Women in finance: Insight on getting to the top

In the world of banking and investing, women are often in the minority.

With an image of a macho work-hard-play-hard, high stakes culture, finance has – rightly or wrongly – acquired a reputation as a male-dominated industry that is unfriendly or even hostile to female staff, especially in more senior positions.

But some women have found their passion in the industry and have climbed to the top ranks in their companies, many also managing to build a family in the process.

What advice do they have for younger women starting their career and looking to follow in their footsteps?

For Deborah Ho, a managing director at Barclays Capital in Singapore, finance is an important and noble profession, but one that she says is also becoming more “normal” in the wake of the financial crisis.

“People, whether it is corporations or countries or individuals, are putting their trust in you. And, when someone does that, you have to take that seriously and responsibly.”

Challenge

Ho, who heads up senior relationship management in Southeast Asia, was among a select group of panellists at the Influential Women in Banking & Investment Forum organised recently by the Centre for Asset Management Research and Investments (CAMRI) at NUS Business School.

Tan Su Shan, a managing director at Singapore’s DBS Bank, says that for her the “constant movement” of the financial industry is both its appeal as well as a challenge.

“There’s never a dull moment in finance,” said Tan, who is group head of Consumer Banking & Wealth Management of DBS, a bank where more than 60 per cent of staff are female.

“Markets move, clients move, people move, and it’s the volatility and constant movement of the financial markets that is often a challenge – it’s a good challenge and a bad challenge, but it’s a challenge.”

With decades of experience between them in the top rungs of the financial industry, the panelists took questions from an all-women audience at NUS eager to learn from their insider’s knowledge.

Having it all

As their stories revealed, it hasn’t always been easy. And their experiences have led them to divergent conclusions on the enduring question of whether women in the finance industry – or any industry for that matter – can “have it all.”

TA6 no border“If by ‘all’ you mean career and children, absolutely,” said Tan. But she admits she “outsources” a lot, for example relying on her mother to oversee her children’s homework.

Tamera Hodges, Managing Director and Head of Prime Services Sales for the Asia-Pacific at Swiss bank UBS in Singapore, takes a different view.

“I don’t believe you can have it all,” she said. “That is absolutely a myth. You do have to choose.”

Hodges, who has a five-year-old daughter, recalled how three years earlier she chose to forego a promotion because she did not want the extra travel the more senior role entailed and the effect that would have on her child’s upbringing.

Smart choices

Either way the success of the four panelists proves that by making smart choices along the way women can succeed in the highly competitive field.

They offered advice on how to successfully navigate gender and cultural issues in the industry, how to highlight accomplishments without appearing boastful, and even how to deal with sexual harassment.

Ho says these topics aren’t necessarily specific to banking and investment.

“Whatever industry you choose, or whatever stage in your life, there are going to be challenges, that’s just a fact.”

She recalled that the challenges for her were compounded by cultural differences when she worked in New York.

“I don’t talk Monday Night Football,” she said, referring to American football’s weekly televised matchups that are a popular topic of workplace water cooler chatter.

Teo Lay Lin, an Executive Director at Morgan Stanley and the mother of three, faces a social challenge in her work place. There’s no way, she says, that she can hang out with the guys at 5pm.

“Once work is done I just want to go home and see my kids. There’s very little time for male bonding.” But she said she makes up for it with one-on-one sessions with her colleagues.

Work-life balance

All of the panelists spoke of long, irregular hours, and how they prioritise to keep family life and work life organized.

“We have to move our schedules around because we work in markets and markets are open 24 hours,” said Tan.

Nonetheless, she said, women thinking of entering the finance industry should be aware that there are myriad of jobs in the industry and new entrants, being young, should take the opportunity to try as much as they can.

Tamera Hodges from UBS said she would like to see the financial industry transform in such a way that allows for more personal and professional satisfaction.

“It’s a man’s world. We don’t need women to adapt to a man’s world; we need the world to change,” she said. She cites eight-week school holidays, 10pm conference calls and a persistent “face time” culture in the financial industry as things she would like to see changed.

Many companies in the IT sector, she said, had been “very smart about how they offer employees satisfaction through work-life balance – for example you can only schedule meetings during school hours and being able to work from home.”

DBS’s Tan Su Shan agreed that employers should be more understanding that technology has evolved to enable employees to do a lot more without physically being in the workplace all the time.

Flexible working

Her own firm, she said, does allow flexible working and flexi hours where appropriate, but she said more could still be done “to acknowledge that with technology you can be productive wherever you are.”

The panelists also covered some more sensitive topics, such as how to break the news to the boss that you’re pregnant.

“I think the boss will appreciate the head’s up,” said Tan, adding that early notice also gives you and the boss time to plan to make sure your work is covered while you’re away.

Even while on maternity leave the panelists said it was important to stay in touch with what’s going on in the office.

“If you make an effort to stay relevant and present and people remember you, you’ll have no problem coming back,” said Ho.

Tan said it helps to have an understanding boss, and said she tries to be one herself. Her own assistant – “my right hand whom I rely on 100 percent” – planned everything in advance of her four-month leave.

But even then she needed her to come in for a couple of days. So Tan said she could bring the baby into the office while she worked on the project.

The speakers also tackled the touchy topic of sexual harassment.

“The most dangerous times are at off-sites and company dinners,” said Ho. She told the women in the audience to always conduct themselves properly at these events in order to be respected. If not, you’ll be associated with a “good time”, not good work.

But if something inappropriate does happen, Hodges said, don’t have any compunction about reporting it. She says she’s never been aware of an instance where something like that was not taken seriously.

For the young women in the audience not put off by the long hours and the obstacles and still intent on getting into finance, the veterans had advice on how to be a self-promoter without appearing pushy or overly aggressive.

Tan admits she manages men and women differently, because they approach her differently when it comes to performance reviews and promotions. Men are much more assertive, so her advice to women: don’t be shy.

Be visible

“You don’t have to be boastful, but you do have to have a voice and be visible and communicate,” she said. One approach might be to ask your boss for a mid-year check up to see if you’re on track toward your goals.

Barclays’ Deborah Ho suggested that you don’t have to wait for someone else to do an evaluation, saying she does regular self-assessments to help her stay grounded and balanced.

Ho told the audience she had no grand plans when she first started out on her career and essentially stumbled into finance as a 21 year old.

‘But through the years what I’ve realised is that the purpose of what you do is very important,” she said, “and fortunately for me I did find my purpose quite early on.”

UBS’s Tamera Hodges said her main advice was to be smart about the role you aspire to and then go for it.

“When you don’t have other commitments early in your career, take it to the max,” she said. “Take every opportunity for mobility and put yourself out there. Come in with self-belief because your male peers have it, in spades.”

That includes not holding back on travel and opportunities for international exposure.

“If you get the chance, do it,” said Tan, who worked in four countries before she got married.

“You’ll get that international exposure – China, India, Myanmar, the US. Go global!”

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