Fintech companies and their venture capital backers are limiting future growth because of a lack of diversity among employees and executives, industry experts warn.
The issue affects areas ranging from gender and ethnicity to age, delegates heard at a recent event organised by FCA Innovate.
Among the executives warning of a problem was Anne Boden, founder and CEO of Starling Bank, the digital, mobile-only UK challenger bank, which launched in 2014, received its banking licence in 2016 and now has 600,000 customers.
To launch the bank, she overcame the perception that “people like you don’t start banks”, adding: “In fintech, you have ‘fin’, where there are no women and everybody looks the same; and then there is ‘tech’, which is a bit the same.
“And then we have entrepreneurship. Put those three things together and it is very samey. And that is because, in entrepreneurship, it is all about minimising risk by being the same.”
She argued for a change in the status quo to overcome the “unconscious bias” affecting businesses that led to assumptions about who can or can’t do certain jobs.
Boden said: “There are women working in tech in non-coding roles, not leadership roles, and that all comes from people getting their minds around the fact that women can code.
“The huge problem out there is that we all have this unconscious bias of thinking women can’t do these jobs. At the moment, the majority of men are in hiring positions and the majority do not think women can do these jobs. They may say the words, but deep down they do not believe them.”
She added that until the industry can show women being successful in fintech roles, the problem will continue.
Boden said: "I know we try to be positive and see the bright side, but in my 35-year career, I think things have got worse.
“As the financial situation gets worse, the commercial pressure on the venture capital world and the fintech world will force people to be more conservative and we will get more ‘guys in chinos’ giving money to ‘guys in chinos’.”
Targets important for driving change
She argued that while diversity is being championed within big banks and insurance companies, it is a tougher challenge in smaller businesses, which the industry must commit to tackling.
She said: “Unless we get quotas, unless we get targets, things will never change. When you see a candidate that is diverse in some way, that candidate is probably a lot better than their peers because, to get to that position, they have had to fight harder, so if you can see the broader position, you are probably going to get a fantastic person.”
While Boden stopped short of suggesting regulation, the Financial Conduct Authority is taking notice, as diversity can help organisations to empathise with the ‘real-world’ when doing business.
Sheldon Mills, director of competition at the FCA, said: “You can think about how culture works in financial services organisations. The evidence is starting to show that it can have a certain impact. That doesn’t mean having quotas, but it does mean the question can be asked about how the culture works.
“If you have conduct regulation and you are telling firms to do certain things and meet certain rules, which mean certain outcomes, it is important how people think or how they behave because the rules that they are importing are there to reflect how they are affecting society at large. Society is diverse.”
According to the findings of a recent CFA Society survey into gender diversity, 70% of finance industry professionals want more focus to be placed on socio-economic factors, mental well-being, and Black, Asian, and minority inclusion. They also want better support for people with physical disabilities.
As artificial intelligence becomes increasingly embedded in decision-making within finance companies, there is concern that “unconscious bias” or a lack of empathy and understanding at the coding stage could lead to future unintended problems.
In the past, technology issues were relatively minor, the FCA Innovate audience heard, such as videos playing upside down in phone apps because coders were all right handed and hadn’t considered people holding their phone in a different hand.
AI and the diversity debate
However, with the advent of machine learning and AI, this can take a much more sinister turn, as Microsoft discovered in a live test of its AI chatbot, Tay.
The intention was for the bot to respond to users' queries with casual speech and learn from its surroundings and get smarter through progressive conversations. However, the coders didn’t take account of the type of users who might input comments, which included racists, white-supremacists and holocaust deniers.
As Tay ‘learnt’, ‘she’ started to repeat some of these views in a very public setting, leading to the swift end of the experiment.
There is a concern that, without careful initial thought, computer algorithms could exhibit racist tendencies, such as profiling financial candidates based on ethnic background.
In the US, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed recently that facial-recognition algorithms are biased against people with darker skin.
She raised concerns that algorithms that are racially, culturally or gender-biased could prevent different members of the community from getting bank loans and being considered for jobs.
Nicola Sandler, vice-president fintech and regtech and EMEA legal lead at Barclays, said: “With AI ethics, you can see how important diversity is. You need to have diversity when you are collecting data, otherwise you can end up with a racist chatbot.”
Tackling the problem requires a broad approach to encouraging diversity within the industry, something the FCA recognises with community outreach work to attract new talent to the sector.
Mills said: “We do actually target the disadvantaged, which is colourless and genderless. Going out and sharing your own experience of the fintech community, such as why it is exciting and what you achieve, is a great way to get people interested in things. That’s the type of thing you can do to encourage change.”
A long-term commitment to change
It requires a long-term perspective to change, including teaching the next generation to fulfil their potential from an early age.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg responded to a user who said she encouraged her granddaughters to ‘date the nerd in school, he may turn out to be a Mark Zuckerberg’, by saying: “Even better would be to encourage them to be the nerd in their school so they can be the next successful inventor!”
Ghela Boskovich, a founder of FemTechGlobal, which aims to bridge the gender gap in fintech and the financial services industry, said: “When you leave people out who can bring a different perspective or experience and understanding through services and products delivered in the industry, we are costing ourselves an enormous amount of profit.
“In financial services 12% of employees are women; women get about 7% of venture capital fundraising and women of colour get 0.2%
“Fintech is incredibly similar; 12% are women and 75% find themselves in HR and compliance, not necessarily on engineering and business ops.
“We need to look at this as an imperative on the business side. If 25% of your executive is women, you have 47% improvement in ROE and 57% improvement in ROI. When you have a 1% change in your sales team in terms of ethnicity composition, there is a direct correlation of a 15% higher sales revenue. For every 1% in gender diversity, it is around 9% improvement in sales.
“We are designing for an inclusive, larger market; a more dynamic and bigger market place. We have to reflect the average person.”
Boden added: “Everyone should have the chance to code. They may decide to become engineers or not, but organisations must do their bit. It is a diverse population of people that makes the world better.”