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Magazine Issues » June 2019

Opinion: Mind your culture

Fiona_RintoulLast weekend, an old school friend of mine came to visit. She’s a university teacher, and we found ourselves discussing the toilets at Manchester University, which are now all unisex.

And so, we embarked upon the kind of discussion that only middle-aged people can have. About the incomprehensibility of millennial designations such as cisgender and transgender. About the weirdness of pronoun preferences. About whether we should laugh or cry that Scottish Book Trust staff put their preferred pronoun after their name in their email signature.

“Perhaps every generation has to do something that completely baffles the previous generation,” opined my friend.

Perhaps. I, for example, am non-plussed by the University of Massachusetts’ “Pronoun Dos and Don’ts”. However, I assume they make sense to the students at that august institution. “Don’t say ‘male pronouns’ and ‘female pronouns’,” UMass advises. “Pronouns are not necessarily tied to someone’s gender identity: some trans people use ‘he/him/his’ or ‘she/her/her’, but do not identify as male or female, respectively.”

As a grammar Nazi, I’m always happy to see people taking an interest in pronouns, but this slightly made me want to scream. Which is probably how my parents felt when I talked about “gay friends” and “straight friends” (to say nothing of “the patriarchy”) and didn’t like it if they affected not to understand.

What has this got to do with asset management? Well, asset management firms’ culture is becoming ever-more important when it comes to attracting staff. And diversity and inclusion are a big part of that – the biggest part, according to Roger Urwin, global head of investment content at the Thinking Ahead Institute (TAI), established in 2015 by Willis Towers Watson. “We believe diversity and inclusion will become a cornerstone of the asset manager culture,” he observed in early June, as the TAI launched ‘The asset manager of tomorrow’ research paper.

Funds Europe’s own diversity and inclusion roundtable, which took place in May, revealed just how seriously asset managers are now taking this topic (see pp 28-35). But it also showed that the debate has so far been quite narrowly focused on gender.

“It’s not just gender, and today the agenda is still mostly about gender diversity,” noted Natixis’s Catherine Morat.

When women started campaigning for better representation in the industry, they probably never imagined that we would one day be debating what a woman is. Perhaps that debate will still be current in 20 years’ time and perhaps it won’t. But the TAI’s paper on the asset manager of tomorrow is surely right to finger culture as central to asset managers’ future success and diversity and inclusion as essential to a winning culture.

It’s worrying, then, that the TAI paper finds that only a small proportion of asset managers measure and manage their own culture. “We see culture as a big differentiator in determining the successful asset management firms of the future,” says Urwin. “But perversely, many firms are so hard-wired to the use of precise measurement that they omit culture altogether in their strategy, treating it as a non-controllable item.” The culprit, according to the TAI, is short-termism – which, as well as distracting from the long-term competitiveness of their businesses, causes them to undervalue culture’s pivotal role.

The time to act is now. The TAI believes that those that don’t put themselves at serious risk of five- to ten-year existential threats. And then there’s the toilets to think about…

Fiona Rintoul is editor-at-large at Funds Europe

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