BNY Mellon’s DuBois: Fostering Gender Equality Through Investing

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By Susan Bokermann

Heidi DuBois is Bank of New York Mellon Corp.’s Global Head of Corporate Social Responsibility and Social Finance. Before that, DuBois was Vice President, Global Sustainability at PepsiCo, rising from her previous position as senior counsel in PepsiCo’s legal department in which she managed shareholder engagement. In a recent interview, DuBois spoke with Bloomberg Law about BNY Mellon’s gender diversity efforts.

Bloomberg Law: One of the sustainability issues BNY Mellon is focusing on is gender diversity. What are you doing in that space?

Heidi DuBois: I would break this up into three different components. We have two major businesses. One is our investment services business, where we service assets, and the other is our investment management business, in which we actually manage assets for clients. So, in investment services, throughout 2016, we were managing $69.3 billion of assets that were subject to environment, social, or governance screens—or protocols—and gender equality is considered in many of those protocols. So we are managing them on behalf of clients.

On the investment management side, we actually have a Japanese equity fund called the Womenomics Fund. The concept, or the strategy of the fund, is to leverage [Japan] Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe’s goal to increase the number of women in the Japanese workforce. The fund’s strategy is to look for companies that are actively advancing women within the walls of the company, but also marketing products and services to women. As their participation in the labor force goes up, their purchasing power will also go up. That fund, while not a large fund today, is out-performing its index.

Going to part three, which is really our own operations, we view gender equality as fundamental to the success of our business. It’s an important part of our diversity program. In 2016 we added three women to our board of directors. We’re also very focused on investing in women and technology. I would say from our business’ perspective—investment services, investment management, and the way we operate within our own culture and workforce—we are definitely committed to this initiative, and it will continue to be a big part of what we do.

Bloomberg Law: You recently published a report with the United Nations Foundation on gender equality and how certain investment opportunities can close the gender gap. Can you talk a little bit about the findings in that report?

DuBois: As a little bit of background, we’ve had a partnership with the United Nations Foundation for several years, which originated in advocacy for the 17 UN sustainable development goals, which really set forth a roadmap for the future of the world. We were one of the leading private-sector voices advocating for the adoption of the goals. Once the goals were adopted in 2015, we wanted to take a closer look and find out where we could have the greatest impact, so we settled on sustainable goal number 5, which is promoting gender equality. We see that as an area of strength for our own business, but definitely an area of continued opportunity for financial services more broadly. What we really zeroed in on is this huge opportunity for investors to invest in companies whose products and services advance gender equality. Just by looking at five sectors—water, energy, contraception, telecom, and childcare—we uncovered a $300 billion annual market opportunity by 2025 if women were to achieve parity with men in products and services offerings. So imagine if you take that to all sectors, what the opportunity really could be.

Bloomberg Law: Gender-lens investing has typically focused on supporting women-led businesses. But BNY Mellon says there’s also a need for investing in companies that advance gender equality through what they sell. Can you talk about the difference?

DuBois: I think the impact difference is potentially one of scale. It is obviously important, and there is growing evidence, that companies with greater gender parity perform better. But if you look at products and services you’re really catching the big fish because the opportunity, as indicated by our $300 billion number, is so great. Take telecom as an example. There are 1.7 billion women in the world today who don’t own a cell phone. That’s 200 million fewer women than men that own a cell phone. Through our research, we identified that if we were to achieve that parity, that 200 million more women would get a cell phone, that translates to about 140 million more women having access to economic opportunities, job prospects, and education that they wouldn’t otherwise have. So that’s kind of what I’m talking about when I talk about scale. From a marketing perspective, those numbers translate to about $50 billion of sales in telecom, so I think that’s the big differentiator here if you take a products and services approach.

Bloomberg Law: Are there many investment vehicles related to products and services that advance gender equality now? What is the opportunity here?

DuBois: There are not many today, and that’s why we wanted to focus on this and deliver a call to action in this area. We see it as a huge opportunity that people are not taking advantage of. I think there are some in the very early stages. I think our Womenomics Fund is one example of how this could work on the ground.

However, there are a couple things that we need. One, we need a set of consistent and reliable metrics for evaluating companies and the degree to which their products and services advance gender equality. Not every product marketed to women is necessarily one that advances gender equality. Number two, we need additional investment vehicles, which are designed around those metrics. And third, we need a track record demonstrating return. We’re definitely at the early stages. We’ve raised the topic, we’ve raised the conversation, and we hope to continue it and get some of these market builders and infrastructures off the ground to make it go.

Bloomberg Law: Your report mentions the need for a third-party evaluation of investment opportunities. What are some metrics that will be important to this kind of evaluation?

DuBois: I think there are two sides to that coin. One side is the company side. How do you know what kind of metrics would be appropriate in considering a company for a portfolio? Our report includes examples like incremental research and development dedicated to developing products and services aimed towards advancing women. Another type of metric could be retention of female customers or increase in female customers. Another company metric could be: Has the company set any targets? An example of that would be Vodafone committing to, or setting a target, to get cell phones into the hands of 50 million more women by 2025.

That’s the company side. The other side is the social outcome, which is probably better measured by NGOs [non-governmental organizations]—what’s the increased participation of women in the workforce? What’s the reduction in unpaid labor? Topics like those that look at the social impact and outcome of gender parity through products and services.

Bloomberg Law: BNY is a sponsor of Berkeley Law’s Sustainable Business and Investment Forum. How do programs like these, and engagement with academia in general, help advance BNY Mellon’s strategic ESG initiatives?

DuBois: We learn a lot! I think that academia is often ahead of the curve, so we can gain access to new studies and information that we might not otherwise be aware of. Studies like that of George Serafeim, at Harvard, who recently released a study showing that portfolios of companies that performed well on material ESG factors also performed better in terms of their market returns. We get the latest research; it gives us insight into where things might be headed. We also have the opportunity to network with our peers and understand what they’re doing in ESG, so it kind of keeps us on our toes in terms of where we want to take our strategy next. It’s just a great opportunity to continue to learn from fellow practitioners in this space.

Bloomberg Law: You have a really interesting career path, going from corporate law to corporate sustainability. How has your legal background helped you in your sustainability roles?

DuBois: The transition originated in the law. I had a background in corporate governance, particularly executive compensation. I was at PepsiCo on the corporate governance team, working on shareholder engagement issues—conversations between companies and shareholders about governance practices, executive compensation practices—and I very much saw long-termism and sustainability coming into that conversation. So, I quickly became interested in the field and found it very relevant to my legal work. From there I shifted full time into sustainability, and I would say that there are four areas where my legal background has been really helpful to me. Number one is issue spotting. Lawyers are trained to spot relevant issues. In sustainability, what’s really important from a corporate perspective is understanding what are the most material, non-financial issues to the company. So that skill, of figuring out what is relevant quickly, has been really helpful to me.

Number two is having a strong service mindset. As a lawyer, you are an adviser and a service provider. Often in sustainability roles, you are in a position of needing to exercise influence without necessarily having the authority. Very few people report to me, but I need a lot from a lot of different people, so having a service mindset and making it as easy as possible for others is important and has been very helpful to me in my sustainability roles.

Number three is really about translation. As a lawyer, you’re often called upon to translate very difficult, complex concepts into plain English so that business people can understand them. I would say that’s also true in sustainability. When you’re trying to explain why an organization should set a science-based target for emissions that are based on the Paris Climate Accords, how do you get that into one sentence when an executive doesn’t have that much time? So translation has also been a valuable skill.

Part four is just a basic understanding of what lawyers have to grapple with when they’re thinking about corporate disclosure. One of the biggest issues in sustainability today is what companies should be disclosing about their environmental, social, and governance programs and focus areas. There is a lot of debate out there about the extent of that disclosure and what potential risks disclosure may pose to an organization. So I do have that appreciation as an attorney, which makes those conversations more collaborative and enables us to get to a solution that works. I’d say those are my big four, coming from a legal background.

To contact the reporter on this story: Susan Bokermann at sbokermann@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Yin Wilczek at ywilczek@bloomberglaw.com

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