Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

‘Fearless Girl’ and the hurdles women face in the workplace

The “Fearless Girl” statue in New York.

AFP/Getty Images/File

The “Fearless Girl” statue in New York.

I like the statue of the “Fearless Girl” who stares down Wall Street’s “Charging Bull.’’ It makes you think.

It made me think back nearly two decades, when State Street Global Advisors — the statue’s sponsor — generated headlines due to a much different storyline about women. Dubbed “The Case of the Pink Pump” by then-Globe business columnists Steve Bailey and Steven Syre, it revolved around a pair of pink heels that were awarded to any man in the firm’s international equity operation who chose to go home to a wife or girlfriend rather than go out drinking with the guys. That, along with audio of the famous Meg Ryan diner scene from “When Harry Met Sally” that was programmed to play back her orgasmic moans when someone touched a certain computer keyboard, were cited in sex discrimination complaints filed by several State Street female employees.

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That was long ago — so long ago that Bill Clinton, not coincidentally, resided in the White House. Fast forward 20 years. Donald Trump is president, despite a history with women that includes allegations of groping, backed up by his crude remarks on the Access Hollywood tape. Supported by Trump, Bill O’Reilly reigns at Fox News, despite reports of multiple women winning settlements after accusing the cable TV star of sexual harassment.

And a statue of a ponytailed girl staring down a statue of a bull is cast as a catalyst for serious talk about empowering women in the workplace.

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Arturo di Modica, the “Charging Bull” sculptor, calls “Fearless Girl” an “advertising trick.” But State Street insists there’s substance behind the PR. Since unveiling the statue, it has reached out verbally to companies in which it has an ownership interest and plans to send out letters asking them to take action to increase diversity on their boards. State Street, which has three women on its board, is also suggesting it could vote the shares it owns in a company against that company’s board of directors if more women are not added.

“If we don’t like what they’re doing, we can absolutely vote against them, and we will,” said Lynn Blake, an executive vice president of State Street Global Advisors and one of five women identified on the company website as part of State Street’s leadership team.

Blake, who has been with State Street for 30 years, said she has only “vague recollections” of the pink pump headlines and, even then, didn’t consider them part of “the cultural norm.” What she does remember is that State Street was good to her back in that era, by embracing flex time and allowing her to work from home to raise young children. From her perspective, State Street has always had a positive, inclusive culture. Company representatives say that culture was reinforced in recent years by an internal commitment that ties diversity goals to performance evaluation. Now State Street says it’s trying to influence what happens beyond its own boardroom.

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Asked to put a timetable on changing the composition of company boards, Blake said she hoped it would happen “within a three-year time frame.” However, she also said State Street doesn’t want “antagonistic” conversations; it wants “constructive dialogue.”

She declined to make any leap from State Street’s goal of adding women to corporate boards to a discussion of the culture exemplified by the kind of accusations made against Trump or O’Reilly. Yet what some women said they faced 20 years ago at State Street remains reality for women in other workplaces today. It has long been associated with Wall Street, not to mention the White House.

“Fearless Girl” is making people talk yet again about the hurdles women face in the workplace. But we’ve been talking about that for a really long time. Talk is cheap unless it changes actual behavior. That takes real fearlessness. Here’s rooting for State Street to deliver on the promise cast in bronze — before another 20 years transpire.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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