Senior diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) adviser, Birgit Neu, is part of our inaugural 2023 SFXV cohort. The former Global Head of D&I at HSBC initially dreamt of being a writer. Her immigrant parents, says Birgit, had other ideas. “They thought their daughter might starve and insisted that I get a business degree.”
Birgit tried her hand in several sectors, from the music industry through to retail and working for a digital agency. However, it was working for a publisher that taught her a significant early lesson in D&I. “They had a diverse editorial team which had license to publish books for very different cultural markets. Those were frequently our best sellers. It taught me a lot about the links between representation, where it counts and the commercial potential of diversity.” It was a lesson she took with her in her successful career in financial services. We caught up with Birgit when she came to speak to our D&I Committee.
What obstacles did you encounter when you first started working on D&I projects?
In 2010, I had a day job in a bank and wanted to start an employee network designed by both men and women to solve gender balance issues together. It was clear to me that we needed those in positions of power – at the time, mostly men – to work with us on solutions. Initially, there was some resistance. Unlike today, there was no talk of male allies and it was rare that men’s involvement in these conversations went beyond early board diversity efforts.
When did you start to see change?
The network hit a tipping point when employee engagement started to take off. It was around the launch of corporate gender campaigns like the 30% Club, so the DEI movement was gaining grass roots traction more broadly.
"Looking at the evidence around the D&I practices you put into place is vital"
Businesses started getting pressure at the top of their houses to take gender parity seriously and as a network chair, I was getting calls from my C-suite asking me to represent the company externally. Internally, our network was attracting more interest and eventually we realised that we needed to expand and grow it globally.
How did you move from employee network chair to Global Head of D&I?
I was curious. I could see the groundswell of engagement where I was, but I didn't understand what D&I challenges were unique to just gender; my employer; financial services; or the UK. My hunch at the time was that it was much bigger – and systemic – but I wanted the opportunity to explore for myself just where the boundaries of some of these challenges were.
I left the bank for a few years to do my own consultancy across sectors, borders and diversity strands, and I learned on the job. When the bank later created its first Global Head of D&I role, I had more experience with the systems and processes end of the work to help make the case for why I should get that job. After more than five years doing that, I’m back out doing consultancy again. That keeps building my skills and understanding of this fast-moving topic too.
What is your advice for the Stonehage Fleming D&I Committee?
Looking at the evidence around the D&I practices you put into place is vital – how do you know it’s working? If you have data and insights relating to D&I, make sure you're tracking those and following through to operationalise improvements into your business processes. D&I committees have a powerful role to play in keeping people focused and on track for longer term ambitions as they monitor performance.
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