Women in finance speak out for greater inclusion

The financial services industry has a reputation for being male-dominated. According to Catalyst, a global non-profit that helps organisations accelerate progress for women at work, women held just 12% of CFO roles globally in 2018. “Female talent remains one of the most underutilised business resources,” write the authors of the 2017 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. In the finance industry, this is especially true.

At a recent UCT event, some leading women in the industry convened for a frank discussion about the opportunities in the industry and the challenges it poses for women. They also offered advice to aspiring finance professionals on how to overcome the obstacles they may encounter.

Five key themes emerged:

  1. You can’t aspire to be what you’ve never seen. Having successful women as role models in the industry is essential. Kaluba Chikonde, a current AIFMRM student, expressed it as, “you can’t aspire to be what you’ve never seen.” Chikonde is inspired by the tech space and enjoys coding and programming. She decided to give herself a competitive edge by studying the MPhil specialising in Financial Technology this year. It is important that women who have succeeded in the industry step forward and speak out about the opportunities to signal to others that they can get there too, she believes. Many women may not be aware that their particular skills are highly sought-after in the industry. Role models can show the way again. Jessica Endekovski, who studied mechanical engineering before completing an MPhil specialising in Mathematical Finance at AIFMRM, noted that there are many transferable skills from all sorts of degrees that are valuable in financial services. “Engineering gave me the mathematical skill and the ability to think on my feet and find solutions to difficult problems,” she said.
  2. Impostor syndrome is real. Many women reportedly suffer from impostor syndrome, which leads them to doubt their abilities and accomplishments. While there are real organisational barriers facing women, impostor syndrome is a significant limitation that is within our power to address, said Chikonde. To be aware of and overcome it, she suggested engaging with other women, listening to their stories and setting goals for themselves. Forewarned is forearmed. Endekovski agreed that success comes from deliberately building your confidence, “growing a little bit every day and overcoming daunting tasks.” Tsitsi Hatendi, Head Retail Investment Specialist at ABSA, added that women need to focus on being true to who they are, often in the face of criticism. For women entering the profession, she offered this advice: “You can find a space to be your authentic self – focus on doing your job well and do not be afraid to stand up for what you believe in.” This can become harder as you climb higher, she said because, as you get into senior roles, men may try to silence you. “What is more surprising is that other women may try to do this too!”
  3. Find a mentor – and mentor others. Panellists agreed that rather than competing with each other, women in the industry should take care to support each other. “It is never too early to help others”, said Makhotso Rampele, Vice President, Sales and Relationship Management at JPMorgan Chase & Co. She believes that finding a mentor can be a critical turning point for many women. “Use your resources and your network to find a mentor, and don’t be afraid to ask for introductions,” she said. “But when you do engage, be very clear about what you’re asking. Also, help others – if you are further along in the journey than someone else, then pay it forward by being ready to offer advice.”
  4. Use your networks. Monei Pudumo-Roos, CEO and founding member of Ngwedi Investment Managers, said that building networks and relationships are strong enablers of success in the industry. “Starting a new asset management business was challenging and stressful, but coupled with many other important factors, necessary to build a sustainable business, solid business relationships go a long way not only to build a client base but also to provide access to like-minded service providers. Especially for start-ups with high barriers to entry.” It is never too early to start building professional relationships – Chikonde pointed out that if you are studying, your classmates may be future CEOs, so invest in your network.
  5. Most importantly – be yourself. Rampele noted that there is a clear business case for diversity as it leads to better outcomes. There is plenty of research now to back this up, and high performing organisations are increasingly building teams covering all aspects of diversity, including gender, race, and differing cultural and educational backgrounds. This is where women can step up and bring what they have to the table. “Being a professional in a male arena does not mean you have to ignore the fact that you are a woman, this is one of your strengths, as you bring a different perspective to bear which is often valued.” When hiring financial services professionals, Pudumo-Roos said she looks for people who bring something different, and this requires embracing diversity and acknowledging different skill sets and attitudes. “Leaders who are confident in who they are, are comfortable with diversity, including gender – they see that people will bring their best if they are allowed to be themselves.” Meeta Gosai, a Portfolio Manager at Old Mutual, agreed that there is great value in just being yourself. She said, “Forcing yourself to be someone you’re not, will get you nowhere. Yes, there is strength in asserting yourself, but remember that you don’t have to be loud to compete if that is not comfortable for you. When looking for a job, find a space where you will be celebrated for who you are – look at the culture of the organisation, as well as the role that you are offered.”

Overall, the panellists agreed that if you are interested in financial services, you shouldn’t be put off by worrying that the industry is male-dominated. They advise: invest in yourself, get the skills and education you need and take the plunge – an exciting, fulfilling and financially rewarding career awaits.