Saturday, 7 October 2017

The ‘Fearless Girl’ and the Power of Symbolism

Today’s post looks at the story of the ‘fearless girl’ statue that was erected directly opposite the famous ‘charging bull’ on New York’s Wall Street, and the news today that the asset-management company behind its creation have agreed to pay a settlement fee of $5 million to settle ‘federal allegations that it paid female executives less than their male counterparts’. Whilst one may suggest that this chain of events is ironic, it is put forward here that what it actually represents is an accepted understanding on behalf of those in power that the public can be easily swayed, as long as the right people fight for the powerful (whether knowingly or not). In reality, the fearless girl statue, which stands as a symbol of defiance and the demonstration of equality, serves to mask systemic inequalities between men and women, and between different ethnicities; unfortunately, even ardent supporters of the public’s cause have fallen foul of this symbol-driven misdirection.

Rather than immediately jump straight into the news story, it is worth discussing the rationale for this post. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senator for Massachusetts, posed with the statue in April of this year and this piqued the interest of this author, and these concerns were confirmed today with the news that the sponsoring company are settling with the U.S. Department of Labor regarding their systemic approach to paying males more than females. Warren’s initial post via Twitter was accompanied by the caption ‘fight like a girl’ which was, no doubt, intended to inspire an element of continued resistance against the equalities that are woven into the fabric of society. At this point it is worth mentioning that it is absolutely acknowledged that Warren is a prominent figure in the fight against Donald Trump’s Administration and its effect upon American society, and the attacks on her and her ancestry that she is enduring is proof that she is making an impact against the Administration. So, this post is not an attack on Warren – quite the opposite, in fact – but in reality her association with the statue reveals a trust in certain elements of society that lessens her impact, not increases it. The asset-management firm behind the statue – State Street Global Advisors – were hardly ever likely to be the champion of gender equality owing to their profit-first subscription, and in falling for what has to be described now as a ‘gimmick’, Warren has done herself and the gender equality cause no favours. However, this is not to lay the responsibility at Warren’s door only because of her gender, it is because of a. the message she sent with her tweet, and b. her position of influence; the same charge is levied at Mayor Bill de Blasio who has done exactly the same thing.

The investigation into State Street found that its female executives were paid less base pay, less bonus pay, and less total compensation than their male counterparts and that this, upon review, was systemic within the organisation. Although the company have suggested that they disagree with the investigation’s findings and have settled to come to a resolution, the investigation’s conclusion that the company must pay 305 female executives and 15 black executives speaks volumes. When the fearless girl statue was first erected, the firm stated that she was there to ‘celebrate the power of women in leadership and to urge greater gender diversity on corporate boards’, with the statue placed to coincide with International Women’s Day. However, the reality of the situation is that the company have generated over $7.4 million in free marketing, which clearly then offsets any effect of today’s settlement. Furthermore, it is being reported that on no less than 12 occasions recently, the asset-manager has voted against companies it is invested in from disclosing the pay gaps between men and women, meaning that Alphabet, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and many others have been spared from explaining themselves over what would have been, almost certainly, disclosures revealing inequality in pay.

The issue of pay inequality has been covered here in Financial Regulation Matters before, and in reality is no secret to anyone. Therefore, rather than present a whole host of information, just some representative points are needed. For example, in the U.S. the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) has stated that Women are paid 20% less than men for the same job, with the Institute noting the debate about when pay equality will be witnessed – some say soon, based upon the supposedly changing nature of society, some say as far as 2152. Accordingly, the U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee concluded that women earn 79 cents for every dollar that a man earns, with their annual median earnings being more than $10,000 less; this is also confirmed by the Census Bureau. Recently, in the U.K., the pay disclosure of the BBC has brought to the issue to the fore again, with it being revealed that in that particular institution Women earn 9% less than males. In FTSE 100 companies, female staff are paid, on average, 33% less than males and their bonuses are up to 66% less. Additionally, and this should go without saying, the situation is much worse for non-white women, with the IPWR suggesting that black women will wait until 2124 and Hispanic women until 2248 for pay equality. In terms of ethnicity, the income of predominantly black or Hispanic households in the U.S. has been declining, and recently at an accelerated pace, whilst in the U.K. recent studies discuss how even graduates from non-white backgrounds are disproportionately without opportunities upon graduation, with BAME graduates 12% less likely to be in work upon graduation, and twice as likely to be in low-paying jobs upon graduation when compared to their white counterparts.

So, what is the point? We should all be well aware that there are massive, unjustifiable gaps in the amount that different classifications of people are paid for the same job, so the above should not be surprising. What is the point, though, is that symbolism needs to be acknowledged as a tool for directing public opinion, as is acknowledged within the literature, and that Public guardians like Senators need to be much more careful with what they attach their authority to. Before posing with the statue, which was created by a department that has clear links to the PR industry, it would have been advisable for Senator Warren to look at the company and their record for promoting the interests of women firstly, and other people who are not represented within the company’s power structure. But she did not do this, and posed with the statue anyway, thereby contributing to the PR stunt of a company that is actively working against reducing the pay inequality between men and women. Did Senator Warren do this on purpose? There is absolutely no suggestion here, or anywhere else, that this is the case, but that is missing the point. What would have been a much more powerful statement than ‘fight like a girl’, would have been for the Senator to publicly lambaste the company for its record, challenge its PR strategy, and bring to light in issue that is being buried with every selfie and every ‘share’ on social media. To promote this issue on social media is not progressive, it is actually regressive, and with the influence that Senators and Mayors wield, inequality like that experienced by women or non-white people will only ever be reduced when those in positions of influence act against those facilitating that inequality directly; accepting things at face value will only ever have one outcome – the same outcome as before.

Keywords – Gender inequality, pay inequality, inequality, fearless girl, Senator Elizabeth Warren, State Street, Public Relations, @finregmatters.

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