Equitable access to leadership roles in the financial services sector remains a passionately debated issue. Organisational culture and history seem to have contributed significantly to the current state of affairs. In 2019, the proportion of women in leadership roles within financial services firms was 21.9 percent, which is projected to grow to 31 percent by 2030 – a figure still below parity.
Globally, the banking and finance industry/sector is male-dominated, mainly due to the sector’s history. The history of banking can be traced as far back as 2000BC, when merchants made loans to farmers and traders based on grains. This was mainly done by men because of the labour intensity involved. Although the industry has evolved from a simplistic barter system into a modern, complex, globalised, technology-driven and Internet-based e-banking model, the banking sector is still not gender balanced.
On the banking pyramid it is noticeable that men are most often at the top, with women generally occupying the base. This male dominance has led to a situation wherein decision-making is skewed, posing major challenges in the sector. A key challenge is the inability to deliberately dilute the gender imbalance in traditional banking industry settings. Another challenge that confronts women in the industry is what may be called ‘the Pause’. The banking and finance industry is one of the ten fast-changing industries, and this fast-changing pace sometimes impacts women. There is a time in a woman’s life when there are certain biological demands which may cause a woman to pause; but the world of work, as currently set up, does not wait because a female worker must attend to her family and other needs.
The biggest barriers women face in the workplace are the traditional expectations that society places on them. This burden on women requires that they work and still meet their primary obligations as caregivers in the home. Social norms and traditions, as we know, continue to confine women to the home. Sadly, this transcends to the workplace. Most women have a hard time breaking through, especially with the paucity of female representation.
Another issue is the limited workplace flexibility women have – or rather, don’t have. Workplace flexibility can come in many forms. It may be the opportunity to have a flexible daily schedule that allows working from the office and from home. Most women report that balancing their work and family roles is the number-one barrier to workforce participation. Flexible work is therefore an enabler of gender equality and can reduce the barriers to fuller women-participation in the workplace. With the gender gap remaining a crucial topic in the world of work, it is no secret that the financial services sector faces the same challenge; and this must be consciously addressed to close the gap.
Overcoming these challenges, although arduous, is possible. I am an ardent believer in self-awareness; however, most women use it to their detriment. Women tend to self-judge and self-restrict – not because we do not have the skills and capabilities, but because we place an important mark on others’ perception of us. Hence, our inability to fully engage in networking activities – a crucial tool for career success. According to LinkedIn data, women around the world are 14-38% less likely to have a strong network that is both large and diverse.
Despite the importance of solid work networking, most women often overlook its significance. While it is essential to have your own voice, it is equally important to have a great support system at the workplace. I believe, as women, we receive fewer promotions because we often do not have mentors and sponsors who will advocate for us. It is important to have people who will speak on our behalf and give us the necessary resources to put us on the radar of career-advancing relationships. The lack of social connections and inadequate networks is one of things which hinder women from advancing in their careers.
Beyond identifying sponsors, women need to put in the work – work with the sponsor. It is paramount to be honest and candid with your sponsor, but it is equally important for them to know your skills and capabilities. Organisations should be deliberate in identifying the needs of their employees and providing them with resources to fill that gap.
A mentor helps you navigate your career, either formally or informally, with the goal of guiding the mentee’s career choices and decisions. A sponsor is a senior leader or other person who uses strong influence to help you obtain high-visibility assignments, promotions or jobs. A coach guides one’s development by focusing on soft and technical skills. Sponsorship and mentoring programmes can play an important role in raising women managers’ aspirations and confidence in their own abilities.
Often, high potential women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. There is no better time to be a woman than now. There is a lot of visibility around women issues. Women leaders need to hold other women accountable to pave the way for the next generation. This includes making sure that the right governance structures are in place. Their actions should propel the next generation. This is not a competition between sexes but solely an effort to improve gender inclusion.
Women are no longer in the shadows; we need to constantly educate ourselves so that we are prepared and ready to take up positions when we are placed in the limelight. We need sponsors who will advocate for us – advocates who see our strong technical capabilities and competencies and great ability to shine in roles they are advocating for on our behalf. Several women in leadership are making a conscious effort to pave the way for young women to carry the torch. I am happy when I hear the accomplishments, big and small, that women are making. Notable among such accomplishments is the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in becoming the first woman,ever, and first African to head the World Trade Organisation.
The industry has been grappling with gender diversity for years and a lot of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. We are now faced with the difficult task of changing cultural perceptions, tackling unconscious biases and, ultimately, changing behaviour. The limited number of women in technology may add to the woes of women, as technology is fast-replacing some of the roles performed by women. It is therefore paramount for the finance industry to recruit, train and re-skill women into these roles to close the gap that already exists.
The next generation will need to unlearn the old traditional roles and ways of doing things. They will have to re-learn to in order to embrace the change needed to challenge the status-quo. With automation, many of the front-line roles traditionally held by women in bank branches are being changed, and the next generation needs to be ready to take up more challenging roles and leadership positions.
Despite the many challenges faced by women in the corporate space, and especially in the financial services sector, it is worth mentioning that great strides have been made to support women through instruments such as legislative support, gender parity programmes and societal awareness.
The financial services industry is gradually making progress as relates to gender balance in the workplace. Commitments to the UN’s programmes such as He4She may help change the narrative.
To an extent, mindsets are shifting because of hard work and commitment – albeit very slowly. Financial institutions must be intentional in ensuring that diversity is reflected at the decision table; like all other critical matters, leadership must be evaluated on their representation of male to female ratio.
Gender inequality has plagued the world for far too long. The perception that ‘the financial sector is a man’s world’ should be eradicated.
The writer is the Head, Main Markets and Ecosystems, Stanbic Bank