened patiently, nodded quizzically and wandered off. Cue sniggers.

While he was almost certainly asking the question without conscious malice, his question made clear his assumptions about who ‘belonged' in our industry.

Thankfully, things have changed radically. Now, such opinions feel out of step with a dynamic industry responsible for helping savers achieve their financial goals. The vast majority of people I talk to recognise that diversity is key to building a workforce that understands the people it serves, creates fresh solutions and remains relevant in an ever-changing world.

Social diversity is key. No-one should count themselves out of pursuing a career in asset management because of their upbringing.

However, it is clear our industry is not as diverse as it could be. A recent report by the Sutton Trust found that 61% of asset management leaders went to independent schools while only 11% went to comprehensive schools.

It is unusual to gather information on the background of new joiners. I question whether we should. After all, nobody wants to be defined by their age, gender, ethnicity or sexuality - and the same goes for social background.

Shake up the make-up of industry

We need to be cautious that we do not rush to categorise people in our efforts to be more diverse.

A further challenge is negotiating the language of social class. We struggle to find the words to describe privilege, or the lack of it, and to agree common understanding of what it means.

But while someone's social background may be harder to describe or measure than, say, their age or career history, it doesn't mean that we can't take action.

Part of that starts with how we recruit. Firstly, we should welcome applications from a diverse academic background and cast our net wider in the universities we visit in search of talent.

We still need the best and brightest, but these don't only exist in the South East of England. We need a change in mindset among recruiters and a commitment to look further afield for young people with talent and potential.

Mentoring talent

Secondly, we need to build mentoring programmes. Tailored advice from an experienced face can really set someone along the right path.

At the asset management company I work at, we are doing much to embrace diversity and inclusion and mentoring. We recently had an A-level student who is part of the "Social Mobility Foundation" come into the office. She told me the setting felt strange.

Her parents don't work in corporate environments so couldn't share their experiences with her ahead of her visit. While it felt unfamiliar, mentorship could help someone like her make the transition to the work environment.

I am sure it felt like a new game with its own particular rules, but these rules are changing rapidly. By the time she graduates, the working environment will probably feel different again and she can play a role in changing it further.

Embracing differences

Thirdly, and this is the least tangible action, we need to accept that some people just won't be "people like us". We also need to actively seek out and embrace difference.

It is not a one-sided issue. Potential candidates must be open-minded and shed any prejudices about the industry. Asset management - like the rest of the world - is changing. We must all engage in a new conversation about what we want the industry to be like. We don't need a working group; we just need to meet as individuals.

The welcome I received at the start of my career will be different to a graduate's now. Thankfully, there are more ways to succeed than relying on your social background. We don't need to conform to a stereotype to fit in.

The industry does not want people who are homogenous. Much of my early career was spent feeling like a fish out of water and I adapted. Now, people can celebrate their differences and the value it brings to the industry. 

Charles Clarke is head of communications at HSBC Global Asset Management and a mentor for the Social Mobility Foundation