A week before International Women’s Day on March 8, inspiring women from across the financial services industry offer their insights on furthering the diversity agenda, speaking to Joy Macknight, who has become the first woman to lead The Banker in its 95-year history.

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While the financial services industry has made some progress on gender diversity, the numbers still demonstrate an entrenched division. According to Oliver Wyman’s Women in Financial Services 2020 report, the representation of women on executive committees is only 20% and 23% on boards in major financial services firms globally.

As the report’s authors rightly stated, this is not enough. The industry remains some distance away from attaining 30% representation, which research indicates is a critical mass where minority groups can affect boardroom dynamics, according to the 30% Club.

Yet financial services, in its many manifestations, can provide a rewarding, impactful and ever-evolving career, as evidenced by the leading women in this roundtable. As the industry undergoes a fundamental transformation, both from a technological perspective and a business model perspective, new and interesting opportunities are opening up.

What attracted you to a career in banking/finance services?

Cathy Bessant: I didn’t know I was attracted to banking, and I certainly didn’t know I was going to end up loving it as much as I do. I graduated in 1982, and was planning to work for two years, save money and go back to law school. But I quickly realised that I loved banking. There is a nobility in what we do; the stability of finance affords us the power to make a real difference in the financial success of our clients. That has stayed with me ever since.

Ann Cairns: I saw this as a route to the top of industry. A good grounding in banking and finance builds skills that are needed in every company. Also the global nature of banking and its reach across the corporate world is a fantastic training ground for future leaders.

Alexa Fernandez: Mentorship. Ten years ago I was looking for a career change, and a senior merger and acquisition banker (whom I knew through my alumni network) suggested I go into banking. He said my leadership, language and communication skills would be a great asset for any bank and would make me stand out. Those skills are precisely what allowed me to excel in my career in financial services and subsequently in the fintech space.

Joanne Hannaford: I always knew that I wanted to work with technology, and recognised early on the potential impact that it would have in moving financial services into the modern day. At Goldman Sachs, a quarter of the firm’s population sit in engineering. Our engineers are at the forefront of innovation, disrupting the way technology is used in finance on a daily basis, building and deploying the innovations that drive our business and financial markets worldwide. It is a very exciting environment to work in.

Sara Koslinska: I started looking into fintech when I moved to London in 2012 and the huge number of start-up events focused on finance sparked my curiosity. It was then that I realised how much easier consumers’ lives could get if businesses made the most out of all the data that they have access to.

Adizah Tejani: I come from a fintech background and think that the industrial scale of working within a digital function within a large financial institution means you have a type of scale you can’t get in many other places. Financial services is going through all sorts of change and technology is the driving force of this.

What has been the turning point in your career to date?

Ms Hannaford: A significant moment in my career was when I was asked to co-head the newly-formed platform group at Goldman Sachs, which was tasked with the mission of establishing platforms – such as a data platform, digital platform and process automation platform – to create greater scale and agility, and empower the firm to continue to provide cutting-edge technology solutions for our clients for years to come.

As my career has progressed, I have also valued the increasing number of opportunities I’ve had to send the ladder back down to those coming up behind me. Becoming partner at Goldman Sachs and head of the engineering organisation in Europe, the Middle East and Africa are both significant achievements, but being able to use my platform as a senior woman at the firm is even more important for me.

I have been able to influence diversity and inclusion policies across the firm and the broader finance and technology industries, engage leaders on how to move the diversity needle within their own organisations, and advocate for those who are unable to do so themselves. To me, that is success.

Ms Fernandez: Getting into fintech [was a turning point]. I love this space and it’s a great fit for me. My favourite aspect of it is the intersection of business and government, and how regulation plays a key part in advancing innovation. The UK, for example, has been very proactive in encouraging the adoption of new technologies, and many governments across the globe are now emulating that approach.

Ms Koslinska: I kept following fintech solutions but it was only in 2015 that I could actually put some of my ideas into practice. I was introduced, by a female angel investor, to my business partner, who had spent 30 years in investing and wanted to create better tools for young people to start investing earlier. Then the turning point for our company was when the first bank – Finnish bank OP and its amazing innovation team – took the risk of working with us.

Ms Tejani: Getting global experience was the turning point for me. Seeing the use of technology from California to Singapore was eye-opening. People were super open, from venture capital firms to busy technology executives. Working for a Californian business-to-business start-up enabled me to get advanced insight into where the industry was going. I leverage this global lens daily at HSBC.

Ms Bessant: There hasn’t been one epic turning point – I’ve had a lot of turning points. Most were really positive with the occasional setback; yet every one [of them] turned into really great opportunities. The important thing was learning from all of them. The tough part, however, is recognising a turning point before it happens. They’re always easy to spot in the rear-view mirror.

Ms Cairns: I have had many turning points, but in recent years my management of international markets for Mastercard during a massive growth cycle for the company since 2011 was thrilling. We opened businesses in new countries, grew the employee base of the company fourfold and the stock 10-fold since I joined. It has been an exhilarating adventure in a rapidly digitising world.

Why is diversity (in all its forms) important to you/your organisation and what steps are being taken to improve diversity?

Ms Tejani: From my perspective, diversity is important from an economic standpoint. Change is taking place, but pace is important. For example, supporting Included VC [a fellowship for individuals from diverse communities] is part of the way HSBC is enabling this, as the focus is to improve access into venture capital, which is key within the technology ecosystem. From HSBC’s perspective, we value difference [as an organisation]. The greater our empathy and diversity, the better we reflect the worlds of our customers and communities, and the better we can serve them. So we listen. We remove barriers. And we seek out views different from our own.

Ms Koslinska: We look for people with a rich background in terms of work experience (and markets), as it helps not only to generate better solutions, but also makes everyday work more enjoyable. We have also been making a conscious effort to hire women. And seeing a woman their age running the company helps to attract female applicants.

Ms Fernandez: Without diversity in the workplace, we don’t fulfil the needs of our clients nor do we produce the products and services that meet the needs of the broader population. Technology is enabling [fintech] to offer financial services and products to people that big banks didn’t serve because it was too expensive to do so. However, to meet the promise of that technology, we need diverse teams and founders ensuring we’re not just replicating the old products/offerings to the same people.

Ms Bessant: First and foremost, it’s the right thing to do. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion makes our company a great place to work for our teammates. It’s an essential part of our culture and who we are. Second, and there’s no question here, we know we have work to do to improve. At all levels of the company, we are focused on bringing representation to societal levels. We know we have more to do but we’re committed to doing the work.

Ms Cairns: We reach more than three billion consumers around the world. Our products and services truly reflect the global community we serve. Our management team is eclectic and we are reaching for more gender balance. We have paid parental leave of four months everywhere in the world; women are treated equally in this respect. We have equal pay for the same types of roles and we publish our global gender pay gap. It’s about 8%.

Ms Hannaford: Diversity has been a priority of mine for as long as I can remember; as a senior woman working in an industry where women are still the minority, it is something I care about at a professional and personal level. For me, addressing diversity is about understanding the unique circumstances and needs of individuals, and identifying how I or the firm can support them to realise their potential. At Goldman Sachs, we strive for greater diversity in all of its forms, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it brings creativity, innovation and teamwork to the forefront of how we operate. In engineering specifically, we know that diversity enables us to deliver more inclusive products that cater for our clients’ ever-evolving needs.

In Europe, we are involved in a number of strategic initiatives specifically targeted at encouraging women and other diverse groups into technology careers. Something I am particularly proud of is our Africa Recruiting Initiative; every year, Goldman Sachs engineers travel to Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya to engage technical students on careers in engineering, providing them with mentorship and coaching on the recruitment process for our graduate programmes. We currently have more than 60 graduates from this programme working as full-time analysts in engineering, and have recently extended the initiative to Rwanda. We have also seen a lot of success with our degree apprenticeship programme, which sees students from all backgrounds across the UK work part-time as developers at Goldman Sachs, and study part-time at university, over a four-year period, to gain a degree in computer science.

What is one thing that needs to be done, something that you think is overlooked or not gaining the prominence it should, to improve gender equality and diversity across the industry?

Ms Koslinska: Stop sexual harassment instead of just claiming that your company takes it seriously. To keep companies accountable, we could have an external organisation, which receives employees’ reports directly, monitors each company’s response and receives employee feedback after the case is resolved. Such a standard would help companies to see how they’re doing against a benchmark.

Ms Fernandez: How we are recruiting now doesn’t work and we need to change the whole process. It’s not enough to say, “We make sure to interview at least two women for every position.” This won’t make a difference if the interviewer has an unconscious bias [that favours male candidates]. Those two women don’t stand a chance! After recruitment comes another challenge: retention.

Ms Hannaford: For me, it is the startling lack of reskilling programmes for adults returning to work or looking to pursue a new career. If we take gender diversity as an example, we know that women can find it very challenging to re-enter the technology industry after taking some time out of work to start a family, because of the ways in which technology has evolved during that time. It is often the case that these individuals have a wealth of additional experience that organisations could really benefit from, gained from a previous career or while bringing up a family. We would see a surge in diversity if organisations prioritised investment in this space.

Ms Tejani: I think that with regards to venture capital, if more money/funding can go into amazing companies from all over the world this will be key, as venture capital is very concentrated in certain markets. Looking for innovation globally is important and HSBC’s work with Included VC helps with this in a small but tangible way.

Ms Cairns: I don’t think there is one thing. I think you have to treat your people, markets and the society you serve in a way that addresses unbalance. Women are more excluded from the financial system and even if they have bank accounts they have a harder time getting loans or venture capital funding for their businesses. At Mastercard we pledged to reach 50 million more small and medium-sized enterprises and decided half of those should be women-led, so 25 million women-led companies.

Ms Bessant: There is no silver bullet. I wish there was because if I knew the answer to that question, then we’d already be doing it. What there is though, is a strong urgency to see a dramatic improvement. It’s coming from all levels starting at the top and running throughout the company. That’s what inspires me most. The commitment from the top is essential; driving change every day takes all of us. For me, that’s the key.

What future skill set will be needed for a career in the financial services industry?

Ms Fernandez: Empathy. The financial institutions that will succeed in the future will be those that understand and personally connect with their customers. Technology is gradually taking over the majority of the customer interactions, which is why it’s so important that the financial services industry doesn’t lose the human touch. And this is yet another reason why diversity is so important. The financial products and services need to be designed by a diverse team, one that represents the voice and needs of a diverse customer set. And to do that you need empathy.

Ms Hannaford: Technology is playing an increasingly large role across all industries, including financial services; banks are experiencing huge levels of disruption and growth, and technology is being leveraged to propel digital transformation and meet evolving client needs. Technical skills across roles and functions in the financial services industry are going to be crucial; we are focused on running an operating environment that permits our people to code with proper controls in place, meaning that the people we hire will need to have coding capabilities.

Ms Tejani: An understanding of how digital and technology is driving business change will be key for a career in the financial services industry. Continually learning is vital as our industry will keep evolving. For example, HSBC’s global Future Skills programme is a group-wide movement of skill-building activities and training for all colleagues. It’s about improving internal mobility, developing ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills; empowering colleagues, regardless of background or where they are in the organisation to prioritise their personal growth and identify a new or their next career opportunity.

Ms Bessant: People have to have a working knowledge of technology, and I’m not saying that because I’m in operations and technology. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to know how to code. The things that will change our industry dramatically in the next few years – digitisation, automation, data and analytics – will require a working definition in order to understand how capabilities work, what their potential is and how we support them with the architecture of the firm.

Ms Koslinska: I still think that there’s so much more that can be done for consumers’ finance-related needs, if only their data could be utilised fully. I would bet on all the data-related skill sets, not only data science, analytics and mining, but also having a vision to come up with new ways of using available data to create new products.

Ms Cairns: Strong risk management will always be high on the agenda, as we move into an increasingly volatile world through pandemics, politics and climate change. Innovation and an entrepreneurial bent will also stand you in good stead. And the ability to build partnerships, which allow the financial services to thrive in a 5G, AI [artificial intelligence] world!


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