Women in Finance: Time for a Change?

There has been increased debate recently about getting women more actively involved in the higher echelons of business. It was an issue at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, and the UK government is considering whether it should recommend steps to increase the number of female board members in the UK. But while companies and governments have a role to play, we – women and men – need to take responsibility for our own careers.

When I first started working with, although not at, SWIFT in 1974, I told my friends and family that this would be the company where I’d like to finish my career. I loved the people, the culture and, of course, the work. Little did I know that my wish would come true. I have been in the financial services industry for 43 years now, and am retiring this year from SWIFT. Looking back on those years, I am struck by the changes that both the industry and we, as women, have undergone.

I have come a long way, but it hasn’t all been straightforward. I remember being patted on the head by a male colleague back in 1974. But neither has it been a continual struggle against prejudice and discrimination because of my gender. After all, I was the third woman to head the standards department at SWIFT. The trick for women working in the financial industry is to step up to the plate, learn the nuts and bolts of a company, and get involved. After all, who wants to hire or promote anyone – male or female – who takes the easy route?

Taking responsibility for career choices is particularly pertinent in the financial services industry, and especially so for women. When I started my career in 1968 at European American Bank (EAB), as a summer intern – moving into the reconciliation department in 1970 – I quickly learnt the way to establish myself as an asset. Starting on the operations side of the industry meant that I learnt the guts of banking and this shaped my work ethic. Having that level of knowledge also does wonders, not only for your confidence, but also for your reputation. I became known for my expertise, and by the time I left EAB after 13 years, I had worked my way up to a vice presidency.

Challenges and Opportunities

However, my career has been peppered with workplace challenges related to my gender. One early experience shaped my outlook and gave me a perspective on the position and progression of women in finance that I would otherwise have lacked. Early on I had the audacity to question a superior because I thought he was acting in a discriminatory manner, and I was almost fired. After a colleague pointed out that this wouldn’t be legal, the company challenged me and asked me to sit a programming aptitude test. To everyone’s surprise and my personal delight, I scored very highly. This presented me with a great opportunity to work in systems. I took this challenge on and went for it all guns blazing – something you have to do if you want to further your career.

There was also an underlying assumption in the financial industry in the 1970s that if a woman was doing well within a financial company she must be doing something more than just working hard. In the beginning I was very angry about this, but I credit my parents for reminding me that as long as I knew I was succeeding because I was good at my job, what did I care what others thought? The importance of choosing my battles wisely became my mantra. I didn’t want to let any underlying prejudice force me into making bad decisions that would hinder my progress.

That undercurrent of prejudice hasn’t completely disappeared. However, I think the corporate world is changing and there is greater recognition and respect for promotions based on merit. The assumption is that if you are an executive (man or woman), you’ve earned it.

But women have still got to help themselves. Too often, women go for the ‘velvet jobs’ – the soft roles that don’t have the scope for advancement and don’t allow you to really get to know the nuts and bolts of the company. By contrast, working in the operations side of the industry, for example, is a great way to position yourself as a real source of knowledge about a company. It’s only in the past decade that women have proactively taken on roles that allow them to understand how a company actually works. Don’t be afraid to put your hand up, roll up your sleeves and give it a go. And this advice is as applicable to men as it is to women. After all, would you hire or promote someone with a lack of expertise into a senior level position? I certainly would not.

Corporate Culture

The role of companies in this process is an interesting one. They must create an environment where women want to be and are able to progress. Having a diverse workforce will not only attract other women, but also encourage those already in employment to stay and ultimately flourish. But if a company or your manager isn’t supporting your development for any reason other than that you aren’t doing the job well enough, take charge of your career – and get out.

I am living proof that women can have both a family and a successful career. Or, in my case, two careers. Having left my role as SWIFT product manager at Chase Manhattan Bank to juggle motherhood with a variety of jobs to support the family, the offer to join SWIFT full time as an analyst in 1996 came as an exciting surprise. My hard work had paid off, as I was well known within SWIFT by this point.

It has been over 15 years since then and I could never have known the doors that this would open, or the level of knowledge that I would gain. I didn’t think that at 56 I could learn so much more about this industry, but becoming head of standards in 2007 gave me the opportunity to get back to the top of my game, while working in an area that I love.

My successor, Juliette Kennel, will no doubt lead the SWIFT standards team to new heights and I am behind her 100%. It is very important for women to support other women within the financial industry.

Despite being successful, we cannot become complacent. Change takes time. My advice to the next generation of financial services professionals – women and men alike – is to go for the gold. No one else is going to do it for you.