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Under The Microscope: A Closer Look at Unintentional Bias
Opinion  | WEIGH IN
Under the Microscope: A Closer Look at Unintentional Bias
By Sue Thompson, 3.13.2018

This week, amidst all of the celebrations of International Women’s Day, with bell ringings at the stock exchanges around the globe, an audience member at one of the events highlighted an upcoming conference. It was an industry conference, sponsored by various companies in the ETF ecosystem. The agenda highlighted the eighteen speakers, all of whom were male.


It would be easy to rail against this conference as a sexist, #TimesUp, example of how women are discriminated against in the financial services industry. But, I think we need to take a closer look, because viewing this at a superficial level doesn’t tell the whole story and certainly doesn’t help us solve the problem.


Here is why. The conference in question is being organized by ETF Trends, which is headed by Tom Lydon. Tom was one of the first male members of Women in ETFs (WE). He has donated his camera crews and production people’s time to create videos for the WE website. He has highlighted WE in ETF Trends. The sponsors of this conference include organizations such as Oppenheimer and JP Morgan, both of which have women (who are also active WE members) heading their respective ETF businesses. Having worked with all of these organizations and people for years, I can categorically state that they are committed to diversity. So how did this happen?


I believe that this is a great example of how unintentional bias plays out. People, simply by running their business without consciously thinking about diversity, inadvertently contributed to a completely nondiverse event.


In this article, I hope to shed light on how these conferences are funded and organized and what people can do in their business to ensure that they are not held hostage to their own unconscious bias.


Industry Conferences

First, it’s important to realize how industry conferences are organized and funded. Generally, conference organizers need sponsors to fund the conference. Typically, there are various levels of sponsorship. The more you pay, the more your firm gets highlighted, whether through advertising or the opportunity to nominate speakers.


For sponsors, this is an occasion to educate advisors or the public on particular topics. For example, companies that have launched smart beta ETFs may want to inform advisors on how their offering may differ from what is in the marketplace. Sponsors, acting in their own best interest, nominate the person in their organization who would be the best speaker for that topic. Sponsors may not see the complete speaker line up until all presenters have been confirmed and thus would have no way of knowing about the lack of diversity in the overall conference, since they may have only supplied one or two speakers.


Furthermore, sponsors zealously guard their prerogatives and do not take kindly to seeing a conference organizer include speakers who have not paid for sponsorship. Meanwhile, conference organizers risk losing sponsors if they push back too hard on the sponsor’s nominated speakers. Even if conference organizers are willing to push back on sponsors to get greater diversity, they may not know the sponsors’ teams well enough to make that request.


So how do we fix this?

The first step needs to happen at the sponsor level.

  • Sponsors should be looking at their own organizations and asking what they can do to ensure greater diversity – particularly in product and investment strategy areas. It is just good business. Study after study show that women investors and women in leadership are accretive to a company’s bottom line.

  • Senior women at sponsor organizations need to be more willing to speak at conferences. When I have asked senior women why they are not speaking at conferences, I get one of three responses: (1) “I’m too busy;” (2) “I am uncomfortable speaking on that topic”; or (3) “We are trying to highlight our subject matter expert”. Although all of those are understandable reasons, we need to be the change we want to see in this industry. To the senior women out there – you got where you are because you are smart and capable. You can help fix this.
  • Sponsors need to hold conference organizers accountable for diversity as well. The United Nations has a policy where they will not sponsor conferences unless 50% of the speakers are diverse. That may be bolder than firms that are running for-profit businesses can go, but simple consciousness can go a long way to addressing this problem.


The next step is what Women in ETFs can do. WE needs to share a list of speakers and topics on which they are experts with conference organizers. WE have to be willing to sit down and have frank discussions with sponsors and organizers on how to ensure that we see greater diversity at conferences.


Finally, conference organizers need to “gut check” their speaker line-up. First, go back to the sponsors with specific requests for diverse speakers. If that doesn’t work, let sponsors know that the conference will be adding additional speakers to address the lack of diversity – even if the additional diverse speakers are with non-sponsoring firms.


“According to a 2017 report from the BMO Wealth Institute, women in the U.S. now control $14 trillion in assets, more than half of the total personal wealth in the country.” (FA-Magazine, March 2018) Women both notice and care when there is a lack of gender diversity. One of the most positive articles on addressing unintentional bias posits that what we need to establish is an honest dialogue and “substitute habits.” I hope that this article and some of the recommendations above can be a start in that direction.