Fiona McKay: Financial Sector Must Evolve to Prioritize Social Returns

Fiona McKay’s website asks a simple but striking question: What would the world look like if more women controlled the money? It’s a question I often find myself pondering, too, as a social worker, a small businesswoman, a parent, and a gender equality activist.

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Fiona McKay, author of the report, Trailblazing Women in Investment. (Image Credit: Fiona McKay)

McKay isn’t just pondering this profound question, though. She’s actively doing research on the way that gender norms shape our experiences, particularly in the financial sector. She is the author of Trailblazing Women in Investment, a new report that discusses gender lens investing and the barriers that women still face with controlling the money in finance.

McKay’s new report, published in collaboration with Lightbulb Leadership Solutions, of which she is Founder and Managing Director, gets into the nitty-gritty of performance evaluation and gender biased feedback in the finance world, and shows how these performance evaluations often end up benefiting men moreso than women.

McKay’s research has uncovered some unsettling trends in feedback and performance reviews for women in finance. From analyzing data going back to 2008, McKay’s research showed that women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical feedback in performance reviews. Even more disturbing: 75% of women are marked as “too aggressive” in performance reviews, compared with only 25% of men.

The report also highlights women leaders in investing that may not be getting the exposure to leadership opportunities that their male counterparts are getting. 

Yvonne Bajela is one of several leaders featured in Fiona McKay’s report, Trailblazing Women in Investment. (Image credit: Trailblazing Women in Investment report)

Transatlantic Zooming With Fiona McKay

The report from McKay intrigued me so much we decided to set up a Zoom to talk and share her work with the Philanthropy Women community. McKay’s consulting firm, Lightbulb Leadership Solutions is headquartered in Manchester, England, with additional offices in London. 

We started off by discussing what McKay sees as the biggest shifts needed right now in the finance sector. 

“We need more representation of women in the financial markets, which are so elite, so dominated by men, where only 8% of women hold senior finance roles. For those 8%, you’ve got to look at what they’re delivering. They’re bringing around massive ESG impact, that cascades,” she said.

McKay recalled a conversation she had with a woman who was one of the top asset managers on Wall Street for ten years. She described the pressure of the role she played as everyone expecting her to be as graceful and assured as Fred Astaire, while also being Ginger Rogers dancing backward in heels. 

The precarious position of women in leadership in the finance sector became an area of particular interest for McKay as a consultant to high level businesses. She noticed that women weren’t given as much time to “pull it back” in finance, or correct a failing portfolio. It seemed to her that the playing field for performance was also uneven. Women were experiencing about a year to course correct an underperforming portfolio, whereas their male counterparts would often get given 4 or 5 years to improve their portfolio’s performance.

Are Men in Finance Ready to Hear Dissenting Voices?

McKay talked about her role as a consultant to high level male leaders, and a question she often poses to them when discussing how to evolve their business practices toward gender inclusion.

“Are you really ready to hear dissenting voices?” is the question McKay asks male business leaders.

Her coaching for the corporate world is about widening the lens to discover what wider impact in business truly looks like, rather than focusing exclusively on profit and shareholder return.

She sees women leaders taking a much more sensible approach to growing business. “They want to grow organic good businesses with investments at the right time.”

Invite Leaders from Other Sectors to Join the Investing Space

So how do we get finance to become more balanced in its business practices, rather than frantically pushing for higher returns at the expense of other aspects of the business?

“Finance needs to start attracting talented leaders who have had careers in other industries to come into the investing space, especially female leaders” said McKay. 

While the idea of this makes a great deal of sense to me as well, it’s hard to imagine a group of hedge fund investors sitting around a table with, say, leaders of successful childcare programs, and discussing the common ground of a good business model. 

But, in fact, these kinds of cross-breeding’s of business techniques might be just the right recipe for a financial sector on steroids, with many market indexes at all-time highs, even as the real economy has been seriously compromised by the COVID pandemic.

“We need to radically consider what attracting more women with successful careers in other businesses to finance would look like,” said McKay. “The frame of mind change in investing hasn’t been cracked.”

“I am concerned at whether the financial markets are agile and adept enough for the coming shifts,” said McKay. The narrow model of profit above all else that finance upholds is now more vulnerable than ever. “How viable is that narrow model in a post-pandemic world?”

“No one is saying drop your talent bar,” added McKay. “But talent comes in diverse formats and from different roots.”

Women in HNW Families Must Assert More Financial Control

“In high-net-worth families, often women still have to get permission from their husbands to deploy capital,” said McKay. “That needs to change.”

Asserting more financial control in any relationship is dangerous stuff, and McKay acknowledges that this change will not be easy for some. But in many ways, it is so necessary and productive when this work happens. For example, after divorcing Jeff Bezos, MacKenzie Scott has become one of the largest donors in history — deploying over $6.1 billion in just one year. Had she remained in the relationship with Bezos, would all of those resources ever have been unlocked? And is her example not shaming so many other philanthropists into stepping up their game? The impact of asserting financial control for this one woman, because she had been married to the richest man in the world at the time, will continue to make waves in the culture for years and years to come. And she is only just getting started.

“There is a lot of cultural baggage and gender norm baggage in relationships,” said McKay. “It needs talking about.” With more discussions going on in families about finance, McKay sees tremendous opportunity for growth in women’s ability to control assets and invest with an eye toward more holistic approaches.

Fiona McKay on How Finance Must Support More Start-Ups

In the post-pandemic world, McKay sees a great need for finance to support and empower women entrepreneurs and start-ups. 

“Not only by funding a woman are you doing a great thing for the finance industry, you’re also doing great things for building back better better for more equal societies and economies post-pandemic.”

McKay encourages women to ask their financial advisors to present them with more gender-lens investing opportunities. With more offerings of different tools for investing, women can make more informed and intentional choices for where to put their money. “In the supermarket, think about the brands that you buy. Who are the founders, and do you believe in their brand purpose and societal intention? Everybody’s dollar makes a difference.”

“We’re not asking for extra. We’re just asking for fair.”

How to Recharge as a Woman and a Business Consultant

McKay and I closed our Transatlantic Zoom session with a little reflection on how we keep going with the work of building a more gender equal world. 

McKay feels grateful to be part of the growing ranks of women who are requiring more from the world in terms of opening up opportunities for women and girls. She says that knowing there are more opportunities for women and girls in the world today than when she was young drives her to keep going.

“I left school at 16, and I’ve been successful in business,” said McKay. “But I think of young girls now, and the opportunities available to them. If at 16, I could have had visibility to successful female leaders and access through technology to industry role models that young girls and women see today, what opportunities could have opened up for my life?” 

Another thing that keeps McKay going is knowing that there is so much potential being held back, and that she has the capacity to do something about it through her research, consulting, and speaking.

“There are so many amazing women who cross my path in a day who have not reached their full potential because of systems and cultural norms,” she said.

“We want women to be able to guide the world because the world requires their leadership, particularly now.” 


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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