Thursday, 31 January 2019

“The Fearless Girl” and the Importance of her Fearlessness: Gender and the Boardroom

Today’s post departs from the usual approach adopted here in Financial Regulation Matters. Usually, we will discuss elements within business and regulation that are breaking, have a guest post, or we will preview forthcoming articles and books from this author. Usually, the posts are not written in first person, but in this post I will use that approach to discuss why the “fearless girl” statue is the focus for this post.

I have visited Manhattan on a number of occasions, and those close to me know that New York City represents something very special to me. Quite often, when visiting the city, I will take a trip to Wall Street and take in the surroundings. One element that is often on my to-do list is to take a look at the legendary ‘charging bull’ statue located near Battery Park and Wall Street. Whilst the location is prime, it is worth noting that the original location, as placed by the statue’s creator Arturo Di Modica, was directly outside the New York Stock Exchange (we will discuss location later on). The statue, as a piece of art, brings forward a number of emotions. Despite the many tourists who visit the location of the statue and have their pictures taken with it (some, for some reason, have their pictures taken behind the bull which is a sight to behold, mostly out of confusion!) – it has been said that the statue is ‘one of the most visited, most photographed and perhaps the most loved and recognised statues in the City of New York’ – the statue is particularly thought-inspiring. An article in Business Insider talks of how the statue can be both seen as a symbol of the ‘strength and power of the American people’ (according to Di Modica), ‘an image of a surging market in the lore of high finance’ (according to a New York Times article published not long after its erection in 1989), or a symbol of America’s ‘money, power, greed, or high finance’. It is probably telling that, perhaps, all of these statements are true. Personally, the charging bull represents strength, determination, but also represents a forward-moving mentality that arguably defines the city itself. The global domination of American finance, centred in the City, is perhaps perfectly illustrated in the poised posture of the Bull. Irrespective of what it means to every individual (a ‘selfie’ opportunity or meaningful piece of art), it is indisputable that it is impactful.

However, on the eve of International Women’s Day in 2017, State Street Global Advisors commissioned Kristen Visbal to create and erect a 50-inch statue named ‘Fearless Girl’. The statue was originally erected directly opposite the ‘Charging Bull’ and attracted much attention. State Street suggest on its website that the statue generated over 10 billion social, print, and digital media impressions. Di Modica himself however protested against the erection of the statue, not on the grounds of its connection to gender equality but in relation to the artistic integrity of the ‘Charging Bull’ – he argued that ‘contrasted with the soft, altruistic characteristics of the bronze girl… “Charging Bull” now appears menacing and aggressive’ (quote taken from The Washington Post and not Di Modica). It was also suggested that State Street’s connection to the statue was borne out of a marketing campaign for its ‘SHE Index’, with the plaque at the feet of the ‘Fearless Girl’ reading ‘Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference’. State Street responded by arguing that this was not the case, and that in fact the company has been a vocal supporter of gender equality in the financial sector, with three of its 11-member board being women; Stephen Tisdalle, State Street’s Marketing Officer, stated that ‘what this girl represents is the present, but also the future… she’s not angry at the bull – she’s confident, she knows what she’s capable of, and she’s wanting the bull to take note’. It is widely stated that art is supposed to inflame thoughts, expression, and debate and it is certainly the case that these two pieces of art do that.

Yet, when I first saw the opposing statues it left quite an impression. The young girl depicted by the statue demonstrated defiance, resilience, determination, and most of all courage. Her juxtaposition against the Bull was clear, which perhaps supports Di Modica’s argument. Her diminutive stature was overshadowed by her poise and direction, making the statue particularly impactful. However, on the 28th November 2018 the ‘Fearless Girl’ was removed from the location opposite the Bull and moved to the pedestrianised zone directly opposite the New York Stock Exchange. It was suggested at the time that this was done on safety grounds, owing to the popularity of the two statues and the busy nature of the traffic on that intersection. It was also suggested in April of last year that the Bull would be moved to outside the Stock Exchange alongside the Fearless Girl but, for one reason or another, that has not happened – one may be lead to question why it was for the Fearless Girl to be moved on safety grounds, but not the Bull who is apparently one of the most photographed icons in the City. The Executive Vice-Chairwoman of the NYSE welcomed the Fearless Girl, stating that ‘we see [in her] our daughters, mothers, nieces. She represents potential, progress and hope, but also all the women who have fought for equality before us’. Now, the Fearless Girl resides directly opposite the NYSE and, as you can see from the picture for this post (picture courtesy of Danielle Smith).

The Fearless Girl, standing opposite the NYSE, to me now takes on a whole different character. When she was facing the Bull, it was very contextualised against a symbol in the Charging Bull. Now, however, she is standing opposite an institution that is a real representation of American power. The NYSE has a long and storied history, and its role as a facilitator for moving money around, from, and to the American economy is unrivalled in terms of financially-related icons in the American psyche. Now, the Fearless Girl stands, hand on hips and with her head raised up towards the iconic building, fearlessly. Art is defined by the individualistic effect that it has, and I am certain that the statue will elicit different reactions which is tremendously positive. When I visited earlier this month, I was taken aback by the change in her appearance within the new context. It is very much a parallel understanding, but she appears to be much smaller in the new context, but at the same time she has grown immeasurably in stature. Now, her resolve appears to be solidified, irreversibly. When I considered writing this post, I thought deeply about my position as a male commenting upon issues affecting women within society. There are elements to the existence of a female that I cannot obviously know, but it struck me that this 50-inch statue developed by a company that itself has had a number of gender-equality issues, has transcended its origins – its impact on me was considerable, but I wonder what impact it would have on a girl, or a woman, examining it as I did. Would a young girl take inspiration from the context within which the statue exists? Obviously, there is no answer to that question, but one would certainly hope so.

This consideration of the Fearless Girl’s impact upon women of all ages, as well as men of all ages, led me to think about aspects that I researched as part of this blog, and as part of past degrees. We have looked at the issue of inequality on a few occasions here in Financial Regulation Matters, including variances such as gender inequality, race inequality, and many other variances. However, I was reading an article in Business Insider recently that cited a recent study into the issue of gender diversity at the CEO level, and interestingly the correlation between that issue and the careers of those at that level. The academic article, written by Vishal Gupta, Sandra C. Mortal, Sabatino Silveri, Minxing Sun, and Daniel B. Turban for the Journal of Management – entitled You’re Fired! Gender Disparities in CEO Dismissal – aims to examine ‘whether CEO gender influences the likelihood of dismissal’. The researchers discuss the opposing arguments within the literature that suggest, on one hand, that women are given preferential treatment compared to men – ‘female leadership advantage’ logic – whilst on the other hand women are disadvantaged even after obtaining the highest organisational positions – the ‘glass cliff’ scenario describes where ‘women in leadership positions face more perils and risks compared to their male counterparts’. So, to examine this issue, the researchers focused on large public firms in the US. Specifically, the study uses board variable data, accounting data, stock return data, and a large sample consisting of nearly 2,400 firms from 2000 to 2014 (CEOs who had been in office for less than a year were not included as they are less likely to be dismissed). The results of the study suggest a number of crucial understandings. Though the total number of dismissals for men was substantially higher, relatively ‘the percentage of women dismissed is significantly higher than men’. Furthermore, the study finds that ‘dismissal probability for female CEOs is less likely to be influenced by changes in performance than male CEOs’. In addition to this, the study finds that when a company is operating at ‘low levels of performance’, the dismissal probabilities between the two genders do not differ, but when the organisation’s performance improves the chances of a female CEO being dismissed are significantly higher than that of their male counterparts. Ultimately, the study concludes that female CEOs are 45% more likely to be dismissed, which is an extraordinary statistic.

I will not discuss every element of the study, but its findings are fascinating. The question is, however, what does it tell us in reality? The scholars discuss the concept of ‘bias’ being commonly referred to as one of the key issues, but that the study adds to the discussion by confirming that women who break past the bias barrier are still extremely vulnerable to having their livelihoods affected even after they reach the top of their fields. Bias, which is a societal ill unlike most others, is clearly a core issue that must be addressed, but those words mean very little. Yes, it must be addressed, but how? That is a very difficult question to answer, and I do not offer a quick-fire way that is achievable. One way is to increase the education surrounding the issue, and studies like the above help to influence that movement. However, it takes a commitment to that education, and a real willingness to act upon an enlightened state that will make the real difference. The issue is can that really happen in this world?

Nevertheless, if we return to the ‘Fearless Girl’ statue, the effect of the understanding derived from the study is impactful. The hope that I, and many others see as represented by the statue becomes contextualised in a much different manner. For, say, a young girl looking at the statue opposite the NYSE and dreaming of a high-flying career, what effect would the study have? The positive spin would be that, when that young girl grew into a woman, things may be different because of studies like the one above that highlight the issue, and the pathway being developed for her by women who battle against such bias even at the top of the hierarchy. A negative spin would be that a vision is being developed at the ground-level which is not replicated nor represented at the highest levels; the take-away sentiment is that, when it comes to making money and leading institutions, it is still regarded that a male will do a better job. Whether or not this is technically correct is another matter, and with the incredible amount of variables that would be considered when attempting to scientifically examine that issue – though success is success, and there is no reason why a male should be more competent than a female, or a person of one race more competent than another in a balanced world – it is not something to discuss here. But what is to be discussed is the extraordinary impact that the concept of ‘bias’ has – it is fundamentally attached to society and, if we were to take a holistic view, is perhaps the main impediment to equality. Yes, again, education and enlightenment to these issues is important, but it will take much more than that. It takes more than lip-service, and paradoxically to this post, it takes more than a statue. What it will take is a fundamental and irreversible commitment to removing those barriers and examining the competency of people, not just categories of people. The study suggests that this competency-based assessment is not the driving force behind decisions at the CEO-level, and that is something that must change.

Yet, despite this, the ‘Fearless Girl’ is tremendously important. As a piece of art it is impactful, but opening pathways of dialogue on this issue is the statue’s greatest achievement. It strikes me that such a diminutive piece of metal can be so impactful, but that is the beauty of the ‘Fearless Girl’. Despite her origins (her ties to State Street should likely be ignored), her new location, in my eyes, has elevated her importance. It draws people now to the NYSE, and gives them the opportunity to reflect upon her performance away from the hustle-and-bustle of the Charging Bull location. Whether or not enough people take this opportunity to reflect and consider the issues at hand are another matter, but one thing is for certain in light of the study we have discussed in this post – the ‘Fearless Girl’s fearlessness is a necessary characteristic for young girls and women of all ages in the pursuit of equality. Furthermore, fearlessness is a necessary characteristic for all people seeking equality. I encourage you all, if you visit the exceptional city of New York, to visit this representation of equality in her new home.

Keywords – ‘fearless girl’; equality; politics; business; bias; gender; @finregmatters

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