International Women’s Day: why are there still so few women in financial services?

To mark International Women’s Day, Alexandra Leonards spoke to a group of women leading the way in financial services, discovering some of the challenges they have faced, and exploring why men still dominate the boardroom.

The number of women climbing the ranks in financial services is markedly lower than their male counterparts. It’s a pattern echoed across many sectors, but with women making up just 23 per cent of boardrooms in the industry, it’s about time financial services took steps to tackle its stark inequality problem.

Why are there so few women in the industry?

“My answer to this question is short,” says Mel Tsiaprazis, chief operating officer at capital markets FinTech Nivaura. “It’s a lack of understanding of, or belief in the benefits and advantages of diversity of thought.”

She says that it’s the same reason there is so little diversity across the board, regardless of gender.

“Women will only be given equal opportunity once diversity is intrinsic to the way we envision workforces,” warns Tsiaprazis.

In the UK, women make up just 19 per cent of university courses and occupations in technology and maths.

“I believe that the blame for the gender inequality problem can be traced all the way back to the classroom,” says Sahar Salama, chief executive and Founder of TPAY MOBILE, a mobile payments provider for the Middle East, Africa, and Turkey.

Amanda Mesler, chief executive of FinTech payments company Cashflows, says that a lack of representation is one of the biggest barriers for women within the industry.

“…not to mention the fact that women often don’t have enough sponsors that help us up the ladder of success,” explains Mesler. “For those who are already in FinTech, it’s been reported that 43 per cent believe that a key struggle in the industry is a lack of female role models to look up to.”

Women in FinTech

But surely in the exciting new FinTech space, where there’s scope to think outside the box, anyone can start up a business?

Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. Globally women make up just 7 per cent of FinTech founders, an even lower proportion of the market than in the wider financial services space.

If FinTechs represent the future of financial services, and women continue to make up such a small share of the market, this could represent an even bigger problem for women trying to break the industry.

“There are stereotypes and unconscious biases that continue to prevail, which hinders the ability of women to gain funding, scale up their businesses or access senior management positions,” says Janthana Kaenprakhamroy, chief executive and founder of InsurTech Tapoly, who was once number six in Forbes’ Top 100 Women Founders. “Alongside tackling unconscious bias, we need to be removing structural barriers and commit to giving equal investment to women too.”

A study by the British Business Bank found that for every £1 of venture capital investment in the UK, all-female founder teams get less than 1p, while all-male founder teams get 89p.

Laura O’Sullivan, who leads Accenture’s UK banking practice, agrees that funding is a big part of the problem.

“I think part of the challenge is we'll only start to see more female FinTech founders when we see more female funders; I think the funding side of the equation is still heavily male orientated,” says O’Sullivan, who became part of the formal leadership team as a managing director five years ago. “I think that's not just because funders tend to invest in their own image, and they tend to look at what's happened previously in terms of where they tend to put the investment money, but I also think that part of the challenge is [that] funders will only be understanding in relating to the challenges they’re familiar with solving.”

How to tackle gender inequality in the industry


Sahar Salama says there have been positive strides in the drive for greater gender equality.
“…yet both for women and other overlooked groups, there are still huge inclusion gaps,” says the TPAY MOBILE founder. “The question remains, how do we actively change this? How do we encourage a broader, more diverse demographic to show and interest in and enter the FinTech world?”

She says the latter is answered not only by focussing on attracting talent, but also on retention strategies for people from diverse backgrounds.

“This includes promoting an inclusive work culture, ensuring resources are purposely allocated to the recruitment of women to fill senior positions, and to not only encourage but empower women to stand up for themselves and what they believe in,” she explains.

Nivaura’s Mel Tsiaprazis says that businesses need to reshape and use diversity of thought as a business growth strategy, rather than a tick box exercise.

“It amazes me that so few organisations take this approach, even today when the statistics demonstrate just how beneficial diversity is,” she says.

Research by consultancy Deloitte finds that diversity of thought can drive innovation up by 20 per cent and make companies eight times more likely to achieve business outcomes.

Flexible working

One issue nearly all the women brought up was the inflexibility of working in a financial services environment.

“Throughout their careers, many women drop off the financial services ladder due to a lack of flexible working,” says Karen Penney, vice president payments products UK, Western Union Business Solutions.

Accenture’s Laura O’Sullivan says it’s really important the industry gets its response post-Covid right.

“We've got an extraordinary opportunity to create lots of new diversity by what we do next as an industry,” she explains. “I worry that if there’s suddenly a rush to full-time, we'll miss the opportunity of tapping into some other elements of women and other diverse groups that actually could play a part in the industry, if we're open to more flexible working patterns and behaviours.”

She warns: “I think it could be a step backwards for women if we suddenly say we're all back to the office full time.”

O’Sullivan is living proof that women can still be successful with flexible working patterns. She made managing director as a part-timer, working three days a week with a great degree of flexibility.

“That really mattered to me to prove you can do it,” she says.

Kaenprakhamroy says that financial services has always been viewed as a male-dominated and inflexible environment, with “unhealthily” long hours.

“This perception can certainly be off-putting to anyone looking to enter the space, but particularly for women with families or other commitments,” she explains. “More needs to be done to provide flexible and remote working options that help women to balance their other commitments with their role.”

She says that inflexibility can put women off returning to the financial services after having children, which means a whole pool of talent is wasted.

Challenges in the industry

“I am originally from Thailand, but I grew up in Sweden before moving to London,” says Kaenprakhamroy. “When I was at school one of my teachers said I would only amount to becoming a waitress and that really dented my confidence and made me question my abilities.”

She says: “This is why I think it is so important that we are empowering young women to see their true capabilities and showing them the breadth of careers available.”

When she worked at Deutsche Bank, Kaenprakhamroy was an active member of the Women Diversity Network and at UBS she was a chair of the Multi-Cultural Awareness Network.

“It has been a challenge working in a male dominated space, but I try to do all I can to open up space for women and other underrepresented groups to succeed,” she explains.

Cashflows’ Amanda Mesler says that she has faced many challenges throughout her career.

“Everything from being talked over, to being ignored and harassed, to being labelled unkind things; my career has been filled with adversity,” says Mesler. “But one of the biggest challenges has always been slowing down and smelling the roses along the path to and during success.”

She explains: “As women, we work much harder to get to the same level as men, and we juggle family and caring for others at the same time.”

To allocate more time for herself, Mesler decided to start running marathons. Nowadays, she does stop to smell the roses, not just through running but in everyday life.

“In a sector that has long been dominated by men, women often resort to inauthenticity, and feel as if they have no choice but to adopt a ‘typically male’ approach to ‘fit in,’” says Karen Penney, Western Union. “I have made this mistake myself in the past.”

She says: “When I first became a leader, I remember trying to be very formal and not show too much of my personality, I thought it was the right thing to do to fit in.”

But over time, Penney learned that the people she worked with responded well to authenticity and empathy. “By bringing our whole selves to work and supporting each other as we do, there is no need to mirror our counterparts in a male-dominated industry,” she says.

For Accenture’s O’Sullivan, having two daughters and taking a year out with each of them, meant she had to re-evaluate her career ambitions. “It's never easy to take a year out and come back fully fighting,” she says.

But she champions Accenture’s gender equality programme and the support she has received from the leadership team.

“It’s excellent that we have a female CEO, but [there are] not many meetings I go to where it's mostly women and men are in the minority,” she explains. “Certainly, when you sit client side, again you can see that that's changing with some of the female leadership in the industry, which is wonderful in our client teams, but it has been a slow change.”

O’Sullivan admits she had little head start in the art of navigating male-dominated spaces.

“When I was nine or ten years old, on a Wednesday afternoon [at primary school], all the boys would play football, and all the girls would do needlework, that was just the way it was; but I had an older brother and so I was quite adamant I'd much prefer to be running around playing football,” she says. “I soon realised if you want to fight for it and you want to be that visible when you're playing on the team, you've kind of got to hold your own.

She says: “Every time I'm sat in a board room where it's just me and a whole group of men, I remember lacing up my football boots.”

Advice for women breaking into the industry

“Be brave,” says Nivaura’s Tsiaprazis. “I packed my suitcase and flew to London, no friends, no job and just a dream to make my life better than what it was in Australia as a first- generation Greek girl.”

She adds: “Other people's prejudices are the ceiling they place on you, remember it is their cap, not yours. Everything is possible if you believe, stay consistent and prove the impossible is possible.”

She also advises women entering the market to remember that they don’t need to “fix themselves.”

“At the start of my career I focused heavily on what I thought I was missing: I need to be more knowledgeable, I need to speak more elegantly, I should dress more appropriately,” she says. “I focused so hard on fixing myself that I started to lose myself. It was only when I said to myself, ‘I am enough’, that I truly started to excel.”

She has still been plagued by moments of ‘imposter syndrome,’ especially whilst climbing the ranks, but to fend off those negative thoughts she reminds herself that she’s further ahead today than she was yesterday.

“For anyone joining financial services, join, but do it on your own terms; I think it's okay to stand out,” O’Sullivan says. “You don't have to mirror other people to be successful, and particularly, if you want to be on a senior leadership team, you need to be bringing something that's unique about you rather than doing an impersonation of someone else.

She adds: “Oddly, five years down the line being managing director, that's actually what makes it enjoyable and it's actually what makes it sustainable; if you try and do it as an impersonation it's a lot less enjoyable and it might not satisfy you in the long run. Do it on your own terms.”

She also urges women that are successful in the field to support other women.

“That’s what is going to make the massive difference,” she says. “I think getting more of us into the leadership teams is going to help pull through a lot of women across the sector, and they'd be visible role models in that way, because again if you don't see those people who are able to make it work, it makes it so much harder to think that you can.”

Kaenprakhamroy says that her advice for women looking to break into the market is to seek out a mentor they admire to help support their career.

“Mentors can not only provide you with connections and information about the industry, but they can also provide invaluable support during challenging times and a soundboard for new ideas,” she explains. “Aspiring financial technology women could seek out a potential mentor through social media, like LinkedIn, or by joining professional women’s networks and ask them about their career journey.”

Western Union’s Penney says that women should find out as much as they can about the industry, stay open minded, and seek out role models.

“There are women doing fantastic jobs at every level of this sector, and most of them are only too keen to help someone who’s joining the industry,” she says. “Mentoring is one of the things I enjoy doing most in my daily work – and I can confirm that both participants gain a lot through the process.”

TPAY MOBILE’s Salama says that the best piece of advice she could give to women is having confidence. “It's important for people who are breaking into the FinTech market to believe in themselves and speak up for their ideas,” she says. “Regardless of experience, each one of us always has something valuable to add and contribute.”

Cashflows’ CEO Amanda Mesler says that her top four pieces of advices are: be a pioneer, do not be intimidated by those who do not understand what you bring to the table, be your authentic self, and find your own voice.

“If there’s anything I learned from 30 years in a male dominated industry, it’s that women have a lot to offer,” she says.

And this is backed by data. A report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute shows that companies with at least one woman on the board perform 26 per cent better than those with male-only boards.

The research also revealed that female entrepreneurs generate 20 per cent more revenue than men, despite having much lower funding.

And if that’s what can be achieved in a world where the odds are stacked against them, imagine how much we would all benefit from an industry which women were valued as equally worthwhile of promotion, investment and recognition.

International Women’s Day, which takes place on 8th March every year, celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, and marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

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