Jacki Zehner: “The Case Has Been Made” for Gender Equity in Business

Jacki Zehner, chief engagement officer for Women Moving Millions, with board member Susan Morrison.

Jacki Zehner, chief engagement officer of Women Moving Millions, wants to see corporations—particularly financial services firms—put their money where the research is when it comes to gender equity, and more specifically, women’s empowerment, inclusion, and leadership. Why? It is not only in their best interest, but key to economic stability and growth.

Zehner is one of a new breed of philanthropic leaders who transitioned from a successful career in business, bringing that knowledge and experience with her. She knows the gap between talk and action on gender equity in corporations well. Though Zehner’s career was made in fixed-income trading, rising at Goldman Sachs to make partner in 1996, her passion was women’s issues, and that passion led her to a position in the firm’s executive office where her role was, in part, to champion diversity and inclusion.

“In the early 2000s there were some studies out there making the business case for women, but nowhere near where we are today,” Zehner says. “Now, the case has been made.”

This case holds that companies with more gender diversity on their boards, leadership teams, and workforces do better in multiple ways. As well, researchers stress the growing wealth in the hands of women investors and also the critical ways in which women entrepreneurs drive new business creation and job growth. More broadly, there’s now widespread understanding that empowering women is a key to any nation’s overall economic growth and dynamism.

Just how many credible studies point to the benefits of women’s participation? Hundreds. Zehner may be one of the world’s more obsessive collectors of research on women and girls. She has aggregated and summarized more than 250 reports about women and girls in a document with over 16 sections, ranging from arts to violence to entrepreneurship. Her favorite sections include those on wealth and gender lens investing. “Women are increasingly not only the holders of wealth, but the decision makers as it relates to giving, investing and spending. If we were to employ a gender lens to all three of these, holy smokes. Things would change very quickly.”

Goldman Sachs grasps gender issues better than nearly any other financial services firm. It has produced over a dozen major studies on women, put major financial support behind its 10,000 Women Initiative, which supports women entrepreneurs worldwide, and is creating innovative financial products to address the issue of “capital punishment”—the way in which women have been excluded from capital markets.

While Zehner celebrates Goldman’s production of more research on this topic than any other major investment bank, she wishes that the percentage of women in leadership positions at the firm was more reflective of the evidence. And she wonders why the financial services sector overall has been so slow to align its practices with such evidence. “For an industry that prides itself on research, it is time for money to follow,” she says.

Zehner feels strongly that no major financial services firm has capitalized on the opportunity to better serve women, and particularly high net-worth women. And she would know. Women Moving Millions is a global community of over 250 women, each of which have given at least $1 million to nonprofit organizations that serve women and girls. “I ask our members this question. Do you feel well served by your primary financial services firm? The answer is no.” That answer is supported by a recent study done by the Center for Talent Innovation called the Power of the Purse, which found that women are being shockingly underserved by  a financial industry with “misperceptions about female investors” and a “tendency to perceive women as a monolithic market.”

There are pockets of leadership, for sure. Zehner points to U.S. Trust and women like Jackie Vanderbrug, one of the “godmothers of gender lens investing,”—a financial expert who has advanced gender equity issues in the sector. She also gave UBS props for its recent Rent the Runway women’s entrepreneurship project. She described Morgan Stanley as somewhat late to the party, but noted that it has recently created a framework for gender diversity, “a quantitative framework to show that a better balance of men and women in the workplace can deliver returns with less volatility.”

But is there a single financial services corporation that really owns the space of gender equity? “None of them,” says Zehner.

Zehner is excited to see new tools become available that create greater transparency when it comes to understanding where a given company stands on gender. Just this month, Bloomberg announced a new “Gender Equality Index” as part of its menu of financial services products. The index recognizes 26 financial services firms that scored a 60 or more on their index for gender equality. High scorers include UBS, Bank of America, Citigroup, Mastercard, JPMorgan Chase, and MetLife. “It’s a great start,” she says.  

Apart from the financial services sector, Zehner says there are a number of companies that have thoughtful strategies related to women. “Dell is a corporation that is really doing it,” she says. “They have a Women’s Entrepreneur Network, they hold conferences, they do funding and movement building, they produce research. To me, that’s a company that I would hold up,” she said.

Zehner cites the role of Jennifer “JJ” Davis, executive director of Global Client Solutions and Global Brand Communications at Dell, who also serves on the Advisory Board of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, which is how Zehner came to know her. “Knowing more about the work JJ Davis is doing at Dell could help other corporations understand how to advance a gender equity agenda more seriously.”

One leverage point for changing companies that Zehner stresses is consumer buying power. “If, as people who care about gender equity, we were more willing to buy products and services from companies who share this commitment, we would drive that greater alignment.” Zehner recommended the Buy Up Index, an app that helps consumers support companies that care about gender equity. The app ranks companies on their demonstrated commitment to gender equality across four areas: women’s employment, leadership, corporate citizenship, and marketing. “Women make upwards of 70 percent of the decisions of what products and services are bought,” Zehner says. “Imagine if we used that power more intentionally?”

Of course, investing is another lever for change, and here, Zehner sees an important role for philanthropists and impact investors. Women Moving Millions is launching a program that will support collective learning and engagement for its members around gender lens investing. Zehner says: “There are quite literally billions of dollars that could be flowing to support women and girls while seeking some financial return. That’s exciting.”

Zehner’s vision for a better world for women and girls spans many directions, including envisioning her ideal financial services firm for women, and offering advice to the next president of the United States on a gender equity agenda. She writes regularly as an influencer on LinkedIn, where she has amassed over 300,000 followers, and sees LinkedIn as a powerful platform to share knowledge and inspire action. She also travels frequently giving talks on “Women, Money and Change.”

In addition, Zehner is an active investor in women-led start-ups. While she still works to change the big companies, she hopes that by supporting women entrepreneurs directly, she can help create successful companies that do the right things by women at the outset. Some of her recent investments include Seed and Spark, Mogul, APolitical, Unitive (through Plum Alley), and Vonk. She is joining forces with other women investors to not only provide seed capital, but social capital, to help fledgling companies become successful.

For all her many activities, though, Zehner hasn’t forgotten where she came from, namely the powerful universe of banks and finance firms that govern so much of the U.S. economy. She sees changing the behavior of this sector as all-important. “My history lies in financial services, and I want that industry to become a true leaders when it comes to gender equity. I think the world will be better for it.”

Kiersten Marek

Author: Kiersten Marek

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

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