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Magazine Issues » March 2021

Opinion: The diversity challenge

Fiona_RintoulIf one person owned the US presidential inauguration in January, it was not Joe Biden, not even Kamala Harris, the first ever female vice president, but the 22-year-old national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman. Everything from Gorman’s hairstyle to her yellow coat to her incredibly poised reading of her poem The Hill We Climb was fresh and amazing. 

That Gorman’s Dutch publisher, Meulenhof, is now embroiled in controversy over its decision to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a non-binary white writer, to translate Gorman’s inaugural poetry collection into Dutch says a lot about the hill we climb when we try to champion diversity – especially if outrage is our constant guide. After a pile-on of commentators outraged that Meulenhof had not hired a black translator to convey Gorman’s words in Dutch, Rijneveld withdrew from the project. 

What’s interesting is that Rijneveld was Gorman’s choice. In the 29-year-old winner of the International Booker Prize, Gorman saw not a white person but a fellow young writer who had achieved fame early. This is indeed a strange kind of equality. A white writer can – presumably – have a translator of any ethnicity, but a black writer must have a translator who is black. 

I say this not to undermine the drive towards diversity and inclusion (D&I) – which is gathering pace, and a proper thing too – but to highlight the need for the right motivation. It is too easy for zealots, on the one hand, to use a perceived misstep to ignite a pyre of indignation, and for the can’t-be-bothered (or indeed the bigoted), on the other, to turn D&I into a box-ticking exercise. 

This industry, perhaps more than any other, should understand the value of diversity. As BofA Global Research points out in a recent report on diversity, rule 101 of investing is to diversify capital to maximise returns, and so it is obvious that the same principle should apply to human capital. However, the report offers up some startling examples of inequality. Last year, there were no black senior executives in any of the FTSE 100 companies. There are more men called Dave in the UK finance industry than women managing funds. 

The report also shows that diversity itself needs to diversify. Within corporate D&I policies, 96% of firms concentrate on gender diversity. Only 58% of firms include LGBTQ in their D&I policies and only 25% include disability groups. Religious minorities and intergenerational groups are often overlooked. 

I would add social class to that list. Social is of course hard to define, but if a fund company talks about how its products are a handy way to save for school fees, I think we can safely conclude senior management hasn’t thought about this issue at all. 

The fund industry, with its power to engage, has a huge role to play in setting the agenda, and to do that effectively it must of course eat its own cooking. The cost of not addressing these inequalities is not just social but financial. According to BofA Global Research, S&P 500 companies with above-median gender diversity on their boards see 15% higher ROE. We must remember, however, that for diversity to be meaningful, the goal must be to have the best person in the job – not to hit quotas. 

“We want to learn from this by talking and we will walk a different path with the new insights,” cringed Maaike le Noble, Meulenhof’s general director, after Rijneveld withdrew from translating Amanda Gorman’s work. I wonder what those insights are. Personally, I think Gorman deserves the best Dutch translator and I rather suspect Rijneveld was that person.

Fiona Rintoul, editor-at-large at Funds Europe

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