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Power 100 Q&A: Erika Irish Brown

Worth spoke with Bloomberg’s Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion.

BY WORTH | Current Issue | Oct 19, 2017
Erika Irish Brown, Bloomberg's Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion.

Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Bloomberg

THE 98TH MOST POWERFUL PERSON IN FINANCE

Q: How has the financial industry changed in terms of including women and people of color since your start in the early 1990s?

A: The industry has changed a lot in terms of cultural norms and what is acceptable in the workplace. But when you think about who the individuals are in senior leadership and the overall diversity of the workforce, that has not changed as much as I personally would have liked. There have been ebbs and flows. Bull markets have seen great improvements in diversity, and there have been other market events that have worked against the gains we’ve seen.

So, when the market is up, executives pay attention to diversity, but when it’s down, women and people of color are let go first?

There are times when that has been the case. And it’s also that “last in, first out” theory, people who were not as well tenured and well established.

How has the understanding of the benefits of diversity in finance changed?

When I first started, a lot of evidence around diversity and inclusion was anecdotal. There are several bodies of research now that have documented how diverse firms, on gender and ethnicity, have higher financial performance than their peers. There are some real commonsense arguments about how decisions are made. Diverse groups are more disruptive. When you think about how global all of our businesses are now and what the global talent pool looks like, you would think that if you were really getting the best and brightest from all of those global talent pools, [businesses] would be far more diverse.

The debate around diversity and inclusion in business seems to have intensified since the election of Donald Trump.

There is greater awareness around diversity and inclusion issues inside and outside the workplace than there has ever been in modern history. This has brought some issues that people have traditionally kept out of the workplace into the workplace. People expect to be their authentic selves inside the workplace. That heightened awareness has been eye-opening for some. This is an opportunity for us to confirm loud and clear that diversity and inclusion are key values at our company, and we are going to be vocal and visible.

As a nation, and as a business community, are we going forward or backward?

I can’t speak for those who feel empowered to try to change the appreciation of the value of diversity. They feel that the current environment has empowered them to voice a different opinion. We can share fact-based information on why we may have different views, but it’s also not OK to exclude people who have views that are different from our own. There has to be some level of respect.

Several times this year, CEOs have spoken out against specific statements by the president or actions taken by the administration. Are businesses taking on a new level of moral leadership?

There are a lot of CEOs who believe diversity is a business imperative—their cultural values and their accountability to their shareholders and their employees support inclusion. Most people’s clients are looking for their service providers to be dedicated to diversity as well. A lot of companies that are taking a stand have corporate cultural values, and some of what has been said has not been consistent with those values.

Some CEOs are in the spotlight and have the ability to influence through their actions. But anyone who’s in any leadership capacity has the ability to model good behavior and call out bad behavior. Even investors have the ability through proxy votes to raise issues. It shouldn’t be left to Fortune 100 CEOs.

See Erika Irish Brown on the 2017 Power 100 List.

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