Women Gain Ground in Finance in Asia

Ask any male senior executive if he thinks women are equal to men and able to the same job and he’s almost certain to say yes. Your human resources executives will agree, as will MBA professors and your co-workers. Why, then, are there so many fewer women than men working in finance and treasury?

From my experience as a woman working at Citi’s Global Transaction Services (GTS) there are myriad factors at play, some of which women can change and control, and some that we must press men to change. Some just ‘are’.

This topic has recently been at the fore in my workplace with the launch of a programme in Asia, GTS Aspirations, which tries to bring together our brightest, most motivated women and giving them special opportunities in mentoring, skills enhancement, business projects and executive networking.

We’ve borrowed the programme from our US colleagues, where 98% of the women that participated said it had a positive impact on their career. Eighty percent of them stayed with the bank and half were promoted or had their roles expanded.

At Citi, about half of the annual crop of new MBAs hired are women, so we’re setting off in the right direction. But, when I look up the career and management ladder, the numbers change, and by the time women reach the managing director level in the GTS business, only one third of their peers are women. What happened along the way to make all those women drop out?

Facilitating Career Paths for Women

I’ve been privileged to be able to take my career from my native Australia to Hong Kong, and the move has revealed some interesting truths and solutions. One of the key reasons women leave their finance careers is to have children. It’s nearly impossible, unless you have help, to pursue a high-powered career in finance and make sure that Johnny has a present to take to the birthday party and see to it that someone picks him up from school early when he gets sick.

In Asia, I’ve found it easier to balance work and home. Here, families often have older generations living in the home with them. It’s common for grandparents to help raise the children while the parents are working on their careers. That gives women a freedom and peace of mind that they could never have in western cultures, where such arrangements are less common. Studies have found that Asian women are more likely to take a career risk, such as quit a company or move to another country, because of this support network.

The other factor is the availability of household help. In Australia it is uncommon for middle-class families to have full time, live-in household help, while in Asia it is the norm. This takes a huge burden off my shoulders, allowing me to spend my time face-to-face with my children when I get home instead of doing household chores.

A culture of family support and paid domestic help means that women living in Asia find it easier to have a successful career in finance as well as be caring mothers. I don’t have my parents living with me to take care of my children, but I do have an advantage over many women. My husband stays at home and looks after our family.

While some people find this unusual, it’s simply a reversal of roles that we see around us every day. Nearly every powerful male executive I’ve met has a wife who keeps the home fire burning, allowing him to pursue his career. That’s in addition to his personal assistant, who looks after his personal life. Why should it be any different when a woman finds success in her corporate career?

One of the secrets to a successful career is a supportive partner, and that has been proven true by many of the top female executives. Mary Dillon, chief executive officer (CEO) of US Cellular Corp, knows that, as do Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi and Irene Rosenfeld, the CEO of Kraft. All of their husbands have changed their careers in order to support their wives.

The Salary Scale

But even once we are free to pursue our career, we are not paid as much as men. According to a recent report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women working full-time in 2010 earned 81.2% of what their male counterparts did for the same work. But the gap varied significantly from industry to industry – the more professional the career, the greater the gap. Personal financial advisers, insurance sales agents and lawyers had earnings ratios lower than the overall ratio of women’s to men’s earnings.

In 2009, the bureau found that a woman working in finance earns only around 71% of a man’s salary.

Few women find themselves in leadership roles in a bank’s core businesses such as sales, trading or products. Our numbers are higher in support businesses such as marketing and human resources.

GTS Aspirations aims to address what we see as a gap in core banking skills and specialist knowledge in our female staff. We want to build skills in credit, sales, analytics, accounting and profit and loss (P&L) assessment.

Then there are factors that we, as women, can’t control. Men in positions of power are more likely to take risks on other men, rather than on women. Women have mentors, while men have sponsors who pick them out for promotions and high-profile projects. That means fewer opportunities come your way if you are a woman.

Being an Asset to Business

So what can women bring to the industry? Our clientele are changing, and their new needs may give women an edge. Clients are coming to us with more complex, involved issues that need to be solved, and understanding and analysing those issues, financial and otherwise, brings out the skills women bring to the job.

We bring more empathy to business relationships, and we have a better understanding of how to motivate people, offer feedback and point out areas that need improvement.

Women bring a holistic way of looking at a financial situation, and paying attention to details that may not seem important in the immediate decision, but could have a large impact down the road. While men pare down a financial situation to black and white numbers, stripping away information they don’t think plays a role in the end product, women analyse that information and plug it into their overall decision.

We are often better at dealing with complicated and tense management situations, and making sure issues are resolved rather than letting them fester. Men, for all their aggressive nature, can be very non-confrontational, and sometimes they shy away from bringing an issue to a head. Women with equal experience are less likely to do that.

Women are very good at general management roles where they bring together the pieces needed to execute the chief executive’s vision. They’re good at seeing how people are aligning themselves with a corporate strategy, and putting those observations to use.

McKinsey found that the operational profit of companies with the most women on boards was 56% higher than those with men only at the top level and that boards with more women surpass all-male boards in auditing, risk oversight and control.

But their study found that only one in 10 board members in the European Union (EU) is a woman, and only 3% of chief executives are female. Change has been slow, with the number of female board members only increasing by half a percentage point in the past seven years. It will take 50 years for us to reach equality at this pace.


Changing corporate culture won’t happen overnight. Hiring quotas, as controversial as they may be, are a way to set a standard for what the company wants to be. They set a goal for management, who may not otherwise realise that they tend to hire people that are the same as them, whether that be an issue of race or sex. Quotas do work. In Norway, where quotas are now the norm, the number of women on supervisory boards rose from 25% in 2004 to 42% in 2009.

We are gaining ground. I’m encouraged every day by the changes I see around me. The young women now joining Citi are much more aggressive and sure of what they want than I was when I joined. They’re more willing to express their aspirations, and demand a shot at making them come true. They are more self-determined than I was at their age, and they’re more confident that they can have their own financial freedom. Meeting them gives me fresh courage to focus on my own career in finance.

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