Article: “I can't emphasize enough the power of role models”: AXA IM's Anubhuti Gupta


“I can't emphasize enough the power of role models”: AXA IM's Anubhuti Gupta

The investment industry is held back by gender biases that lead to under-representation of women, especially at senior levels. Role models are critical, as are organizational efforts to drive women's education and careers, says Anubhuti Gupta, Head of AXA IM Singapore.
“I can't emphasize enough the power of role models”: AXA IM's Anubhuti Gupta

Many organizations around the world have made great strides in improving diversity, equitability, and inclusivity (DEI) in the workplace. There's still much room for improvement, though, especially at senior levels. Anubhuti Gupta, Head of AXA IM Singapore & Head of APAC, Rosenberg Equities, shares her thoughts on what the DEI situation is like in the investment industry, and where the way forward might lie, especially for an industry that can drive great change through investor demands.

A long-time advocate of DEI, Anubhuti has been with AXA IM for over 15 years and worked her way up to CEO. From her position, she drives DEI policies and principles throughout the organization. She is actively involved with the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore, an industry association that develops and encourages women in the industry, as a mentor and champion to empower female leaders in finance and investments. She is also featured in LGBT Great's Project 1000 campaign, which spotlights role models for LGBT+ diversity and inclusion within the investment and savings industry.

This year, International Women's Day is themed around challenging bias and inequity where we see it. What do you personally see as the main biases and inequities that still need work in the investment industry?

The biggest challenge facing the investment industry is the under-representation of women in the workforce, plus even higher levels of gender imbalance in senior and investment roles. This extends to other dimensions of diversity as well but given that women represent a very large proportion of the overall talent pool, the gender dimension is particularly stark.

According to McKinsey, at the senior executive level, or the ‘C-suite’ level, despite the representation of women having increased since 2015, this figure still stands at just 21 percent. At the same time, there is also a ‘sticky floor’, keeping women stuck at lower levels. For every 100 men promoted to being a manager, only 79 women are promoted to the same level. This can’t be explained simply by attrition or lower ambition.

Women make up 45 percent of the working population but less than 5 percent of chief executives in the S&P 500 and S&P Europe. In the financial sector, women make up 51 percent of the workforce but only 35 percent of senior managers and 16 percent of the executive pool.

There are far fewer women than men embarking on careers in investment management, due to outdated gender biases relating to women managing large amounts of money.

The limited number of women in senior and investment positions acts as a negative feedback loop through the lack of role models and sponsors who can inspire and promote the interests of women.

I can’t emphasize enough the power of role models. I have been very fortunate to have worked with great women investment leaders within AXA IM and outside who have made a very positive impact on my professional journey. I wish to see more women having the same privilege.

The other key challenge is the gender pay gap—which globally could take almost 100 years to close. This is partly linked to fewer women being promoted in the workplace, as well as the higher burden being placed on women to complete unpaid housework or care for families.

Money talks: as an industry that can potentially drive a great deal of change for D&I across multiple sectors, what actions do you think investment firms need to take right now?

Emerging from the COVID-19 crisis, it is encouraging to see that companies are better prepared and committed to providing greater flexibility in the form of remote working for employees. As an industry, we need to make sure that this isn’t just a stop-gap measure but a more permanent shift in our mindsets and attitudes to work. Diversity and inclusion strategies are pivotal in future-proofing businesses around the new ways of working in a manner that employees can trust.

With more focus on value creation for all stakeholders of a company and increasing awareness of the importance of diversity, there is pressure and increased scrutiny from investors on companies to demonstrate their commitment in tangible terms.

By undertaking more concrete actions, investors can play a part in moving diversity from good corporate practice to a corporate requirement.

There are good things happening in terms of gathering information on diversity from organizations—how we build up the right metrics, and how we get meaningful and usable data for investors for actionable insights. These are right steps in the right direction but we need to keep the momentum.

The industry should also make more efforts to nurture a strong pipeline of female and diverse talent for the future by supporting initiatives around female education and careers.

Could you share a bit about the practices you have championed over your years at AXA IM to drive inclusion and equitability? What worked best?

Building an equal and inclusive workplace has always been a key priority for me personally and all of us collectively at AXA IM. I’m proud to say that we’ve achieved a lot to build inclusivity and enrich gender diversity.

We have a comprehensive action plan in place that nurtures the career progression of our internal talent through coaching, mentoring, supporting our working families, embracing flexible working and building inclusive leadership skills. We have recently launched a new program dedicated to fostering emerging female talent.

Our Management Board members have set concrete targets to increase the number of women at senior levels and closing the gender pay gap remains a key business priority. We have taken steps to be a truly inclusive employer through rigorous application of our diversity hiring principles, the hiring of senior roles with gender-balanced panels and open advertising. We also support external organizations who are dedicated to promoting equality, including the Diversity Project, the 30 percent club, Girls Who Invest, and the Investment Association.

We have undertaken an independent review for our gender equality practices through EDGE (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality) certification. It helps to apply an external lens to your internal efforts on gender equality and benchmark them against both global standards and industry peers as it provides a good foundation for the future.

Our commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion also extends to the companies we invest in, notably through the expansion of our gender diversity voting policy, where we will target listed companies in developed market economies where at least one-third of the Board of Directors is not gender diverse.

As an advocate for LGBT+ inclusion in the investment industry, what do you think is the key to creating an inclusive environment where LGBT+ people (whether employees, clients, or investors) are comfortable?

I am an LGBT+ advocate because I believe that all people should be welcomed and accepted not just because it is the right thing to do but also because it is essential for long-term business success.

Diversity goes beyond just external markers such as gender, race, skin color, etc.

At a deeper level, we should also take into account cognitive and experiential diversity which I think are absolutely critical for any industry or company to understand the current needs of their clients and anticipate future ones.

In order to create a sense of belonging, organizations need to have a shared purpose and a shared identity that every employee can trust and identify with. The right policies and frameworks help but ultimately success is determined by individual action. Each one of us should practice it to a degree where it becomes second nature:

  • The first step is to educate yourself.

  • Check your conscious and unconscious biases.

  • Take individual responsibility on a daily basis when interacting with your colleagues and clients, hiring, allocating projects, offering development opportunities and even socializing at work.

Finally, there has been a lot of discussion around whether 2020 was actually beneficial to D&I initiatives or not. What's your view on how the pandemic affected inclusion?

In my view, the overall impact is positive.

The pandemic has resulted in greater flexibility for employees as companies were forced into embracing a smart approach to work. While I don’t believe that the notion of the office as it existed pre-COVID is completely dead, the pandemic has certainly led to permanent changes in the old model of work given how long it has lasted. Companies have made significant investments in technology and infrastructure to enable remote work. Most importantly, there is a cultural shift in the mindset towards remote working.

Greater adoption and acceptance of flexible work arrangements is good news for progressing diversity and inclusion for several reasons:

1. It allows employees to juggle work and family commitments better

2. It has leveled the playing field more between those employees who need more flexible work arrangements versus those who don’t by taking out the stigma and negative attitudes that were associated with flexible and remote workers.

3. It allows companies to look for and recruit talent globally as the barriers imposed by physical offices are lowered.

Another positive development from the COVID crisis is the sharpened focus on the ‘Social’ dimension of Environmental, Social and Governance issues (also known as ESG) for companies and investors. ESG has been gaining a lot of traction globally over the last few years. However, the focus was more on the E and G dimensions. COVID-19 has brought the S into the limelight—It has been a wake-up call to leaders and employees to review their priorities and purpose.

Key stakeholders in the investment world—be it clients, employees, asset owners or governments have clear expectations—want to see diverse workplaces.

It is definitely pushing companies to be more pro-active, deliberate and specific about diversity in general and gender in particular as one of the key dimensions of diversity.

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Topics: Diversity, Leadership, #ChooseToChallenge, #SheMatters

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