#ItzOnWealthTech Ep. 43: Female Leaders in Technology

“Women are over mentored and under sponsored. Mentors are just a nice relationship. But a sponsor is the one who’s going to move the needle for you. We need more sponsors to ensure women are ready to be promoted to their next position.”

— Christina Townsend, Head of Platform Strategy for Advisor Solutions, BNY Mellon | Pershing

Diversity is one of the most important issues in our industry and one that does not get enough attention.  This changed at the T3 Advisor 2020 Conference this year where they not only changed the conference policy to include a code of conduct, but there were two all female panels.  This one was technology leaders from each of the big four custodians all talking about their firms efforts, problems and successes in and around diversity and inclusion.

The panel was made up of these industry leaders:

  • Suzanne Siracuse, CEO and founder of Suzanne Siracuse Consulting Services
  • Lisa Berman, Head of Platform Technology for Fidelity Institutional
  • Dani Fava, Director of Innovation at TD Ameritrade Institutional
  • Christina Townsend, Managing Director and Head of Platform Strategy for Advisor Solutions at BNY Mellon | Pershing
  • Lauren Wilkinson, VP of Digital Advisor Solutions at Schwab Advisor Services

Now hit the Play button!

This episode of Wealth Management Today is brought to you by Ezra Group Consulting. If your firm is evaluating new technology or looking to improve your current wealth platform, you need to contact Ezra Group. Don’t spend another day using technology that doesn’t offer an elegant user experience. Your advisors and clients deserve better and you can deliver it to them with the help of Ezra Group.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • Origins of the All-Female Tech Panel [03:24]
  • Programs and Initiatives Making a Difference [04:47]
  • The Importance of Self Advocacy [07:20]
  • Where Does AI Fit Into This Narrative? [08:35]
  • Best Practices Around Talent Development [13:00]
  • Diversity and Leadership Development Programs [19:10]
  • Programs Versus Culture [25:03]

Companies and Initiatives Mentioned

Related Articles

Complete Episode Transcript:

Craig: What are some of the programs that the top RIA custodians are working on to improve their diversity? Why does every wealth management firm think they’re diverse, but none of them really have a plan to implement? And how is artificial intelligence both a cause of and also a way to solve some of our biggest diversity problems? These questions and more will be answered on this episode of #ItzOnWealthTech for the Wealth Management Today podcast.

Craig: Welcome everyone to #ItzOnWealthTech from Wealth Management Today. I’m your host, Craig Iskowitz, and I’m the founder and CEO of Ezra Group, a consulting and research firm that helps wealth management companies make better technology and business decisions. I’m honored to present this episode where I was able to lead a discussion with four leaders in wealth management technology, who all happen to be women. The topic is one of the most important ones in our industry today and it’s about diversity. What are the systemic problems in our industry? How are these problems manifesting themselves and what are some of the leading firms doing to improve the situation? This episode was recorded at the T3 Advisor Conference on our mobile podcasting rig and was originally scheduled for just 8-10 minutes, like all the other interviews. It was going to be packed in with a bunch of other people in our consolidated or in our compilation episodes, and then I decided that wasn’t good enough. We needed more exposure for this topic. So I made an executive decision and turned it into a full podcast episode on its own. Here it is presented to you, I hope you enjoy it. I hope you after you listen, you provide some comments and feedback and share it widely with your networks. So here we are the leaders in wealth management technology.

Craig: So happy you guys are here. So we’re gonna jump right in. No intros. People can Google you if they want more information. you guys doing a panel later today, we’re going to get a little preview, a little sneak, little taste of it. so tell me a little bit about Suzanne, I guess what’s moving the needle on creating a more diverse industry and why is it important?

Origins of the All-Female Tech Panel

Suzanne: Well, first I’d like to talk about how this panel came to be. So this is the first time at T3 that there is a women leaders in tech panel. I’ve been doing some work with Joel Bruckenstein, the founder of T3, and we talked about all of the different things that have been happening in the industry and specifically last year with some incidents that happened at events and how it was really critical for industry conferences to step up and to focus a little bit more on inclusion and not just the same old speakers. And so I worked with Joel and we came up with this amazing list of women and the cool part was it wasn’t hard to find women leaders in technology. You just have to ask them.

Craig: If you know where to look.

Suzanne: Exactly. And so we went to four of the leading firms in the space, I happened to know all of these women both by name and personally, and we’re just really lucky to have them all here and want to participate and their firms saying that they wanted them to participate. So I wanted to just kind of talk about how this came to be. We also are having a reception after the panel to really celebrate women and inclusion within the FinTech space.

Programs & Initiatives Making a Difference

Craig: That’s terrific. I’m looking forward to that. So what are some of the programs or initiatives you think are actually making a difference here and who wants to take that? Lisa, Lauren and Christina?

Christina: I guess I would just share there’s a number of programs that I think, many firms are running these days, whether they’re a women’s group or any sort of business resource group. We have a reverse mentoring program that’s looking at bringing in the next generation and how we can learn from them. I think what’s more important though than the specific program, is how it’s built and what are the characteristics. So we really focus on making sure that all of our work ties directly to and supports our business strategy because ultimately that’s what it’s about. It’s about diversity driving a better business outcome. So that’s one really big focus. The other thing is we’re trying to learn along the way. One thing that we’re really passionate about is that I think women are over mentored and under sponsored. And so mentors, I think it’s a little bit more of a nice relationship and the sponsor is the one who’s going to move the needle for you. It’s more things like that that you want to focus your programs on to be the most successful.

Lauren: I can jump in here next. So at Schwab we’ve done quite a bit of research on the overall evolving demographics in the United States and some interesting statistics that stand out here. 48% of millennials are nonwhite, actually, sorry, 43% of millennials are nonwhite and 48% of millionaires are women. And I think when you hear those demographics, it becomes really important that we think about diversity and make sure that diversity is not just good for social reasons, it’s good business to make sure that we have a diverse variety of perspectives at the table. Some of the programs that we have done at Schwab to help registered investment advisors with diversity, we have a program called RIA Talent Advantage where we help advisors think about diversity proactively in terms of hiring and also creating an inclusive workplace once people are hired. And then additionally we have a benchmarking study where we help advisors see where do they stack up relative to other firms in terms of demographics and diversity.

Importance of Self Advocacy

Craig: So I heard from Suzanne about a panel at the FSI Conference from senior women in space. So Lisa, can you talk a little bit about the importance of self advocacy?

Lisa: I can, so I’m going to echo what Christina said, which is that conversation started with, let’s talk about mentoring. And we said, well mentoring is great and it is really nice on a personal level to help move your career forward. But sponsorships are what really start to move the needle. And then we had an interesting dialogue around sponsors are important and they absolutely do make a difference, but really women need to be able to advocate for themselves, the value of self advocacy. You can do a great job, but if people don’t know about it and you’re not making it known what you’re doing, and importantly what your career objectives are, then you can’t leave it up to other people. And then we talked about the fact that self-advocacy, sponsorship, mentorship is all good on a personal level, but as we look at this industry and think about how to scale that, programs like allyship are really something that can happen at scale. So allyship, a member of the majority helps to understand and move forward the underrepresented classes. So when you think about women talking to women, it’s probably not enough in this industry to move the needle at scale. We need to invite men into that conversation and programs like Men as Allies can help us there.

Where Does AI Fit Into the Narrative?

Craig: We’re hearing a lot about artificial intelligence and how technology fits in and how that fits in, but artificial intelligence fit into the picture?

Dani: So I’ll take this one, Craig. This is a really interesting thing that’s happening. And I think what’s happened in a couple of cases is that artificial intelligence has actually shed light on problems that have existed for a very long time. And just quickly, how artificial intelligence works is that your training a machine to make decisions and to mirror the decisions that it makes based on what humans have done in the past. So you take a bunch of data and you load it up into this machine and you say, learn from this data and then replicate my decisions. So what’s been really interesting that has happened in a couple of cases, namely Amazon with resumes, right? So Amazon tried to automate and apply artificial intelligence to resume picking or selecting. And what they found after training the machine with all the data that they gave it, is they found a flaw. They found that, wow, we have been picking men’s resumes over women’s in a large number of cases disproportionately due to, who knows, maybe their stronger language or just some, some other kind of resume writing skills that men possess and women are just different. However, what artificial intelligence is really done if it’s shown us that we have a problem. And the same thing that happened with Apple card and giving credit limits to men and women. And in some cases it was the husband and wife who got different credit limits and that really sheds a light on how flawed the human decision making process has been. So a lot of people ask me do you see artificial intelligence perpetuating this problem? And that’s a great question. I’m not so sure, but what I do see is that it is bringing a lot of awareness to what we’ve been trying to prove for quite some time.

Craig: It’s just backing up things that you knew inherently.

Lisa: Just want to add another interesting way that AI or machine learning is being used at Fidelity. So before actually getting in the resumes, we’re using machine learning to scan every one of our job postings to make sure that the language, exactly as you said, the language that we’re using in our postings is actually welcoming to all.

Lauren: We’ve actually begun doing something similar at Schwab so it’s really helping.

Suzanne: Just to jump in, a couple years ago when I was at InvestmentNews, we partnered with Schwab on a really fantastic white paper on advancing women in leadership. And it talked about how if you want different results you have to change the strategy. So to think, Oh I want to hire a more diverse culture, more a different type of talent into our firm. Well, in order to do that, you can’t keep doing the same things. You can’t use the same language. You can’t advertise in the same places. You can’t reach out to the same network. And so it all is this vicious cycle. And like unless you start to break the cycle, nothing’s going to really change. And it does work. If you, you just have to be dedicated to do it.

Lisa: A couple of other ideas just for people who are thinking about how to do that, one of the things that we do when we have senior leader positions or even managers and up, we actually mandate a diverse panel, so the final panel needs to have diversity on it. The interview panelers need to be a diverse panel because you hear different things depending upon your point of view and your perspective, so diverse panels. Generally it’s going to be more people because we want to get some people that are outside of the box and may not fit all of the criteria. I mean, studies have shown that women are less likely to apply for a role unless they check all the boxes. Whereas men counterparts are willing at 60% say, yeah, I’m going to throw my name in the ring and apply for it. So diverse panels, diverse slates.

Best Practices Around Talent Development

Craig: And one thing that Dani had mentioned about different credit limits for men and women. I imagine the men are getting higher credit limits when, what we’ve seen with the data from financial planning, risk profiling, that women are more conservative and more risk averse. So there are these firms who are giving higher credit limits to men because men are actually not doing a very good job. If they only had the right data to show that. So let’s hit another question here. Let’s talk about best practices around talent development. Christina, do you have some thoughts on how we can improve talent development?

Christina: Yeah, I think I do, and I was just gonna add to the previous conversation. We talk about this as an industry problem and I think the shift that we all have to realize is it’s our problem and every one of our roles, no matter where we are, it’s our problem to figure out how to solve. And so I think when you internalize it, you just approach it a little bit differently. And I agree that there’s lots of best practices that you can apply that aren’t overwhelming to do. Think about creating a panel and it’s not just about men and women, it’s about diversity of, of all types. I think that on the talent development side, one of the things that we actually did a study on that I wanted to share in our Elite Advisor Summit is we asked folks what is their number one challenge in running your business? And for the third year in a row that we’ve been asking this, they said attracting and retaining talent. So, okay, we all agree that that’s a challenge. The question to your point is how do we fix it? Well, we asked them, do you have any formal programs in place to measure diversity, to look at attracting talent from different schools or universities? Do you, to your point, you said, do you look at a diverse slate of candidates and only 40% of the people actually had those practices. So in my view, those are the steps that you can take that aren’t fundamentally too aspirational that can, that can move the needle. But you need some things programmatically in place. To your point, Suzanne, you can’t just say, you know what, I want to change the outcome without changing any of the steps along the way.

Lauren: Christina, I love what you’re saying about you need to take it on personally and personal accountability because at Schwab we have a similar approach of making sure we have a diverse panel and I will say, it does take work and commitment to do that as a hiring manager, you have to really make sure that you’re getting those diverse applicants and that you are taking it seriously.

Craig: Let’s go back to the thing about applications where a men will say, I’ll just take a shot, and women will say, well, I don’t meet all the requirements. It takes going back a step. So why is that? Is that because of how boys and girls are raised differently? Was it just an innate sense of how men were going to act because of evolution?

Suzanne: Let’s put on our behavioral finance hats. I mean I think it really depends and I don’t know if any of us have the exact answer for it, but every person, every woman that I’ve ever spoken to about this topic and specifically all has felt the same exact way that, yeah, I don’t want to put my hat in the ring for something unless I feel like I can really deliver and do a great job. And that is consistent. So, I don’t know why it’s like, there’s not anyone, any one woman that I’ve ever spoken to that hasn’t indicated that that was the way that she felt.

Dani: I think there might, there might be some truth to it coming from how boys and girls traditionally were raised. Because if you think about the “boys will be boys” code when they’re outside and they’re about to take a risk, right? They’re about to climb a tree. If you think about a mother watching or a father watching her son or daughter climb a tree, who’s going to be told to be more careful, who’s going to be told to fear getting their face scratched or getting their knees scratched? It’s usually, and typically in a traditional sense that the female who’s told to be worried, be scared, and be more careful when taking risks. And we see that even today. I’m a softball player, I played softball in college and I recently went to a youth softball game and I was very surprised that every female pitcher in softball now has to wear a face mask when they’re pitching, but men don’t. So this is a behavior and even though the softball, it travels slower than a hardball does when it comes off the bat. So really it’s perpetuating the idea though that that women should just be more careful and protect themselves more.

Craig: Last time I checked, men and women both have faces.

Lisa: Craig, can I just go back to the talent for one minute?

Craig: Lisa, absolutely, you can jump right in.

Diversity & Leadership Development Programs

Lisa: Thank you. So we’ve been talking a lot about attracting and hiring, but I think the numbers of bringing women in are actually starting to be pretty good. If you look at entry level positions, it’s developing and retaining those women as you get higher up into the organization. So things like explicitly making sure that part of your leadership development program has diverse candidates as part of that. And I think we’re seeing a real payoff there. So we have a mandate to have 40% of our leadership spots go to diverse candidates and then no surprise, 40% of our high potential associates are actually diverse.

Craig: But you have to make an effort to recruit them. You can’t wait. You can’t say, well we made it open, we made it a fair process. You still have to go out and recruit.

Dani: And it’s hard for a diverse candidate cause you want to look at the group of people you’re about to work with or spend so much time with, and you want at least some of them to look like you. So I know I was at Penn at Wharton and they have this sign all over the campus that says “it’s not a picture of us unless it’s a picture of all of us”. And I didn’t, I really didn’t know what it meant. And it took me a couple of times walking past it and then I started looking at pictures that people were posting of conferences. And I looked at these pictures and I said, Oh, I understand what it means now because when I see a picture of that conference, do I as a Hispanic female, do I want to be a part of that group? Is there anybody in that group who looks like me? And so I think recruiting is very important, but you also have to give a place where somebody is going to feel like they belong.

Christina: And I think we use the terms “diversity and inclusion”, so it’s not about the number, it’s not just about meeting a number, right? The inclusive part. And so we talk about the balance between being authentic, right? So gender and any other diversity, you have to be authentic, but you also have to assimilate into the culture, and it has to be one of inclusivity. And so I think we have two challenges. We have to, to attract the talent, we have to retain the talent. We have to make sure that it’s diverse in all ways and definitions, but in some cases the even harder part is once you’ve gotten that, it goes back to the retention as you have to actually be listening to them because those studies that tie diversity to better business results the little fine print is, and it must be an inclusive culture where you actually hear the different ideas, you don’t filter them out.

Craig: Because we’ve heard of the high profile cases, I don’t have to name any, where people who are diverse quit whatever that was because their voices weren’t being heard. They felt they were just there to be diverse.

Suzanne: Yeah. It’s like one of the number one reasons that people leave, is because of poor culture. One of the things that I instituted with my former team was again, going back to that change, you want to change the outcome, you have to change the strategy leading to that outcome. And so we started to interview candidates in groups and not just the hiring manager, and made sure that we had next gen talent. Somebody in a lot of cases that was never even a hiring manager, be part of that actual interview process. So when you’re hiring new candidates to come in to make sure that you have a representation, a diverse representation of who your employee base is so that the person that’s interviewing can really see who you are as an organization and a culture, not just from the hiring manager. So it’s just like a best practice thing.

Programs vs. Culture

Lisa: It goes to what Christina said, which is it’s not really about programs. Programs are great and they move the needle, but it’s about culture and really setting the cultural mandate and making it part of the DNA of an organization. That diversity and inclusion importantly is really important. So one of the things that we did at Fidelity, a couple of years ago, we mandated that everyone attends safe and respectful workplace training. And it wasn’t a video that you could kind of fast forward and check the box. Not that anyone would ever do that. Those videos are good, but it was an in person training. Every associate went through it, 20 people in a room outside facilitators ran the programs and we had really interesting dialogues around scenarios and where they read like red card, stop, stop. Not a good one or yellow or green. So two years later, interesting, we will often be in a meeting or be in a conversation and somebody will say something and someone will go, “oh, red card” and it’s sort of funny and we laugh a little bit. It really means that it stuck with us and we recognize when somebody says something that isn’t necessarily inclusive. And I think that’s how you start to change the culture.

Lauren: Well I think sponsorship is key too. You know both of you talked about sponsorship and to me that’s another key part of the inclusive workplace once the talent is in is we need to make sure that we are sponsoring those people, make sure that we’re hearing them, we’re hearing their concerns, they have a path. And so then it doesn’t just get stuck at the entry levels, but they have a clear promotion path.

Craig: Work their way up, the message has to go up the food chain.

Lauren: Yeah. And I think when you’re first developing a diversity program too, and maybe you’re not as diverse as you want to be, it really does take direct sponsorship at a senior level to make sure that there’s visibility and that there’s clear opportunities.

Craig: That works with any program, like we work with some of the biggest broker dealers in the country and we tell them whatever you’re implementing has got to come from the top down. You can’t expect the bottom up to just do things you want them to do, cause they’re busy with their day jobs and that’s what they’re most more focused on. If you want to change whatever it is, if it’s a program, it’s software or it’s how you interact with your coworkers, it’s gotta be from the top.

Lauren: Yeah, totally agree.

Craig: One thing that you mentioned is programs versus culture. So it’s easy to start a program. It’s hard to change a culture. It’s even harder to measure that. So anybody want to jump in? How do you measure if you’re making progress towards changing our culture?

Lauren: Well, one thing we do at Schwab is frequent pulse surveys where we try to check in, anonymous surveys to check in on how all team members are feeling, but then I think nothing can really take the place of person to person conversations. And I think it’s particularly important for people who are in a leadership position to really know their team members in particular need to reach out to people who might be in more of a minority population and understand where they are. I think nothing can really replace that.

Lisa: I do think there are measures, right? I think there are explicit measures. Exactly. So if you look at hiring results, that’s a measure. If you look at promotions across a cohort of like associates, that’s a measure. And it’s important that we do measure because what you measure, you manage.

Craig: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Suzanne: And even just with smaller companies like a lot of you, you all work at large companies, if you’re an advisor that’s listening to this I think you can tell by one on one conversations. But I think overall from the culture standpoint, it’s are you providing a safe place? And I mean safe by can you bring your true self to work? Can you feel comfortable about what you are, who you are, what you’re about, what you stand for no matter what? And that from you were saying to Craig, that all starts at the top. You can tell very easily by why are people leaving your organization. Are they leaving your organization? And if you see that pattern, then that’s something that you better recognize, and if you are a leader, make sure that you have a really great right hand that can always tell you something that you may not want to hear.

Craig: Do you think firms, I mean, we’re all with pretty big firms. All right. So what about a farm system or some sort of way to develop talent? Going to colleges, going into high schools, you’ll push it down to lower levels to start the encouragement there rather than once they’re adults and they’re doing applications. It’s very different than going back to high school and seeing how we can change that bias. Any thoughts on it?

Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I, I’ve, I would guess that I’m going to speak for all –

Craig: No don’t speak for all.

Lisa: Okay. I’m just speaking for myself. Absolutely, go to high schools, and we run summer programs where we bring in high school students and make sure they’re aware of financial services as a very vibrant and relevant career as well as technology. We go and meet associates where they are. So organizations like Grace Hopper, if you’re looking to recruit women in technology, you go to where they are and you go to Grace Hopper. Another thing that we’re doing is returnship programs. So it’s expensive to bring somebody on, right? To hire somebody to train them and get them up to speed. There are examples where people leave the career force often and not exclusively, but often women leaving to have a family. We have a formal returnship program where we bring them back in when they’re ready to reenter the workforce. We think about women in technology, we have a WITSIG Women in Technology Special Interest Group, they run programs, Girls Who Code, they go out and participate in Girls Who Code programs and bring their daughters to work, things like that. So it’s absolutely tapping into the pipeline before it’s actually a pipeline.

Christina: I also was just going to add, I think going back to artificial intelligence, and maybe this is happening and I don’t know yet, but to think about how I’m fascinated by a resume that could represent things that someone is interested in or like, not specific careers, but the types of activities or the types of things they excel at and being able to match that. Almost like you used to take a test to say what career would be best for you. But you know, I never came out that I would be in technology or project manager or anything I’ve done, it never came out. So I don’t know, there must’ve been something wrong with the one I took, but I liked the idea of in addition to educating, having a more mature way to expose people to jobs that they just never would have considered and in firms like all of ours, there are roles that are tech and marketing. I mean, you can pretty much do anything within the same company, which I think is really cool. I just don’t think that everyone knows and realizes what they’re good at could be a perfect fit for said job.

Craig: And Pershing was especially good at it, when they moved you around. When we met, you were a project manager.

Christina: Yes, yes, yes. Back in the day. Yes.

Craig: And you got the opportunity to move to different organizations grow and experience different parts of the company, to get you where you are today.

Suzanne: And that’s a great point about what Lisa was saying about allyship. So Marc Tibergien is your boss, and somebody that’s been a supporter.

Craig: More of a sponsor right?

Lisa: Yes. Supporter, sponsor, mentor probably often, but how important that is, right? Like this isn’t just women for women and this is about everyone. And I think that’s a really important thing. That’s why these conversations need to be had at these kind of conferences. It needs to be center stage, main stage, and not a breakout session on the last day of a conference.

Dani: Totally agree there. We can’t do it all on her own. There’s simply not enough of us yet. There’s not enough of us in the industry. There’s definitely not enough of us at the top. So we need that allyship so they can reach down and kind of help pull us forward. And at the same time we will push other women forward too.

Lisa: Yeah. And I think that’s a really important one Dani, it’s not just about men pulling, right? It’s about every leader recognizing the challenges of underrepresented groups and helping to advance them in order to achieve more.

Craig: Yeah. Maybe a little affirmative action at the next conference. Maybe let’s have 80% of the panels all women and then have some token men sprinkled in.

Lisa: No man-els? I can’t imagine.

Craig: So we’re excited for your session ladies, which is coming up soon. Any final thoughts?

Suzanne: Thanks for having us, for having us. Thank you for giving us this platform, again it’s important, and we’d want this too. We want things like this to be able to create change and it’s a great industry to be a part of and we just want more people to come into it.



The Wealth Tech Today blog is published by Craig Iskowitz, founder and CEO of Ezra Group, a boutique consulting firm that caters to banks, broker-dealers, RIA’s, asset managers and the leading vendors in the surrounding #fintech space. He can be reached at craig@ezragroupllc.com