Jennifer Wells: Fearless Girl heads north

What does the future hold for Fearless Girl?

At time of writing, her shining presence in the umbra of Wall Street was guaranteed only through this past Thursday, International Women’s Day.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has to tread carefully. Despite some early, and I would say churlish, coverage decrying the pint-sized bronze statue as nothing more than a marketing stunt, the defiant Every Girl has stood strong as a proxy for the chronic, historic, endless under-representation of women in the corporate world. Lost amid the social media hubbub over the artistic merit of the statue, or the appropriateness of having her face off against the famous bronze Charging Bull (she was messing with his space, apparently), the statue’s sponsor has continued to push for a higher representation of women in the corridors of power.

And, uh oh, Canada is now in its sights.

State Street Global Advisors is the company that commissioned the ponytailed mite, you may recall. Fittingly, State Street itself came under intense scrutiny as a result. This is how it should be. Thus we know that the multibillion-dollar asset manager suffers, or suffered, its own wage gap. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs asserted that women employed as State Street senior vice-presidents, managing directors and vice-presidents were paid less than their male counterparts. A “statistically significant disparity in compensation” was found as a result of a compliance program audit.

Hmm. I possess no psychic powers and yet I get this strange sensation of an army of female VPs nodding in understanding.

State Street has said it disagreed with the compliance methodology. Nevertheless, whether through expedience or appreciation that it was holding a losing hand, the company paid out $ 5 million (U.S.) in back pay and interest. It also agreed to conduct a full compensation analysis and report back its findings to the federal overseer.

That said, State Street did not retreat into the weeds, but upped the ante.

The fund manager’s strategy is direct and uncomplicated: vote against the chairs of board nominating committees where women are absent. That’s a lot of voting. Of the more than 700 companies poked to add a woman to the board, State Street voted against more than 500. (In some instances where companies had a clear recruitment plan in place to fix the diversity imbalance, State Street waived its own voting guidelines. Australian and U.K.-listed companies were included in the basket of targeted companies.)

This week, a year after Fearless Girl planted her feet in the financial district, State Street reported that 152 of the targeted companies have added a woman to the board. A further 34 have committed to do so. In a new development, the asset manager is now calling on companies in their portfolio to disclose gender diversity at all levels of management.

But then there’s Canada. And then there’s Japan. State Street has singled out Japan for trying hard and Canada for, what shall we call it, lassitude?

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s promotion of “womenomics” as key to the country’s economic growth has bumped up against the country’s historically low rate of women in the workforce and a squeezed pipeline to progress. So while the government’s intent is clear, the numbers remain low. Last summer, the government reported that just 3.7 per cent of management and board positions were held by women, placing it at the extreme low end for advanced economies. An early Abe goal of having 30 per cent women in management positions by 2020 has been reset to 10 per cent. “So we think Japan presents a great opportunity to make progress,” said State Street COO Ronald O’Hanley in a recent corporate note.

“The challenge is more surprising in Canada,” O’Hanley went on to say, citing the low representation of women on the boards of publicly traded Canadian corporations and the pitiful representation of women on the boards of startups.

So State Street in the months ahead will be extending its “diversity guidance” — comply or face a vote against — to more than 1,200 companies here and in Japan.

That’s quite a knock against Canada. “Despite its progressive reputation,” as O’Hanley phrased it, the country is a laggard. Globally noted.

We can trot out the same old reasons why (companies still searching within their comfortable networks for board talent, for one). And we can revisit the merits of diversity (balanced risk, consensus building, higher return on equity, less groupthink, an awareness of the real world around us). And we can put to rest once and for all the belief that, with time, these imbalances will sort themselves out (we’ve been hearing that argument for 30 years).

The shame is that Canada has failed to be a leader here.

The great strength of Fearless Girl is that she is a girl. She is the future. It seems to me that what she represents is not very complicated: claim your ground.

Will there be an outcry when she is moved? I hope so. She belongs in the financial district. She’s earned it. Even better would be a Fearless Girl II, somewhere around, oh, King and Bay.

Jennifer Wells can be reached at jenwells@thestar.ca

TORONTO STAR

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