Why everyone needs to be a Diversity Champion, and not just for a day

Rachael Oku

by , Team PensionBee

at PensionBee

04 June 2020 /  

PensionBee team of over 70 people in a group photo standing outside on some steps

I have two roles at PensionBee, that of Head of Brand and Communications and that of Diversity Champion. Never have my roles overlapped more than in the past week. By now the name of George Floyd, a man who was murdered at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department on 25 May, is ingrained in everyone’s consciousness. Like most, I was profoundly sad when I heard the news, unable to reconcile yet another senseless loss of a black life caused by systemic racism.

My heart has been heavy and the feeling that enough is enough has been palpable and harder than ever to suppress. Thankfully I’m not alone, and it feels as though the world is finally waking up to the fact that things cannot continue as they are and change is desperately needed for the good of humanity. What I’ve learned in the past few days, and wanted to share here, is that it’s not enough to grieve privately or demand change in our personal lives, we must use our voices to fight for equality and representation in our professional lives too. Each one of us can play a role.

Difficult conversations at work are essential

At PensionBee we believe our diversity is one of our biggest strengths and are incredibly proud to have achieved gender parity, and around 40% black, asian and minority ethnicity (BME) representation, which is unheard of in the pensions and wider financial services industry. We have a long-term ambition to grow this percentage at the most senior levels of the business, including on our board, and have a strong desire for our team to be the rule, rather than the exception.

Despite our leadership in this area, as a company we’ve had a lot of tough conversations this week on what we can be doing differently, from better supporting our staff who identify as BME, to giving more thought to the brands we work with and what our actions as a company say about us. It’s been challenging and emotional, but also incredibly inspiring, and I’m so thankful to my colleagues for speaking out, sharing their thoughts and ideas, and ultimately helping us evolve as a company.

PensionBee is a truly special place to work, and our desire to campaign for change and make the pensions industry more representative isn’t just lip service, it’s one of the very reasons we exist. We want to do things differently, yet we also acknowledge that real change cannot truly happen in a world where people are discriminated against and killed because of their skin colour. All businesses have a responsibility to speak out against racism and fight for race equality at every opportunity, and the conversation has to begin internally.

One of the things we’re talking about at length is unconscious bias, which undoubtedly exists within every organisation, discussing the things we can do to combat the everyday prejudices that can cloud our decisions. Earlier today our CEO, Romi, shared a great article (written by Dr Nicola Rollock for the FT) with the whole team, titled “it’s time for white people to step up for black colleagues“. While it’s a small and simple act, it’s also a really powerful one, and hopefully gives some insight into our culture at PensionBee and the essential discourse that’s taking place. We have five company values (love, honesty, quality, innovation and simplicity), which were chosen by our team and dictate everything we do, from how we interact with our customers to how we work with each other. If you ask anyone in the team, nine times out of 10 they will say that “love” is their favorite. Working for a company with love at it’s centre is highly unusual, but at times like these it’s proving to be both comforting and necessary.

Identifying the things that we do well

PensionBee has two Diversity Champions, myself and my lovely colleague James. Coincidentally we’re in the process of recruiting another, and it couldn’t come at a better time as we’ve got much work to do. The fact that we have Diversity Champions at all speaks to PensionBee’s keen acknowledgement that we all have different life experiences and needs, and it’s the role of myself and James to help us celebrate these differences as a team, facilitating events and creating a safe space where important discussions can take place.

In July we will launch our new brand campaign which, as always, will feature a selection of our wonderful customers. We have two familiar faces, Lynn and Juan, whom you might recognise from previous campaigns, and two new ones, Priya and Nana, who are from BME backgrounds. We’re determined to put something out into the world that better represents our 75,000 strong customer base, and indeed our team. One of our biggest criticisms of the pensions industry is that it’s not representative of society and the people we service, despite our collective goal being that everyone have a pension.

We firmly believe that you can’t always be what you can’t see which is why a few years ago we introduced an initiative called ‘The Program’, a two-year development program for our Customer Success Team, who liaise directly with our customers. ‘The Program’ aims to encourage people, who may not usually do so, to enter the pensions industry. You don’t need previous experience to enter ‘The Program’, and we specifically advertise on jobs boards aimed at those starting their careers without attending university. We want to challenge the stereotype that you need to look a certain way to succeed in the worlds of finance and pensions, whether that be a prescribed ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion or age. Of course there are many other things we do well and these are just some of the highlights, however everything that we have done thus far is a work in progress, and what matters most is what we do next.

Recognising the areas where we must do more

If this week has taught me anything it’s that there’s no time for complacency, and even if you think you’re on the right track there’s always, always room for improvement.

Something we intend to continue exploring is our customers’ views on the companies their pensions are invested in, and how diversity is incorporated, lobbying our money managers to make appropriate changes where we feel necessary. This is how our fossil fuel free pension fund came about. Our customers wanted us to move away from fossil fuel companies which led us to create something bespoke that not only meets their needs, but speaks to the progress we want to see in the world.

Beyond our upcoming advertising campaign, we have also begun reviewing our approach to suppliers. We’re going to make a concerted effort to work with more people from BME backgrounds. We’re also going to spend some time looking for new voices that we can use our platform to amplify, whether that’s our customers or the bloggers we work with on a regular basis. And then there’s our advertising. We need to strive to do better in every decision we make. In my dual roles of Head of Brand and Communications and Diversity Champion I have a responsibility to influence my colleagues to ensure we deliver on this. I implore each and every one of them to help PensionBee continue creating the change we all so desperately want to see.

The pensions industry must speak up

We must all become Diversity Champions to effect meaningful change every day moving forward, from educating ourselves and signing petitions to donating to charities and lobbying our politicians. There is a perception that financial services companies should keep quiet. But how can they, when almost half of their employees do not identify with the label of “white”? While the major banks, including Barclays, RBS and Lloyds have recognised this, standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement this week, the silence from the pensions industry has been deafening.

As a collective, the pensions industry, the largest steward of our nation’s wealth, has a duty to do more and must reflect on the message it currently sends the world. From reviewing investing policies to changing the hiring processes so those from BME backgrounds have equal access to employment opportunities and career progression, is a start and crucial to ensuring a mixture of voices are always in the room, advocating for change. The time to start is now!

As always, we’d love to hear your feedback and ideas, so leave your comments below or get in touch with the team on Twitter!

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