Perhaps the turning point of gender equality in corporate America will come down to the simple but powerful act of commissioning a piece of art.
The “Fearless Girl” statue of a little girl, with hands on her hips, standing up to the iconic bronze “Charging Bull” in Lower Manhattan, has gone viral in a way that no study on the importance of women in the boardroom ever has.
Her mere presence raises these questions: Why haven’t women been on equal footing? Why shouldn’t they be? Why does the bull, a decidedly masculine symbol, get to represent America’s economic strength?
The statue was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors, the investment arm of Boston-based State Street Corp. with $2.5 trillion in funds, to help bring attention to the lack of women on corporate boards. Its temporary installation coincides with SSGA’s new campaign to push the 3,500 public companies in which it invests to add more female directors. If you can believe it, quite a few have all-male boards. (Studies show that firms with diverse boards are more successful, producing higher stock prices, returns on equity, and valuations.)
The action is groundbreaking for a firm like State Street, and comes a year after it introduced an exchange-traded fund dubbed “SHE,” which invests in companies with women in top executive posts. State Street itself walks the walk, with three women on its 11-member board, and women accounting for a third of its executive promotions last year.
But while State Street may be shaking up Wall Street, its efforts were hardly noticed on Main Street. Until now. The statue puts gender diversity issues front and center, instead of buried in arcane procedures.
“It makes this commitment visible in a way that proxy voting guidelines don’t,” said Toni Wolfman, who through the Boston Club has pushed for women on boards for two decades.
And that’s exactly what the women of State Street hoped would happen. They knew changing minds would take more than a different investment philosophy or a product launch.
They began kicking around the idea for a statue a year ago, and not just any statue anywhere, but one planted at ground zero of American capitalism. And they wanted a little girl because she represents hope for the future.
“It’s symbolic of change and what we need to change in corporate America and women taking their rightful position,” explained Lynn Blake, an executive vice president at SSGA, who with State Street executives Lori Heinel and Rakhi Kumar spearheaded the project.
Work on the statue began in December, with the goal of putting it up by Wednesday, International Women’s Day.
They found a female artist, Kristen Visbal, who specializes in bronze sculptures and who would end up pulling some all-nighters to finish in time.
Visbal modeled the statue after a 7-year-old girl. The Delaware sculptor wanted to create someone everyone could relate to — a girl in a simple dress, wearing high-tops, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail.
The “Fearless Girl” is just 50 inches tall, compared to the hulking “Charging Bull,” but the plaque at her feet suggests size doesn’t matter: ‘‘Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.’’
The installation took place overnight on Tuesday, and Visbal was on hand to oversee the placement of her first piece in New York City. But that’s not why this one was special.
“Even more exciting to me is what the girl represents,” she said. “The Wall Street bull has such power. It’s such an iconic piece. It’s a piece that’s always assumed masculine. Then to put this little delicate girl in this masculine environment — which is what we do when we put women in the workplace — now we are saying, ‘Hey, we are here. We are going to be here more in the future.’ ”
While the women of State Street set out to make a statement, they never imagined a reaction like this. The statue has lit up Twitter with its own hashtag — #FearlessGirl — and is drawing crowds who have posted photos on social media. It has made both national and international headlines.
State Street has a permit from the city for the statue to be there a week. The company is seeking an extension for another month, but fans have already launched a Change.org petition to make it a permanent fixture.
“You never know when you do something this creative and out of the box,” Blake said. “It has gone beyond our wildest dreams.”
Blake said she has heard from many clients, but the biggest surprise is the feedback from her own colleagues. “They have never been more proud to work for State Street,” she said.
“Charging Bull” itself started out as a piece of temporary guerilla art in 1989, when the sculptor dropped it off by the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate America’s can-do spirit. Like “Fearless Girl,” it quickly became a crowd favorite. The city removed it, but then found the statue a permanent home a few blocks away.
It seems only fair — it’s 2017, after all — that “Fearless Girl” get equal treatment. She deserves it.
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.