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Financial Services Conferences Have a Diversity Problem

From speakers to sponsors and more, here’s what you can do about it.

Financial services has an inclusion problem. Conferences could be part of the solution. But instead they perpetuate the problem.

I spend a lot of time thinking about race and gender in financial services, and as a speaker I also spend a lot of time at conferences. I have seen and experienced firsthand how conferences amplify the negative aspects of the finance industry.

In-person events face critical challenges that include making conferences safe for women and fostering a sense of belonging for everyone--I’ll take those issues up in a future column. Today, let’s talk about the conference agenda. Who gets to be seen on stage (or via webinar) and presented as a leader is an issue at both digital and in-person events. Let’s look at the data.

I knew that racial and gender representation at major conferences was problematic, but even I was shocked when I looked at the numbers. With the help of Morningstar’s editorial team, we surveyed the speaker rosters for 10 major advisor and investing-focused conferences. All but one were the 2020 lineups; one was for 2021. Some events were in-person, some digital. Except for Morningstar, we won’t name conference names, but I can tell you the 10 conferences included events run by custodians, trade associations, individual financial services firms, and certain investment-focused sponsors.

An important note on the data: This was a rough exercise estimating race and gender breakdowns using the only publicly available information available: speaker photos on conference websites and other information online. Obviously, ascertaining race and ethnicity from photos is not how a comprehensive study of diversity should be done. (For conference organizers looking to collect race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other personal data, I suggest you ask speakers to self-identify.) With some events, we were able to gather keynote data only; for most, we gathered both keynotes and breakout sessions. All that said, even these approximations revealed clear trends.

Some of the data highlights from the information we collected:

Gender representation

  • All of the data collectively showed that men had about 60% of the speaking roles, while women had about 40%. The median split was 65% men, 35% women. I don't have historical data, but I suspect that the gender representation number has made significant progress in the past decade.
  • At one conference, three fourths of the speakers were men.
  • In three conferences of the 10, data showed more women speakers than men.

Racial representation

  • On average, nearly 90% of the speakers in our data were white. For comparison, the last census shows white people at about 60% of the U.S. population.
  • One conference we believe had exclusively white keynote speakers. It didn't put a single person of color in a keynote role.
  • Half of the conferences did not appear to have a single--not one--Black keynote speaker. For comparison, Black people make up about 13% of the U.S. population.
  • Three conferences had no Latino/a keynote speakers. For comparison, Latinos make up about 18% of the U.S. population.

Editors note: While this is a column by a contributing writer to Morningstar, here’s our disclosure about the 2020 U.S. Morningstar Investment Conference: Two thirds of keynote speakers were men, and more than 80% of the keynote speakers were white. There were no Black or Latino/a keynote speakers in 2020. Morningstar is committed to offering the views from a diverse and inclusive group of speakers, and these numbers tell us that we have an opportunity to find new and compelling voices to speak in 2021.

While drafting this article, I had the opportunity to attend the virtual conference for the Opportunity Finance Network and was so happily surprised by the racial and gender representation in the speaker lineup that I asked the organizer for details. Of the 150-plus speakers, OFN organizers said that one third were women of color, including many Black women, and nearly one fifth were men of color, including many Black men. White women made up almost one third of the speakers, and white men the rest. Although this conference isn't included in the 10 conferences that the Morningstar team sampled, because it focuses on a narrower topic (community development financial institutions), I mention it here as an example of what a conference can look like when an organization values diversity and is intentional about representation.

Put Representation on the Agenda Industry events are a place where we convene and collectively imagine the future of our profession; they are an ideal place to elevate talent from groups our industry has historically excluded.

We must put women, people of color, and especially women of color speakers on stage. Conferences that feature diverse speakers remind and encourage employees and management to expand our narrow view of what a financial services leader looks like.

Let me be clear. When I say “diverse speakers,” I don’t mean an agenda full of white men speakers and one panel of white women speakers talking about what female clients want. I am not talking about an agenda of all white speakers except in the one breakout session about diversity that just so happens to be in the smallest breakout room at the furthest end of the conference hall. I’ve seen too many examples of conferences where the only speakers of color are on panels about diversity.

A diverse speaker lineup includes racial and gender diversity in both keynotes and panels, showcasing subject matter expertise from women and people of color, and especially Black and Latina women. Although my expertise is in race and gender, I would be remiss not to note that a truly diverse agenda also includes voices of disabled folks, people from the LGBTQ+ community, veterans, and people from a wide range of ages.

The good thing about this problem is that it is eminently solvable. Conference organizers, sponsors, speakers, and attendees can all play a role in creating better outcomes. Here’s how you can help.

Conference Organizers Be intentional, and start early to secure expert speakers that include women, people of color, and especially women of color; specifically include Black and Latino/a experts. Don't let representation be an afterthought or a gap to fill at the last minute of finalizing the agenda. Don't "diversify" panels by adding a white woman moderator to a panel of all white male experts; make sure the experts themselves (panels and mainstage) are women, people of color, disabled folks, and people in the LGBTQ+ community. Finding these speakers will take more time in the first year, especially because of the scarcity of diverse perceived leaders in financial services. I promise that the extra effort is worth the work. And the more you intentionally expand your network, the easier it gets each year.

Directly address the representation issue our industry faces. A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to give a keynote talk as a “next generation leader,” on the subject matter of my choosing. I was nervous--especially because of the surprise element. But the audience was receptive, willing to participate in the self-reflection activity, and open to learning about the topic. Years later, I continue to hear feedback from attendees on how that talk shifted their thinking.

Sponsors Before signing a sponsorship agreement, ask about speaker diversity, request the organizers be intentional with speaker choices, and offer introductions. Sponsorship often comes with multiple event tickets. Make sure some of those tickets go to people of color or women within your organization. If one of those attendees hasn't been to the conference before, make sure the more experienced attendee knows they should facilitate helpful introductions for the first-time attendee.

Speakers Before accepting a speaking engagement, ask about the diversity of the speaking lineup. This is the language I use on my website, which you are welcome to copy. "Please note, I only speak at events with a racially diverse speaker lineup, will not speak on all white panels, nor will I be moderator for a group of all male experts. I am happy to provide introductions to your conference coordinator to help you bring more diverse talent and opinions on stage."

Attendees Give feedback on the racial and gender representation of speakers (including positive feedback when it's warranted) after the conference. For events where you know someone on the agenda committee, check in at the planning stage and express your interest in hearing from women and people of color from the stage; offer introductions if you can.

Lastly, as we plan for events in 2021 and beyond, we can use the leverage that conferences have to build a better financial-services industry--one where we value and listen to women, people of color, and especially women of color. In this way, conferences can lead the way by being a place where those voices are not only heard but also elevated and amplified.

Sonya Dreizler is a speaker, author and consultant focused on fostering candid conversations about gender and race in financial services. She is also a subject matter expert in ESG and responsible investing, and a former chief executive officer for an independent broker-dealer/registered investment advisor. The author is a freelance contributor to Morningstar. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.

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