Navigating Diversity Challenges in Financial Services

8 July 2024
Latest Insights From Symmetra, Diversity, Knowledge

Insights for Banks and Large Financial Institutions


The financial services sector, encompassing banks and large financial institutions, plays a pivotal role in the global economy. However, these institutions face unique diversity challenges that can hinder their ability to innovate, serve diverse customer bases, and maintain a positive corporate image. This article explores these challenges and offers strategic insights to foster inclusive cultures and equitable opportunities within these organisations.

The Unique Diversity Challenges in Financial Services

In an era where D&I are increasingly recognised as critical components of business success, financial services firms are navigating a complex landscape of unique challenges. While many companies already understand the business case for a diverse and inclusive workforce, the coming years are set to place D&I at the forefront for financial services firms and their senior leaders. This shift is driven by enhanced regulatory focus, increased diversity reporting, and evolving societal expectations.

2023 marked a significant year for regulatory attention on diversity and inclusion, particularly within the UK financial services sector. UK regulators published proposals aimed at boosting D&I across the industry, recognising that effective diversity and inclusion practices foster healthy cultures, enhance risk management, and facilitate better decision-making. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has underscored the importance of conduct and workplace culture in its regulatory agenda, making DEI a core aspect. The FCA’s initiatives include proposing new rules and guidance to address non-financial misconduct and launching a survey for firms to disclose incidents of non-financial misconduct along with their detection and resolution methods.

In the United States, regulatory bodies have similarly intensified their focus on DEI. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been advocating for enhanced transparency in diversity practices, urging public companies to disclose more detailed information about their workforce diversity. Additionally, the OCC and the Federal Reserve have been promoting diversity within financial institutions through various initiatives, including the requirement for financial institutions to submit annual reports detailing their diversity policies and practices.

The intensified regulatory focus on diversity and inclusion is not merely a compliance exercise but a fundamental shift towards recognising the strategic value of a diverse workforce. Regulatory bodies understand that diverse teams drive innovation, improve decision-making, and reflect a broader customer base. For financial institutions, this means that embracing DEI is integral to maintaining competitiveness in a globalised market. The increased transparency and reporting requirements are aimed at creating a culture of accountability and continuous improvement, pushing firms to move beyond tokenistic efforts and embed DEI into their core strategic objectives.

Despite these regulatory advancements, financial services firms continue to face significant DEI challenges.

Gender Representation and Pay Disparities

Gender representation remains a critical issue, with women significantly underrepresented in senior leadership roles. Research highlighted that women hold only 21% of leadership positions in the financial sector globally, a disparity attributed to biased promotion practices and a lack of mentorship opportunities1. Furthermore, the gender pay gap persists, with women in financial services earning significantly less than their male counterparts, as evidenced by a 2023 Financial Times study showing an average gender pay gap of around 22% in the UK financial services industry.


of women hold leadership positions

Systemic Barriers and Long-Term Solutions

Addressing gender disparities in the financial services sector requires tackling systemic barriers that hinder women’s career progression. This includes reassessing promotion criteria that may inadvertently favour male employees, implementing robust mentorship and sponsorship programs to support women’s advancement, and ensuring pay transparency to address the gender pay gap.

Racial and Ethnic Diversity

Racial and ethnic diversity also presents substantial challenges. A Report revealed that racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented at all levels within financial services in the US. They occupy only 40% of entry-level positions, and this representation steadily declines throughout the corporate pipeline, dropping by 75% by the time it reaches the C-Suite. Promotion and retention of minority employees are hampered by biased evaluation processes and a lack of inclusive networking opportunities. Additionally, Black employees are 1.4x more likely to leave their jobs than their white counterparts due to limited career progression opportunities.

Structural Inequities and Inclusive Practices

To address racial and ethnic disparities, financial institutions must confront structural inequities that pervade their organizational practices. This involves revising performance evaluation criteria to eliminate biases, creating pathways for minority employees to access leadership training and development programs, and fostering inclusive networking opportunities.

Workplace Culture and Mental Health

Creating an inclusive workplace culture is another critical area. The financial services industry’s traditionally high-pressure, competitive environment can be unwelcoming to diverse talent, perpetuating exclusionary behaviours and microaggressions. This challenging culture not only affects employee morale but also impacts mental health, particularly for employees from marginalised backgrounds who may face additional stress due to workplace inequities.

Cultivating Psychological Safety and Wellbeing

Addressing the mental health implications of workplace culture requires fostering psychological safety, where employees feel safe to express themselves without fear of retribution. Financial institutions should implement comprehensive mental health programs that provide support services, promote work-life balance, and address the specific needs of marginalized employees. Training leaders to recognize and address microaggressions and promoting allyship within the workplace can further contribute to a supportive and inclusive environment. By prioritising employee wellbeing, organisations can enhance retention, engagement, and overall productivity.

Addressing these multifaceted challenges requires a comprehensive approach. Financial services firms must implement targeted recruitment, mentorship programs, and bias training. Structural changes to promote a more inclusive culture are essential, as is leveraging data and analytics to monitor progress and ensure accountability in D&I efforts. With the regulatory landscape evolving and societal expectations rising, the financial services industry must prioritise diversity, equity, and inclusion to build resilient, innovative, and forward-thinking organisations.

Here are some Strategic Insights for Fostering Inclusive Cultures at financial services firms.

  • Leadership Commitment and Accountability: A strong commitment from leadership is crucial for driving diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives. Leaders must not only endorse D&I policies but also actively participate in their implementation. This includes setting measurable diversity goals and holding themselves accountable for progress.
  • Inclusive Recruitment Practices: To overcome structural barriers, financial institutions need to revamp their recruitment processes. This could include implementing blind recruitment techniques to eliminate unconscious bias and expanding outreach to diverse talent pools. Partnering with organisations that focus on minority groups, such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or professional associations for women and minorities, can help attract a more diverse range of candidates.
  • Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs: Effective mentorship and sponsorship programs are essential for supporting the career progression of underrepresented employees. Unlike mentorship, which provides guidance and advice, sponsorship involves senior leaders advocating for high-potential employees, supporting and nurturing them critical career opportunities.
  • Cultivating an Inclusive Culture: Creating an inclusive culture requires more than just diverse representation; it necessitates an environment where all employees feel valued and empowered to contribute. This can be achieved through ongoing D&I training, fostering open dialogues about diversity, and encouraging employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs can provide a support network for minority employees and help raise awareness about their unique challenges.
  • Addressing Unconscious Bias: Unconscious bias training is crucial for helping employees recognise and mitigate their own biases. However, training alone is not enough. It should be part of a broader strategy that includes revising policies and practices to remove systemic biases.
  • Leveraging Data and Analytics: Data and analytics play a critical role in measuring the effectiveness of D&I initiatives. Financial institutions should regularly collect and analyse data on workforce demographics, employee engagement, and career progression. This data can identify gaps and inform targeted interventions.
  • Navigating diversity challenges in financial services requires a multifaceted approach that goes beyond compliance. While enhanced global regulations can provide a framework, financial institutions must take proactive measures to bridge the divide. Through fostering unwavering leadership commitment, instituting inclusive recruitment and mentorship initiatives, nurturing an inclusive culture, tackling unconscious bias head-on, and harnessing the power of data, banks and major financial entities can forge pathways to equitable opportunities for every employee.