Nicole Casperson on the Financial Industry's DEI Failures | ETF Trends

Recently Evan Harp sat down with Nicole Casperson, author of the Fintech is Femme newsletter, host of Humans of Fintech, and a journalist, public speaker, and educator. Their conversation, some of which was featured in “Finance Has A Problem,” was wide-ranging, spanning the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts in the financial industry and how finance can become more inclusive and transform from an industry into a community. An edited transcript of their conversation follows below. 

Evan Harp: When it comes to diversity in the financial industry, we’ve seen marginal improvements, but finance is still significantly more white and male than the rest of the country. What can we do better?

Nicole Casperson, author of Fintech Is Femme: We can implement effective policies. For example, NASDAQ has a diversity rule now for companies, which states that if a Nasdaq-listed company doesn’t have at least one woman and one member who identifies as non-white or LGBTQ+ on their board, the company has to issue a statement explaining why.

These goals and targets are essential for progress. But there also needs to be holistic buy-in from everyone. The true reason why some efforts fail is that we’re just being reactive to where there’s a lack of diversity in our industry. We slap on some policies and mandates, or people are just trying to fill a quota, which is just reacting to things.

Nicole Casperson, author of Fintech Is Femme

Some of the best companies that I’ve ever interviewed or worked with, which have diversity as a part of their business model, don’t have diversity mandates. Diverse leaders just naturally prioritize it because they know you need to have diversity to reach any kind of level of innovation, sustainability, or success. You have to have multiple perspectives in a room.

There’s also a level of divisiveness within this conversation. If I’m not a diversity, equity, and inclusion expert or I’m not a “diverse” person, I might think it’s not my place to say anything. When, in reality, please do! [We need to get] to a place where every single leader is actively thinking about cultivating a holistic amount of diversity in their company, in their network, and in the people they talk to every day. Until that happens, we remain stagnant.

Harp: Even mentioning the lack of diversity in the financial industry can raise hackles. How do we effectively deal with that response?

Casperson: By reminding people that what happens to one of us can happen to any of us. White supremacy impacts all of us [including white people]. We can’t look at each other and try to affix blame, but our history is our history. We have to actively decide that, instead of just saying, “It is how it is,” we’re going to work every single day to have a more diverse and inclusive industry.

I think [we see this response] because there’s a scarcity mindset, where our world was built around an idea that there are only so many resources available for so many people and so you have to fight your way to ensure that you have your spot.

That mindset does not serve us. This is a great big world, and technology has shown us just how much more we could stretch this financial system so that it touches far more people. We can open up our market share and make more money while also helping people. But the scarcity mindset says, “People want more women in power; people want more people of color in power; does that mean I’m not going to get to have my place in power?” No! It’s not about replacing you. Just because someone is finally getting their chance doesn’t take away from you and the resources that you are able to receive.

I think we have to get away from the fragile mindset and have a collaborator mindset. If you think with a different mindset of, “What if I, as a privileged white person, pulled in more diverse people to sit next to me and have a voice?” Imagine how much more we could do! Imagine how much bigger our company could be! Imagine how many more people would feel understood!

We are a human community. There are more than enough resources for everyone to succeed. In fact, there will be more resources when we work to succeed together and when we stop trying to play the “oppression Olympics.” Oppression is different depending on your dimensions but designed to make us look at each other and go, “I’ve had it harder. No, I’ve had it harder.” That discussion gets us nowhere. We get mad at each other, and then the system just keeps going because no one’s fixing it. So instead of fixing the blame on each other, why don’t we look at each other and understand we all have this in common? We’ve all been oppressed by the system.

Harp: I like that. It’s very empathy-forward, an acceptance that people are going to have the baggage and trauma that they have, and what can you do within the confines of that? So let’s talk solutions. There’s a lot of resistance and inertia in the world of finance to ideas like adding employees to a board, or implementing salary transparency, no matter how logical, or how clearly the data shows upside. How do we dismantle the resistance to concrete changes and get things moving?  

Casperson: Something I’m trying to move away from is simply being okay with having diversity at the table. Like, “Oh, women have a seat at the table now. Oh, people of color have a seat at the table, [everything’s fine] now.” Having a seat at the table means nothing. Just because someone is present and you get to check your boxes doesn’t mean anything is solved.

Is that person a fully valued collaborator? Are you actively working to bring women and diverse perspectives into the actual creation of the thing that you’re doing? That, to me, is how you begin.

Of course, there’s going to be resistance to changing what’s been the way it is for so long. I think the mindsets around being resistant to good or new policies, you know. “Oh, you’re going to have pay transparency now? Well, I didn’t have that throughout my career. And now these kids suddenly get to have pay transparency!” Yeah! Are you not interested in the world becoming a better place? Are you not interested in creating growing trees for people in the future to enjoy shade you may not know? I fundamentally believe that, as human beings, we were put on this planet to disrupt, change, and evolve consistently.

The resistance in this mindset of “things are just like this, and they’ve been working fine. It’s fine.” What, we, the financial services industry, we’re cool with “fine?” What about excellent? What about the best we can be? That’s where the mindset needs to shift.

Harp: What’s the most useful thing that a white male financial professional, even someone who might not be in a position of power or a gatekeeper, can do to help move the needle forward?

Casperson: It’s your day-to-day actions. As a white male financial professional, the best thing you can do is when your woman, person of color, diverse colleague, friend, or whoever tells you something and confides in you in any way – you should be looking out for it.

If you can see it, you should tell them that you see it and fully accept all the things they’re feeling and [let them know]that everything that they’re experiencing and feeling is valid. Because one of the biggest hurdles that I am still facing now, that anyone marginalized has faced, is being gaslighted into believing that our experiences aren’t real.

When you gaslight a whole bunch of people, that turns into impostor syndrome. That turns to not applying for jobs that they could be good enough for. It turns into diverse communities not wanting to speak up because they’re afraid. It turns into them not being the best employee possible because no one even believes them, so they think they’re crazy. One of the best things you can do is to just be there and listen.

Also, if there’s ever a time when you get asked to speak at an event, suggest a female or person of color who could potentially speak to the subject. Ask if you can also bring this person on the panel or recommend this person. Be the person that brings women and people of color and diverse communities into the fold. You may not always understand them and their experiences, but you can validate them.

As a woman who is a part of the gaslit community and is always working on her confidence, it means the world to have a white male, especially an older white male, colleague that can validate my feelings and the way that I see the world.

Harp: Who are some of the thought leaders trying to solve these issues in finance, who readers should be paying attention to?

Casperson: Oh, there are so many people! I’m happy to share a few. Mellody Hobson from Ariel Investments is an incredible advocate for this work. Someone I am personally always looking to is Sallie Krawcheck. Lule Demmissie from eToro. Lazette Braxton is huge. Tyrone Ross. Sonya Dreizler, obviously. Anyone that’s been on my podcast. There really are so many.

If you really want the conversation to be that much stronger, it should come from a woman or a person of color. That said, white people? It is your time to shine. Did you think that the DEI conversation meant hide? No. We need y’all to be in the front of the protests. We need you on the front lines, hand in hand with us on this journey.

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