As the financial industry kicks off 2015, it’s a good time for firms to consider how they can up their game in creating a diverse workplace.

Many financial firms are keenly aware of the need to bring more women into management and front-line positions. Nevertheless, progress is slow and statistics on gender diversity are disappointing.

There is plenty of research suggesting that a representative workforce improves the bottom line. Researchers at Pepperdine University found strong correlations between Fortune 500 companies’ financial success and their records of placing women in executive positions. In 2001, the 25 firms with the most women-friendly practices outperformed industry medians by striking margins: overall profits were 34% higher when calculated for revenue, for example. Subsequent studies confirmed the results in the years 2004 — 2007.

A 2012 report from McKinsey & Co. found similar results in a study of 180 publicly traded companies in the U.S. and Europe. Companies that had more women and foreign nationals on their executive boards posted higher returns on equity and margins on earnings before interest and taxes compared to their least diverse peers.

What explains these results? Consider that women executives tend to grasp the needs of other women who are consumers or business owners. That’s a key advantage, given that women represent an important and growing market in the national and global economy.  

Another key factor is that women tend to be more collaborative in their leadership style. They seek out knowledge and gather facts before making decisions. Gender diversity can therefore help companies gain wider perspectives on their goals and processes and promote a greater sense of common purpose.

Diversity also leads to more robust and balanced discussion in the workplace, which reduces risk. A 2014 study confirmed that point by recruiting participants trained in business and finance for stock trading simulations in Southeast Asian and North American markets. The study found that participants in diverse markets were more likely to produce accurate pricing than those in homogenous markets, leading the authors to conclude that diversity "enhances deliberation and upends conformity."

Despite the arguments that favor diversity in hiring, many firms still lag in this area.

In the banking and brokerage world, less than 40% of 1.2 million jobs in securities-related fields were held by women in in 2013, according to the U.S. Labor Department. And the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards says that just 23% of certificants are women, a ratio that has stubbornly remained unchanged for a decade.

It’s true that the financial industry isn’t alone in its underrepresentation of women. The so-called STEM industries — science, technology, engineering, and math — also struggle with this problem.

The top companies in STEM have begun to understand they have a problem. They know this issue doesn’t fix itself and that solutions have to be baked into company management processes.

This month, for example, Intel announced it would invest $300 million in efforts to boost the training and hiring of women and underrepresented minorities for roles in computer science and engineering. It also set a 2020 deadline for full representation of women and minorities in its workforce, a goal that includes senior management.

Some financial firms are paying heed to such initiatives, but recruiting top talent is a growing challenge. One human resources executive at a major Wall Street firm told us that its recruitment of recent college graduates had dropped off by 40% in recent years, a trend the firm attributed to competitionfrom tech giants like Google and Facebook.

There are clear lessons here for managers who are serious about leveling the playing field.

First, they need to make hiring managers accountable for diversity. One former top executive at JPMorgan Chase told us that managers were compensated, in part, based on the diversity in their group and that they were asked to interview a diverse panel of candidates, including both women and minorities.

Second, corporate culture needs to be more accessible to women who are considering advancement. Many don’t apply for promotions without encouragement. Indeed, the CFP board believes that women’s reluctance to take professional risks is part of the reason why their presence as certificants is so low.

Third, financial firms should consider mentoring programs that can help boost diversity within an organization. Sun Microsystems found that such programs not only benefited women and minorities but produced a return of investment of 1,000% or more.

Lastly, firms should consider more flexible work schedules, such as work-from-home arrangements, in order to empower women with families to pursue high-ranking roles. We understand the value of having employees work together under the same roof. It creates an energy that makes innovating and executing ideas easier. But not every worker has to clock into the office each day — particularly those who don’t need to face clients.

Maureen Adolf is president of the Financial Women’s Association and senior vice president of government relations at legal and consulting firm Nelson Brown & Co. Jennifer Openshaw is FWA’s executive director and author of The Socially Savvy Advisor: Compliant Social Media for the Financial Industry. Follow them on Twitter at @maureen_adolf and @jopenshaw.

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