Slurs and stereotypes taint asset managers touting diversity

Only 13 fund managers in the City are black


“I’m regularly assumed to be someone else,” says Justin Onuekwusi, head of retail multi-asset funds at Legal & General Investment Management. “Less than six months ago, somebody thought I was a security guard – and that has happened a number of times during my career.”

Encountering prejudice as a black man working in UK asset management is not unique to Onuekwusi. Portfolio Adviser has spoken with several members of the industry about their career progression, being on the receiving end of racism and their thoughts on the lack of representation for ethnic minorities within the sector.

The figures make for bleak reading. The UK’s asset management industry is the second-largest in the world behind the United States, with £7.7trn in assets under management. It employs more than 100,000 individuals and yet fewer than 1% of UK investment managers identify as black, African or Caribbean.

In June, the Investment Association (IA) published a report, ‘Black voices: Building black representation in investment management’ in conjunction with nationwide diversity initiative #talkaboutblack and the Diversity Project. It reveals that black people make up 3% of the UK population and more than 13% of the population of London, where most of the UK investment management industry resides.

According to the report, ethnic minorities comprise 14% of the UK population, with 7.5% identifying as Asian and 3.3% as black, African or Caribbean. In London, in addition to the 13.3% who are black, 18.5% of the population is Asian, according to Census figures.

The Diversity Project identifies 13 black portfolio managers, three heads of distribution and only two professionals in C-suite positions.

Negative stereotypes and racist slurs

Onuekwusi, who is part of the #talkaboutblack initiative, says it’s not just a security guard he has been mistaken for. “I was taken for a tech guy when I was presenting at a conference,” he says.

“A fund manager came into the room when I was flipping through my slides and said, ‘Can you get my slides open, I want to change the animations in them?’ That was a year ago. I’ve also been mistaken for a toilet janitor in the past.”

Onuekwusi stresses it is important not to blame people for having these preconceptions and believes talking about race is essential if we are to counter stereotypes.

“Everybody has biases and if, out of thousands, there are only 13 black fund managers in the City making investment decisions and running money, why would anybody think differently? We can only start to address some of these stereotypes when there is better representation.”

Impax chief operating officer Darren Johnson has also struggled to break free of negative stereotypes. “Certainly early on in my career there were assumptions made about me,” he tells Portfolio Adviser.

“I’m from a disadvantaged background traditionally speaking – from a council estate, a single mother – and those are the assumptions made about me before I’ve even spoken.

“I’ve always felt I had to overcompensate when speaking to people as they assume I’m a specific type and I wanted to make sure they knew I wasn’t that person.”

In Johnson’s experience, overcoming people’s preconceptions is no easy task. “I worked so hard to not conform to type that it really surprised me when someone would accuse me of being aggressive during a debate. Because what was being said was unwarranted, it made me wonder: would you say that to someone who didn’t look like me? Is that just the way you’ve been conditioned?”

He says: “I have had conversations to try and determine why they are saying I’m aggressive when I am not the type of person who raises their voice. It resonates with what women in the industry must experience when they are stereotyped as emotional.”

Johnson says he experienced racism firsthand, including use of the N-word and other derogatory terms in his first job as a management accounts assistant. Fear of losing a position he felt priviledged to have got straight after college stopped him from speaking out.

“There was an employee there that made snide comments every day when I walked in, about the colour of my skin, where I’m from, my parents, my siblings and much more.

“This went on for four months but because I felt so lucky to be there I didn’t want to rock the boat. All I was thinking was I’m the only person of colour in the organisation, how are they going to deal with me if I complain? I’m just going to make trouble. That’s why it took me so long to report it. I look back now and wish I had said something sooner.”

The IA report references an ICM Poll commissioned by the Guardian newspaper in late 2018, in which 12% of a sample of 1,000 people said racist language had been directed at them during the past month. This jumped to 43% over the past five years.

Willis Towers Watson director Marisa Hall, who is also director of the firm’s Thinking Ahead Institute, says she experienced direct racism while in a graduate position at the firm’s Leeds office, although not from someone at the company.

“When I was up north, it was the first time in my life I ever experienced racism, walking outside my office and some stranger said, ‘Go back to Africa’. And I was like, ‘Wait, I’m from Trinidad’.

“I spent all of my life in a country where half the population was black and the other half was Asian. Because you had two dominant cultures, everybody worked together and you celebrated Christmas, Eid and Diwali,” she says. “You just went where the food was, so it was interesting coming here.

“But it’s a struggle I’ve gone through and I really hope that as the diversity and inclusion conversation starts, fewer people have to go through it.”


The #talkaboutblack initiative, part of the Diversity Project, investigated some of the reasons for prejudice and under-representation in the workplace, and identified four major sticking points: pipeline, entry, career progression and taboo.

‘Pipeline’ refers to the socioeconomic situation in which many UK-born black people find themselves.

Aviva Investors client solutions manager Rachel Green, a #talkaboutblack steering committee member, says: “UK black-Caribbean and black-African people experience higher rates of unemployment, are more likely to be victims of crime and to underperform in education compared with white counterparts and other ethnic minorities.”

Another cause for under-representation is ‘entry’, referring to the fact that even those individuals who achieve a good education are less likely to be successful in securing their preferred roles.

Green says: “They are also either not attracted to asset management due to a perceived lack of diversity or, often, just simply not aware of the opportunities.”

Onuekwusi says he was lucky to break into the industry through a graduate role and that he has had some exemplary mentors. “I wanted to be an actuary and I applied to 60 different businesses in order to get three or four interviews, so that was hard as it’s pretty competitive. But once I got
in I’ve always worked with people who have been supportive of me, in particular my line managers.”

Not everyone was as lucky. Johnson says he faced barriers to entry due to his lack of experience, “average” education and where he grew up. “I had a very average education in terms of the institutions I went to and I didn’t even go to university, so there was a natural barrier because a lot of jobs were looking for degrees.

“Often I was put off from applying for a role I felt I could do because they were asking for specifics.”

He adds: “I also felt living in south London at the time might put people off. I have been in interviews where that was commented on, so perhaps it wasn’t just my own perception.”

The IA report was produced after evidence came to light that demonstrated black people continue to suffer from discrimination in 21st-century Britain.

In 2016, an Equality and Human Rights Commission report, ‘Healing a divided Britain’, revealed how much further this country has to go before equality is attained. The report revealed that black workers with degrees earn 23.1% less than white workers with similar qualifications on average.

Around 10.7% of white people work as managers, directors and senior officials, compared with just 5.7% of black, African or Caribbeanpeople.

Breaking into asset management

A lack of career progression is another major contributor to the under-representation of ethnic minorities across the asset management sector.

When black individuals break into the industry, they typically end up in support functions, have higher rates of attrition and rarely progress to leadership or revenue-generating positions, says Green.

The ICM/Guardian poll found 43% of 1,000 people from ethnic minorities living in the UK surveyed said they had been overlooked for a job or promotion in a manner they felt was unfair over the past five years.

Onuekwusi says a lack of black role models acts as a deterrent for the younger generation. “If you speak to the average student and ask them if they are interested in moving into asset management, there’s a lot of hesitation. They often respond, ‘Why would I join an industry where I don’t see anybody that looks or sounds like me?’”

Onuekwusi says the biggest challenge he faces as a black individual is the feeling of belonging. “It’s only by doing the mentoring circles and through people opening up that I’ve realised a feeling of belonging is really important. The way I think about it is the saying: diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being invited to dance at the party but belonging is being able to dance in your own way.

“The biggest challenge for juniors coming into the industry, especially as companies are trying to hire more diverse talent, is how do we help these people feel like they belong in our businesses?”

Aviva Investors credit analyst Fyona Knight, a founding member of the Guild of Investment Managers, says no one firm or group can solve this on their own as collaboration is key.

“The wider investment community, including asset owners, consultants and representative groups, need to work hand in hand to solve this problem. There won’t be an overnight fix but by widening the recruitment pool, particularly at entry level, the industry can go a long way.”

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