Back to blog

Interview with Maria Gordon, Senior Independent Director: “Gender equality is part of how we do business today, not a trend.”

Interview with Maria Gordon, Senior Independent Director: “Gender equality is part of how we do business today, not a trend.”

Senior Independent Director of PJSC Polyus Maria Gordon spoke to Forbes +1 about the role of women in management and gold as a diversifying asset in an investment portfolio

In 2021, Russia dropped seven points in the World Bank’s Gender Equality Rating ranking, taking place 129 out of 190. Employee compensation and Business management were primarily the areas of concern. discussed the reasons why Russian companies will inevitably have to change their attitude toward female employees with Maria Gordon, who, having been an independent director for several years, has selected the most appealing and advanced companies across various industries.

Gender equality

— You hold a leading position in several Russian companies. When a woman is appointed to such positions, do you think this is a trend dictated by gender equality requirements or a tribute to your expertise in finance and management?

— In a professional context I do not think about myself as a woman hired to make up for gender imbalance, I think about myself as of a professional director only. For example, I was offered a position by the shareholders of the Moscow Stock Exchange as I have good understanding of financial markets and can contribute to the Stock Exchange operations because I have the relevant expertise. My career and my position are special because I spent half of my life in Russia and the other half abroad. I am a bicultural person who understands and feels both sides well.

My mandate at the Moscow Stock Exchange will soon come to an end [an independent director cannot be on the Board of directors longer than seven years], and there are two women who I nominated to replace me in my post. They are both professionals with huge amounts of talent. The Supervisory Board of the Stock Exchange needs to see diversity. Gender equality is part of how we do business today, not a trend. For example, my 14-year daughter does not really see gender equality as an issue. Millennials do not think that a woman needs to be given the floor; they are surprised when she does not receive it.

Companies with old-fashioned values are sadly prevalent in Russia. However among companies like Ozon, Yandex, and Polyus, which have a much younger collective of shareholders and managers, questions like “What is the point of gender equality?” seem obnoxious.

— Do we need a legal regulation for gender equality in corporate management? Or would this be excessive, and lead to underqualified directors sitting on boards and other management bodies?

— It is better to introduce reform from the inside, as this way it is more likely to happen organically. I ask about the number of women in governance in all companies where I am a director. If nothing changes in five years I would not be opposed to introducing quotas to support equality. But we could face the problem related to a deficit in qualified women directors, as we have seen in Norway.

The problem in finance is that fewer women start in this field, and many drop out for maternity leave. As a result, there is a severe lack of women in governance.

To support female directors, we need to support women at all levels. We have quite a lot of young managers who are ready to study to embrace more responsibility. In particular, we are working on this at Polyus: we have a mentoring and training program in place for men and women, and we have a corporate university. Our objective is to equip our employees to become managers.

Unfortunately, in Russia there is a certain tradition of a machismo culture: that of a man on top with a woman in a supporting role. There is no such thing as this in the West. In addition to this, Russia is the only country where women are entitled to a maternity leave of 1 or even 3 years. In other countries, maternity leave is very short, lasting several months, then a woman returns to work. In Russia, women can feel guilty for not delivering 100% on their maternal duties because of public opinion and stereotypes. But if you want to become a manager you have to separate yourself from these gender roles.

— Does having women in top management positions help to improve corporate performance?

— I will tell you one thing, it’s not about performance but corporate culture: when there is a woman in the room, men behave better. Besides, when a director is scolding another director on the Board it is easier for a woman to intervene. It is more difficult for men to stand up for other men, and unkind comments are demotivating for those present in the room. Women can have more empathy, emotional intellect helping to compensate harsh words, restore peace in the team and proceed with the discussion in a constructive manner.

As for financials, there is such a notion in portfolio management as data mining when you are looking for reporting figures that confirm your theory. Gender equality is a good thing to maintain social culture but it is hard to prove with figures.

I worked on Wall Street in the 1990s, and the way men were allowed to behave in the team is absolutely unacceptable now. The same thing will happen in Russia soon. Some things are gradually phased out on a cultural level as people are now fired for improper language or actions.

— Recently Women in Mining, an international association, reached Russia. How do organizations like this help with gender equality?

— Firstly, associations such as this are created on purpose to promote the professional growth and development of women, and they can be mentorship clubs with women supporting each other and sharing experience. Often a woman does not raise her hand because of low self-esteem. For example, I was elected as chairwoman of the Board of directors in Detsky Mir. I was offered a different position but I was interested in this role and I ran for it.

I have proper self-esteem, I can concede what I can and cannot do, but I am also ready to strive for and acquire new skills. For women, the point of achievement is someone telling you that you are ready to take this step in your career. However for men, achieving the position itself is more important rather than the duties as it is kind of a status-marker.

Crisis and gold

— There are a lot of alarmist forecasts of defaulting and economic downturn in developed countries due to excessive load on budgets in 2020. Do you share these fears?

— These theories are not alarmist. In the West pandemics led to extra public debt and large budget deficit. To reverse this situation, either economic growth needs to accelerate — which it does — or some other measures are required to freeze spending. So, the question is: to what extent does extra consumption translate into inflation? If there are signs of inflation that turn out to be long-term rather than temporary, the monetary policy needs to become harder. If this does not happen this year it may come in the next three to five years. If growth does not resume to compensate the deficit, then it will be hard.

— Can gold be the key defensive asset in investment portfolio in that case?

— Gold is already a defensive asset within the investment portfolio. With inflation and money depreciation it is clear that historically gold is a good asset for diversification. That means if you consider this asset as a diversification for your portfolio, you do not expect to gain returns by investing in it but to retain your money if everything else collapses. It is not bitcoin, which you buy speculatively assuming that it will be 20 times up because you believe that bitcoin will replace all currencies in the world.

— There is such a notion as portfolio volatility: when something is soaring to plunge there is a large delta. The role of gold is to reduce the delta of your portfolio volatility. That is why the portfolio of professional investors always includes gold.