Breaking down walls
This year has been devastating for Black people across the world. From the Office of National Statistics’ figures regarding Black people being more than four times more likely to die from COVID-19, exposing a dramatic divergence in the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in England and Wales, to the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in the US.
FinTech Futures took this somber moment to sit with Keisha Bell, managing director and head of diverse talent management and advancement at DTCC, who reveals how “the wall between [her] dual worlds crumbled and real conversations began” following this year’s events. Bell dissects how systemic racism has affected her workplace experiences and highlights diversity and inclusivity initiatives that have emerged within the firm to foster real change.
How did you begin your professional journey?
I have been working in the financial services industry for over 20 years, spanning broker/dealer operations, technology transformations, programme management and business analysis. My first role was a project manager at a market participant firm, but the bulk of my career has been spent at DTCC, where I have worked for 16 years. Before I was appointed managing director and head of diverse talent management and advancement at DTCC in 2018, I was managing director of DTCC’s Risk Management Reporting, Governance, Analysis and Programme Management group.
What obstacles have you faced along the way based on your gender and race, and what advice can you give to young black women in the industry when faced with such a situation?
Racism in the workplace can be subtle and often times focuses on one’s appearance. Corporate appearance policies that include requirements for “professional” hair continue to disproportionately affect black women. Early in my career, I was told that my natural hair was unprofessional, and it was clear to me that if I refused to change it, I would be reprimanded and perhaps fired. It was important for me, economically, to keep my job, and so, at my own expense, I changed my hair. I didn’t have the knowledge or tools necessary to address the issue at the time, but once I fully recognised and understood that incident, I decided that never again would I alter my natural hair to conform with the way White America expected me to look. One should be measured based upon their skills, capabilities and ability to contribute to business success.
Are there any specific observations or changes in behaviour you’ve seen in financial services since the coronavirus pandemic and brutal murders of George Floyd/ Breonna Taylor in the States?
Many Black and Brown people have grown accustomed to compartmentalising our lives, particularly when it comes to matters of systemic racism and violence affecting our communities. We have maintained a wall between our work lives and the painful emotions we have experienced following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and countless others. However, many of us found ourselves unable to compartmentalise our pain and fear as the now-infamous video of George Floyd’s murder spread around the globe. For the first time, I – alongside many of my Black and Brown friends and colleagues – shared emotions with co-workers, voicing anger, grief and terror we’d normally keep out of the workplace. Not only did I need to articulate the pain I was feeling inside, but I had to let my Black and Brown colleagues know they were safe to be their full selves, too. As we spoke, the wall between my dual worlds crumbled and real conversations began. Real change starts with honest, intentional dialogue about everyday experiences. It’s an important step in any diversity and inclusion (D&I) journey.
What is it like working in financial services and does it differ to other sectors?
The financial services industry is nudging the needle on gender parity. A concerted effort is underway to close the gap once and for all, with mentoring and sponsorship programmes abound, and much of the industry diversifying their efforts by supporting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education within schools, investing in the talent pipeline, creating policies and implementing programmes to advance diversity.
While this progress is undoubtedly a positive development for the industry, considerable work remains. Yes, there are more women in leadership roles, but the Oliver Wyman 2020 Women in Financial Services report indicates that despite the increase in representation over the past few years, women make up merely 20% of executive committees and 23% of boards. The view from the top continues to be male dominated, with female chief executive officers (CEOs) and chair representation at just 6% and 9%, respectively. In fact, 21% of financial services companies’ executive committees remain entirely made up of men.
In order to understand why the pace of progress is slow, it is important to acknowledge that most of the discussion around D&I in financial services remains divorced from the systemic and structural issues that cause inequality. DTCC operates an array of D&I initiatives that aim to address a variety of issues, but increasingly, our focus is on facilitating the intentional, impactful discussions that are necessary for real change.
Are there any D&I initiatives you’ve seen that are helping and you want to highlight?
Following George Floyd’s murder, we created our “Perspectives” series to give voice to concerns, vulnerability, and fear that DTCC’s black and brown employees share. The first session featured a cross-section of Black and Brown men from all levels of the organisation who have experienced negative interactions with the police, sharing those lived experiences with their colleagues. There was a moderator but no Q&A session. The next session followed the same format, with Black and Brown women discussing “the talk” they must have with their children about racism and interacting with law enforcement. Most White colleagues don’t need to fear an erroneous warrant will lead to an armed invasion of their home while asleep, at a cost of their lives.
We are continuing these conversations through “BOLD”, DTCC’s employee resource group centred around Black employees, by facilitating smaller group conversations. It is undeniable that systemic and structural racism and violence take a toll on our community, and these discussions create space for employees to talk to each other at work. It’s a small step but also revolutionary, given how much effort we have put into keeping our professional lives separate from the catastrophic impact of racism that is still pervasive in our society.
We have also implemented an 18-month long “Advancing Women Leaders” development programme at DTCC, which targeted a cohort of 16 women at the director level. The programme focused on leadership and individual skills development and, most importantly, provided clarity on their progression opportunities and furnished them with formal sponsors from DTCC’s senior level management. This programme saw immediate results, with four out of the 16 women promoted over the last year.
Real change begins with honest, intentional, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the everyday experiences of people of colour.
What gestures vs action really means – from corporations putting the “black square” to vague platitudes – how can these hinder or help foster inclusion?
Outward vocal commitments followed by concrete actions and responses demonstrate to employees an organisation’s commitment to D&I. While political and societal unrest can bring discomfort, it also provides growing resources for employers to sign onto initiatives and advocacy efforts and make public statements, internally and externally, for example, around racial injustice for people of colour. However, these efforts need to be rooted in action. Employers must implement a robust programme to hire, grow, cultivate and support diverse talent while providing learning opportunities designed to foster a supportive and inclusive environment. If your C-suite or board lack racial, ethnic and gender diversity, placing a Black square on your website rings hollow.
How important is allyship from White and non-Black members of staff?
It has been comforting to know that colleagues who don’t look like me share my sense of outrage at the injustices we’ve seen and to hear them commit to supporting me and my community, but in order to facilitate real change, we need to teach allies how to translate that support into action.
In parallel with facilitating conversations among our diverse population of employees, DTCC has launched “ally to upstander” training so that our employees of all backgrounds, identities and genders can become successful allies at work. It’s one thing to call yourself an ally, but the training provides the tools to turn that into action by illustrating the stakes of allyship and providing the skills to achieve it. This initiative is empowering DTCC’s employee population to have discussions to become effective allies, as well as providing guidance on actionable steps they can take to support their Black and Brown colleagues.
Do you think the reflections made by US federal reserve and the UK Financial Conduct Authority that diversity is actually getting worse rings true to you?
I do not believe it is getting worse – I think people have been awakened to the current state and what’s needed to create change. Although I am realistic that change takes time, patience and commitment, there is a real opportunity for financial services to take a leadership role as an industry by facilitating diversity discussions that connect worthy D&I goals with the structural inequality that stands in the way of achieving them. By overcoming any fear of friction and creating space for complex, meaningful conversations, we lay the strong, foundational elements for growing and advancing diverse talent globally, in a systematic and coordinated manner.
The financial services industry must acknowledge and understand how systemic inequality and underlying unintentional bias impacts our workplaces, corporate cultures and employees’ feelings of belonging. Firms must lead the way in facilitating important conversations about privilege and bias across diversity paradigms that are necessary to drive meaningful change.