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Fearless Girl is yet another empty symbol, and another example of firms capitalising feminism

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The ‘Fearless Girl’ bronze sculpture was meant to be a symbol of change within Wall Street, a sign of things to come in the field of gender, and race, equality. The young Latina girl was defiantly planted opposite one of America’s most masculine and powerful symbols, the ‘Charging Bull’, as a counterbalance to the inequality so prevalent in the industry.

Commissioned by State Street for their gender awareness campaign, it was unveiled with great fanfare on International Women’s Day of this year, and the corporation said all the correct ‘girl power’ things such as claiming the sculpture represented “the power of women in leadership and the potential of the next generation of women leaders”.

Nevermind that the statue is no woman, but a young girl, for likely a grown woman was deemed too threatening to be acceptable.

Disappointingly, though not surprisingly, State Street has come under fire recently for doing exactly what they were claiming to fight against; it agreed on a $5 million settlement amidst claims that it paid its high-ranking female and black executives less than white men at the firm in comparable positions. The agreement covers back pay from 2010 to 2012, to be given to 305 female senior executives and 15 black vice presidents who worked at their Boston office at the time.

So yes, ‘Fearless Girl’ was a symbol, just not the one advertised.

It was a symbol of yet another attempt at empty corporate feminism, a mere marketing ploy that ‘empowers’ women to keep buying into the firm’s current system.

This is immediately evident when one remembers the plaque that was first installed at the statue’s feet, which read “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference”.

Initially, this may seem uncontroversial, even good. It very quickly became apparent, however, that ‘SHE’ is not the pronoun, but a reference to the SSGA Gender Diversity Index, which is an exchange-traded fund trading under the ticker symbol of ‘SHE’.

And the marketing worked, too. The publicity and promotion of ‘Fearless Girl’ by people excited with its potential would hence generate an estimated $7.4 million in free marketing for State Street. So in fact, this sculpture heralded as a feminist symbol was a simple advertising trick and a successful one at that. Commercialisation, once again, turns something politically loaded into a commodity to profit from. ‘Fearless Girl’ is selling SHE.

This might be forgivable if State Street even practiced what they preached. Except, they don’t. They did set diversity goals, yet only 30% of their new hires in 2016 were women. No details were given about the gender composition of the firm or the individual divisions, so could be hiding the fact that women in the sector are often pushed out of divisions deemed more ‘important’ and into legal or HR.

Meanwhile, its 10-member board of directors has only three women; of the executives on the firm’s leadership team, only 5 of the 28 are women, and only one of these women is black, against 23 white men. Unfortunately State Street is by no means an oddity; these stats are in line with the finance industry, in which only 5% of CEOs worldwide are women, and in which women make up only 29% of senior executives. As for POCs, the statistics are even worse, showing that in the three largest banks, only 3% of executives are black, and they don’t appear to be improving.

State Street’s words do not translate into action. Sure, it says it’s voted against the reestablishment of hundreds of board chairs at firms where boards are all men. However, when it came to shareholder proposals about gender pay, State Street voted against all but two of them.

It voted no on proposals calling for Alphabet, Wells Fargo, and others to disclose pay disparities between genders; In 2017 alone, the firm rejected proposals to challenge gender discrimination at least a dozen times.

Though it’s made some attempts to pressure companies in diversifying at the very top, State Street refuses to use its influence to promote equality at the workforce level. Despite its proclamations against gender inequality, the firm isn’t tackling the issue the way it would a business problem, and is circumventing the most obvious and efficient way of redressing the imbalance… to hire more women.

Employ equal numbers of men and women, consider them fairly for promotions, pay them the same, challenge gender biases. It’s simple, yet it isn’t being done.

In the end, the hypocrisy of State Street, and of many other companies within the finance sector, and even more broadly capitalist firms in general, only serves to highlight the fact that ‘Fearless Girl’ has an important message to relay. It’s sad, still, that feminism is being used by the status quo as a means of profiting off individuals’ hopes for change, without ever delivering on promises for action.  

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