Diversity in Financial Services

Diversity means embracing whole identity – who are you?

Marisa Hall
Director, Thinking Ahead Group (an independent research team at Willis Towers Watson) and Executive, Thinking Ahead Institute

The concept of identity is complicated and nuanced, but should be respected.

Company management often tout that employees are their most valuable asset – they may extol their inclusion and diversity (I&D) policies and their strong and varied culture. However, how many of these policies go beyond box-ticking and understand the identity of their workforce?

Imagine for a moment you have been tasked with reviewing your company’s I&D policies based on four basic ‘selfs’:

Surface self:

This relates to your inherent features which are observable by others – for example gender, race, age etc. Because some of these features are easily identifiable, they often serve as the basis for both positive polices and discriminatory practices. Even for features which may be less visible (such as some common disabilities), you are still at the mercy of policies that are not designed for you and have no chance of being so unless you make the difficult choice of disclosure.

Personal self:

This relates to the relationships you have with others (eg friends, family etc) but can also be linked to how you view yourself – “I’m kind, I’m a hard worker” etc. This sense of self-branding is important as it affects how we see the world and how the world might see us.

Doing self:

For better or worse, society places currency on understanding what you do with your time. We need to be better at embracing the value of those who do not neatly fit into the corporate workplace box.

Thinking self:

This focuses on less visible areas such as your values and beliefs and how you think. It can be summarised by ‘what I stand for’ and ‘what I believe’. This is where cognitive differences offer the potential to see diversity in a deep way.

Here’s an example of my own work identity map.

Of course, no simple sketch could ever fully encapsulate our identity and describe who we are. There is also discretion applied to which aspects of our identity we choose to share with others. However, this map did get me thinking about how some aspects of my identity become exaggerated in certain situations. For example, how might you feel if you were the only Asian person in a room or the only female, or when your minority self was disrespected. In short, the concept of identity is complicated and nuanced, but should be respected as it speaks to who we are.


The historical approach of dealing with gender first, ethnicity second, disability third – or whichever order suits the corporate agenda – has lent itself to box-ticking and compartmentalisation of diversity factors. Creating my identity map reinforced the inadequacy of any approach which attempts to chop off bite-size identity piece, and use these to understand who I am. This doesn’t mean that corporates should not have initiatives around gender, ethnicity etc. It just means that leadership needs  to recognise that these are only a small part of the whole-of-life employee experience.

Organisations need to focus on combining three core elements:

  • Building a diverse array of people that make up the organisation (‘diversity’)
  • Recognising identity (‘respect’)
  • Treating people with decency (inclusion’).

Diversity is clearly important, but before we can promote fairness and inclusion in our industry, organisations need a better understanding of who their employees are. Otherwise, even the most well-intentioned diversity policies will be destined for failure.