Women in treasury – the stronger sex?

My experience when making this assertion to a few senior women in treasury is typically that it elicits frowns or even strong disagreement. On balance, and based on my previous experience as a woman working within a major Australian bank’s treasury team, I’m no longer as certain that it is true either. Women in treasury don’t necessarily like the idea that they might be perceived as being more risk-aware, or agree that they are better team players.

Possibly taking a holistic view tends to imply a less results-oriented approach, which could partly explain the reaction. Do women in treasury have a typical operating style and, if so, what might that mean for their career prospects in a post-global financial crisis (GFC) environment?

Taking a balanced approach

I regularly hear the view expressed that women in treasury consider the ability to adopt a balanced approach comes down to an individual’s disposition rather than their gender. The notion that all women uniquely have a quality or style that makes them better suited to balancing competing considerations doesn’t seem quite right. After all, we are all highly complex individuals and the product of many influences, so to generalise based on gender can be unhelpful. Indeed, it misses a critical point about difference.

Those I’ve spoken with do agree that diversity of thought seems to improve outcomes in treasury, and that women bring an important aspect of diversity. They also share the view that good instincts are critical to effectiveness in treasury, although they say this quality is shared across the genders.

Women in treasury also express discomfort at being awarded the accolade of “being a better listener”. Their business partners don’t seem to perceive a meaningful difference between men and women on this point either. Some report they have observed senior women managing the views of a broader group of stakeholders more confidently, and exhibiting greater concern for maintaining strong relationships for longer term benefit. However, this is more anecdotal than hard evidence.  Again, people see the individual as the determinant, rather than their gender and no-one seems keen on categorising behaviours as particularly ‘male’ or ‘female.’

Thriving in a post-GFC environment

People are broadly consistent in their views on whether the post-GFC environment is more conducive to the progression of women in treasury. Typically with change comes new opportunity, and it appears true that opportunities for women, and also men, have arisen from the new expectations of treasury teams post-GFC. Treasury teams are rightly in the spotlight and more accountable to the business than ever before. With business taking a greater interest in treasury management, treasury is increasingly required to “speak the language of business”. That, in turn, means business experience is increasingly valued in treasury recruiting.

Similarly, the heightened regulatory environment has generated a demand for expertise to support treasury functions and the creation of new roles. The result is that professionals from risk and a variety of other disciplines, taken from a broader pool than ever before, are being recruited to support treasury teams.

The women I speak with generally squirm at any suggestion that it has become easier for women to “have their voice heard” in the more cautious, post-GFC environment. Some ventured the view that, at the risk of generalising or fuelling the “better listener” stereotype, women tend to wait to be asked before offering an opinion. It has become evident that women and men who adopt this style, in all areas of business, are becoming increasingly respected. Arguably the shift away from autocratic leadership styles started well before the GFC, and it is difficult to say to what extent the trend has been accelerated by the advent of the 2008 crisis.

Juggling family responsibilities

On the vexed question of balancing family responsibilities with a career in treasury today, there is evidence to suggest that women in senior treasury roles have altered their approach to work when faced with new family responsibilities, perhaps more so than men in similar roles. On the work-life balance, most women acknowledge that this is a perpetual juggling act – although one that is most certainly not unique to working in treasury.

Although it’s an issue that I have not dared to delve into it has been suggested that the culture in treasury departments, and a lack of inclusiveness, has inhibited the prospects of women. Similarly, I have not tackled the controversial areas of discrimination and unconscious bias, the impact on the progression of women in pursuits formerly dominated by men, or the merits of quotas and targets.

On the question of flexibility, some of those I speak with comment that men and women in treasury are equally benefitting from the increased acceptance of flexible working arrangements. I suspect there is still a good way to go to declare victory in treasury departments, as there is across all of business. And the request for flexible working arrangements no doubt still underlies unconscious bias, so invariably these issues are connected.  Nevertheless, it is heartening to hear that flexibility is becoming part of the conversation.

So, returning to the style and approach of women in treasury: what does it all mean for women in treasury over the coming years? As treasury teams recruit more women into their ranks we should expect increasing numbers of them to progress to leadership of those teams. We should look forward to increasing diversity of thought. I would also anticipate a heightened awareness of risk, and a broader business mind-set to result from more women – as well as more men – with risk and other backgrounds pursuing careers supporting a treasury function.

Overall, the message that women in treasury are necessarily more collaborative or better listeners than their male counterparts fails to fully convince. However, some undoubtedly are and we can expect those women will increasingly be listened to when voicing their opinion.

Danielle Avery is currently Head of Risk, Strategy and Operations, Global Transactional Services at Westpac Banking Corporation. At Westpac she held previous roles in Strategy as an Executive Manager, with responsibility for the implementation of the Group’s business strategy, and in Treasury as Special Legal Counsel, involving the management of Westpac’s global debt funding programs and capital markets transactions.  Danielle also worked for approximately five years In New York as a senior attorney at leading US law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, and prior to that for several years as a lawyer at Ashurst in Melbourne. She lives in Sydney.

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