Another troubling industry conference incident is giving reformers a chance to promote ongoing efforts to eliminate sexism and discrimination from events.
Sonya Dreizler, for one, is heartened that it took two months for Jesse Watters’s offensive comments – made at an April conference by Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America – to erupt publicly.
Heartened because it means the days of sweeping such incidents under the rug might be ending.
Dreizler spent than 20 years in a variety of roles in financial services, and co-founded Choir, which works to increase diversity in financial services’ events. During that time, she experienced much sexism and inappropriate behavior at conferences.
The issues important to choir, sexism, the lack of diversity, unprofessional conduct, are all threads from the same strand, part of the old-boys-club mentality that remains pervasive among many, Dreizler said.
“There still is this culture of denigrating women or people of color, people in the LGBTQ community, disabled folks, anybody who is sort of in these groups that financial services has historically ignored or actively pushed out in some circumstances,” Dreizler explained.
A Fox News personality known for controversial comments, Watters “made a crude attempt questioning the gender of Vice President Kamala Harris,” CNN reported. The remark was not well received, with many attendees leaving the room, the network reported.
The Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, known as The Big I, immediately dismissed president and CEO Bob Rusbuldt, who was moderating an on-stage discussion with Watters. Rusbuldt had planned to retire in September after 37 years with The Big I.
John Costello, chairman of the trade association, released a two-minute YouTube video apologizing for the incident. Still, some members voiced concerns over the two-month delay.
“I fear we have now lost some of the very talented, committed young people who might finally have been able to move the needle on much-needed diversity in our industry,” tweeted one financial professional from California.
The Big I learned from the experience and is changing its plan for conference speakers, said Sue Nester, vice president of communications for the association.
“The Big I has committed that any programming at all future Big I member/company conferences will focus on industry or government affairs topics, without participation by news personalities or commentators,” she said via email.
Many conference critics say the problems start on stage. Or, as Choir puts it on their website, “we’ve been listening to the same voices for far too long.” They see the solution in education and diversity. Expanding the speaker pool while growing the diversity of participation will broaden understanding of cultural differences, proponents say.
“Many of us are declining conference invites when all speakers are exclusively middle-aged white men, and we are telling them why,” said Linda Wittich, founder of Top Line Focus, a fintech consultant.
Wittich is a key member of Females and Finance, a group with a rapidly growing membership and influence.
“We are starting to see some conference sponsors request you approve a code of ethics/conduct and hold true to them,” Wittich said. “Females and Finance is making great strides here by raising awareness of both bad behaviors and more importantly, defining good behaviors.”
A Ken Fisher moment
Dreizler remembers being stunned by what she was hearing from the stage at the Tiburon CEO Summit. A highly exclusive event run by industry veteran Charles “Chip” Roame, managing partner at Tiburon Strategic Advisors, the 2019 CEO Summit invited Ken Fisher to speak.
Coming at the height of the #metoo movement calling out sexual harassment, Fisher’s comments prompted Dreizler to speak publicly as well. She had been collecting stories from colleagues of sexism and harassment at conferences. The urgency of the moment pushed her to go public.
“I got 40 stories in a day,” Dreizler recalled. “And I didn’t have much of a wide social media presence at that point. So it was really remarkable to get a response like that and it just kind of showed that this is really a pervasive problem.”
Fast forward four years and Choir is offering a wide range of services, from conference certification to promoting a pool of female and non-binary speakers, as well as persons of color. Dreizler runs Choir with co-founder Liv Gagnon, a media relations consultant.
“It’s really about not just who is on stage,” Dreizler explained, “but how visible each person’s speaking role is and measuring how well a conference includes and highlights the voices of people of color, women and non-binary experts in comparison to their representation in the U.S. population.
“To get that certification, you have to meet a certain level of diversity and visibility in the agenda, and along with those metrics, we also have a requirement that conference has an enforced anti-harassment policy.”
Younger people in financial services are driving the change in how bad behavior is accepted, and not accepted, she added.
“They have they have a much lower tolerance for bad behavior than older generations,” Dreizler said. “I wish I had zero tolerance for bad behavior, but growing up in the financial world when I did, I just had to sort of accept a certain amount of sexism and harassment.”
Senior Editor John Hilton covered business and other beats in more than 20 years of daily journalism. John may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @INNJohnH.
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