Last night, on the eve of International Women’s Day, news outlets and social media seized on the mysterious appearance of a statue of a defiant young girl staring down the famous Charging Bull statue. As it turns out, the statue of the little girl symbolically defying Wall Street was installed by… Wall Street itself. And not just any financial company, but State Street Global Advisors, the world’s third-largest asset manager, with $2.4 trillion under management.
It’s a compelling visual, cribbing in no small part from the famous ballerina-on-bull image from the call for action that helped spark Occupy Wall Street. That gloss on the image resonated deeply in a year when organizers of an international women’s strike are striving to return International Women’s Day to its radical roots, and the boardroom feminism of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement is finding itself supplanted by an intersectional feminism that prioritizes the struggles of women who have more pressing challenges than achieving the top rung of the corporate ladder.
The statue was accompanied by a strikingly thorough press barrage, with write-ups in the Wall Street Journal, DNAInfo, Mashable, Business Insider, and other outlets. The sculptor of the piece, Kristen Visbal, told the Journal she considers the sculpture “a piece that every woman can and should relate to,” but the accompanying plaque sent a somewhat narrower message, praising the power of “women in leadership.”
The stunt was executed on behalf of SSGA by New York advertising giant McCann New York, according to a warm write-up from Adweek, which cites “the guerrilla aspect of the placement” while noting that “McCann did get a permit for the girl statue.”
This is an historic day: the Wall Street bull statue has been joined by a little girl symbolizing gender disparity and women leadership. pic.twitter.com/K6HyvLTAVq
— Ryan Vlastelica (@RyanVlastelica) March 7, 2017
The statue is meant to draw attention to a larger initiative by SSGA, which announced today that it will be encouraging companies it invests in to have more women on their boards of directors. A quick perusal of SSGA’s own leadership turns up five women out 28 top executives, making its leadership 82 percent male (and 96.5 percent white). SSGA is a division of the State Street Corporation, which includes a banking division overseeing $28 trillion dollars. Of the corporation’s 11 directors, eight, or 72 percent, are men.
A spokesperson for State Street told the Voice that since 2012 the company has increased the percentage for female executive vice presidents from 20 to 23 percent and the percentage of senior vice presidents from 22 percent to 28 percent. “Creating an environment of inclusion takes time and includes commitments from senior leaders to drive diversity and inclusion efforts,” she said. “I can’t speculate if we’ll add more females to our board this year.”
However much State Street may profess to care about women in positions of corporate executive power, its track record doesn’t suggest that it cares much about the sort of women who rely on pensions to survive their later years.
In 2007, State Street was at the center of a mortgage-backed collateral debt obligation scandal. The company managed a portfolio of shaky mortgage derivatives that had been structured to make money for a hedge fund when the underlying mortgages went belly-up and the derivatives cratered. But State Street didn’t tell the clients who were actually buying the product that was the plan, and as a result pension funds and other investors lost nearly half a billion dollars. In 2012, State Street paid a $5 million penalty for its part on the scam.
As recently as last month, State Street agreed to pay $32 million to settle federal charges that it was screwing its own banking clients. “State Street cheated its customers by agreeing to charge one price for its services and then secretly charging them something else,” said Acting U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts William Weinreb in announcing the settlement. Harold Shaw, the FBI agent in charge of the case added “State Street engaged in an elaborate overcharge scheme which resulted in millions of ill-gotten profits and violated the trust of their clients.”
Anne McNally, State Street’s head of public relations, said the push to diversify board rooms is only part of the company’s gender-equity efforts. McNally noted that last year State Street launched a Gender Diversity Index and fund “for investors to put their money in companies that have stronger senior representation of women on their boards, in their leadership, and throughout their ranks.” State Street has also recently announced a $50,000 contribution to Girls Who Invest, which McNally described as “an awesome charity that inspires young women to pursue careers in investing.”
We asked McNally why State Street decided to push companies on boardroom diversity rather than, say, maternity leave or living wage policies, which might have a more direct effect on a larger number of women. “We think that boards have an important role to play in driving better outcomes for investors and in building those better cultures at these organizations,” she said. “Boards set expectations to senior management to enhance gender diversity in their ranks. Also there’s a bevy of research out there that shows that companies with strong female leadership generate better returns. When you look at the global economy, there’s an interesting 2015 McKinsey Global Institute report that noted that moving to a scenario where women participate in the economy identically to men would add up to $28 trillion dollars, or an additional 26 percent annual GDP by 2025.”
So Happy International Women’s Day to one and all. May we soon live in a world where the financial giants that steal from customers and gut the pension funds of working women are themselves led by more female directors.