Last night, some of the UK's most influential women in the financial services industry gathered to discuss some of the most pressing issues faced by women today; and to celebrate the next phase of a research programme, designed to drive policy change which will better support and retain women working in financial services.
The event was hosted by Women in Banking & Finance (WIBF), a not for profit membership organisation which aims to foster women's ambition, offering networking events, development programmes and leadership opportunities.
Over 200 people attended Tuesday's event, representing over 90 companies including Bank of America, Bank of England, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Lloyds Banking Group, Barclays, Santander, Natwest Group, Aviva and JP Morgan.
Anna Lane, President of WIBF, was hosting Tuesday's event. Anna told the audience how passionate she is about promoting a sustainable financial services industry that has a positive impact on society: "We want girls to know that finance is super exciting. The existential crisis that is climate change is not going to be solved by one group of individuals - you need all the bright brains at the table. There's an awful lot of work going on to promote STEM and technology, but there's not enough for finance."
"Scottish Financial Enterprise have an amazing outreach programme and do lots of work with schools in Scotland. When they went to schools and asked girls and boys if they would consider a career in finance, less than 10% of girls said they would."
Yasmine Chinwala OBE, Partner at New Financial LLP, agreed that more work needed to be done to make a career in finance desirable to young girls: "I was recently awarded my OBE and my old school asked me to come in and talk to the girls about a career in financial services. So I did."
"My opening question was: 'How many of you have a parent who works in financial services?' About a third put their hand up. I then asked: 'How many of you want to work in financial services?' Only two girls put their hand up."
Comments like these are unsurprising to Edwina Dunn OBE. As a Data Science Entrepreneur and Founder of The Female Lead, she knows that equal opportunities need to be offered to boys and girls from an early age. Edwina believes a huge part of this is showcasing positive female role models excelling in a range of careers, so that girls grow up believing they can do anything.
She told the audience: "I started in the retail industry that was incredibly male-orientated, even though women are the majority of the shoppers. I asked myself: 'Why is this?'"
"I thought maybe the people we meet when we're starting out just aren't exciting enough. We don't hear about astronauts or scientists or great equity managers who are women - if you google them, they are all men. It's not men's fault, but it's what happens. And that's why I set up The Female Lead."
Speakers at the event were keen to emphasise that barriers are in place for women's progression at every stage of their lives, and they need to be broken down. Vivi Friedgut is Founder and CEO of Blackbullion, a financial education start-up. Her focus is to improve opportunities for young women at university level, who experience a financial gap long before they experience the pay gap.
Vivi said: "The average female student has £100 less than the average male student, and the average male
student is already short £400 a month. £500 a month on campus is a lot of money for women to be missing out on - that could even cover their rent in some cheaper areas of the country."
"Getting into university is really tricky, and graduating is really hard. Medical students in particular are dropping out in droves after we, as tax payers, have pushed hundreds of thousands of pounds into training our doctors. That's criminal as a tax payer, and also a terrible waste of opportunity."
"How do we solve this problem? How do we help these hundreds of thousands of young women and men to stay in university and make choices based on what's best for their future, not what's going to pay for their degree right now? There's a reason so many women go into nursing - because it's fully funded by the NHS, so it reduces the financial burden."
Like every speaker at the event, Vivi was keen to offer practical solutions to the problems that were raised. She spoke directly to the audience when she said: "We at Blackbullion are going to come up with two different funds for 10,000 students. But we also want corporates to put their money where their mouth is. Stop complaining that students are coming out of university without the relevant skills, and help us to get those students the relevant skills."
Anna Lane went even further: "It's no surprise that nearly 60% of all student debt is held by women. Then they go to the workplace and they have the gender pay gap. I suggest that if you're a large corporate and you're going to place ten graduates, how about you place nine instead, and with that extra £30,000 you can help 30 female students to graduate. Social mobility is not about education - it's about wealth."
Yasmine Chinwala OBE is most well known for the work she does for the HM Treasury Women in Finance Charter, which launched in 2016. She told the audience: "The impact of the pandemic means there's been a real pause button hit around female progression. There's been lots of decisions made in a panic where there hasn't been the forethought of what the impact will be."
"We saw that everybody was suddenly able to work remotely - it was incredible. And the financial services industry came out absolutely flying through this pandemic. But there hasn't been the best level of monitoring. We need to know about the disproportionate impacts of different groups within our workforce."
"I'm urging women to lean in and make sure their voice is heard. There are lots of senior women in this room and women with influence, who can try and execute these changes in an inclusive way. Then these changes can become a sustainable long term benefit - not just for everyone in this room, but for generations to come."
The biggest focus of the night was celebrating the next phase of the WIBF's Accelerating Change Together (ACT) Research Programme, developed in partnership with the London School of Economics and The Wisdom Council. The four-year programme harnesses the collective input from banking, asset management, professional services, fintech and insurance, to address the pressing gender and inclusion challenges the sector faces. WIBF hope that off the back of this research, they can provide actionable recommendations and effect policy change to better retain and promote women in the financial services workforce.
The first stage of the research was conducted in September/October 2020, at a time of enormous uncertainty and change as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The objective was to assess current attitudes and policy across industry sectors, and to understand the potential drivers behind the lack of women in senior positions – referred to as the ‘missing middle’.
Vivienne Artz OBE, who initiated the ACT programme as the WIBF President from 2017 - 2020, said: "The fact of the matter is progress has been far too slow. It's imperative to figure out ways in which we can accelerate change."
"We need to change attitudes. We need to change behaviours. We need to change structures. We need to change the outcomes."
"Women are lacking the opportunities to take their career to the next level, and they're experiencing differential outcomes from their male counterparts."
After the first year of the research programme, WIBF launched The Good Finance Framework. This brought together the ideas of 44 women who participated in a qualitative study; alongside the thoughts of 35 women who attended roundtables; and the opinions of over 1,700 survey respondents. WIBF say that the concrete actions created off the back of this research are key as we progress with the next stage of gender convergence.
Dr Grace Lordan, founding director of The Inclusion Initiative at the London School of Economics, said: "We need to look at opportunities, visibility and voice - these are the three things that happen downstream that ultimately mean women earn less later on in their careers."
"ACT Tier 2 is really exciting. The London School of Economics has two amazing researchers working with me, and we're now looking at speaking to 100 diverse voices for the research. We wanted to include men in the conversation, which I fundamentally think is really important. But we also want to look into other aspects of diversity."
Though the majority of the audience at the event was women, there were some men in attendance. Alex Wilson, Managing Director for CIBC Capital Markets (Canadian bank), told The Female Lead: "It's important we have diversity in the workplace and we're committed to driving that agenda forward. It's vital that initiatives like this have male allies - change can't be made without them."
Sarah Bennett, Director of EMEA Risk Business Unit Manager at Citigroup and Co-Chair of Citi Women London, said: "We've been a long time supporter of Women in Banking and Finance. You can't do anything on your own - we all need to do it together. We need to join together to move progress forward, otherwise we won't see change."
The Female Lead, who are partnering with WIBF, have previously spoken with women in the financial services industry about the problems they face at work because of gender.
Rufaro Chiriseri, Head of Fixed Income for the British Isles at RBC Wealth Management, said to The Female Lead in an interview: "The world is not made up of 75% males and 25% women. The world is made up of even more women than men, so why is it that this same sort of representation is not seen in an industry such as finance?"
Meg Zucker, Managing Director at RBC Capital Markets, told The Female Lead: "I have witnessed people who have been limited based on being a female, whether it's compensation or whether it's a career advancement."
Speaking at the WIBF event, Edwina Dunn said in her speech: "We keep talking about women's rights and we keep talking about equality, but nothing is changing. The evidence is not there. We have to do something radical."
"I'm trying to bring neuroscience and big data science to The Female Lead - you can't solve something until you understand it. We use stories to bring things alive, but we use data and evidence to make the point."
"We're working with King's Business School on some new research we're doing, which is all about hybrid working. We think out of that will come some very practical toolsets that we can gift to organisations to make the path to equality easier and faster. When I met Anna and she told me about WIBF's research, she said: 'Let's do it together so we can embrace the problem solving.'"
"Our mantra is We Rise By Lifting Others, and we want everyone to join us on that mission."
Written by Holly Droy