For International Women’s Day 2021, we’re shining the spotlight on some of the fantastic female leaders we work with across Hodge.
This year’s theme is #ChooseToChallenge, so we’ve asked some of the exceptionally talented women in senior positions across our business to answer a couple of questions – sharing their thoughts on what challenges and opportunities they’ve faced as women working in the historically male-dominated Financial Services industry.
What challenges have you faced throughout your career as a woman in financial services?
‘Starting out in Financial Services nearly 20 years ago was a very different time,’ says Laura Reid, Chief Marketing Officer. ‘In the business area I worked in, it was only me and the MD’s PA that were female – it was absolutely dominated by men. That taught me very early on that, if I wanted my voice heard, I had to do it to myself – in a way that was truthful to who I was, and unapologetically.’
Emma Graham, Business Development Director, agrees, ‘there were times in my earlier career where I was able to count the number of women at an intermediary conference on one hand! Thankfully there’s far less of an imbalance these days and, on reflection, I’ve been lucky to work for progressive organisations where training, personal development, and succession planning is high on the agenda.’
It’s important to have female role models, says Katy Mathias, Head of Financial Planning & Analysis, as ‘it can be hard to develop a leadership style when you don’t see leaders who share your gender. It means there’s a danger that it can cause you to reinforce stereotypes about who the ‘real leaders’ are.’
Helen Molyneux, Non-Executive Director, agrees, ‘As Marion Wright Edelman, the American civil rights activist, said, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ In my experience, confidence is built by seeing other people like you do great things, demonstrating that achievement is achievable. For many women, there simply aren’t the more senior role models that help build that.’
Suzanne Lingham, Head of Change, highlights other problems that a lack of female leadership can bring: ‘In my early career, I worked in a Financial Services software company with multiple offices that had no female directors or branch managers. It’s an extreme example that I’m certain wouldn’t happen now, but I was actually stalked by a male colleague, who left obscene messages on my desk. When I complained, I was told by the manager that I must’ve done something to deserve it. I left the company – it was my only option to end the situation.’
For Rebecca Hall, Non-Executive Director, the challenges go beyond gender. ‘I’ve seen discrimination against stereotypically female approaches vs stereotypically male approaches. The same traits have been valued in some firms for a long time, and, for me, it’s important to recognise the benefit of different approaches – not just different genders, or other measured aspects of diversity.’
Sarah-Ellen Stacey, Chief People Officer, notes, ‘I’ve been on two executive teams where I’ve been the only woman, and that includes when I first joined Hodge three years ago. Sometimes, you can feel unique because you’re the only person in the room who can’t chat football, or are one of the few non-accountants – difference goes beyond gender. It’s important to embrace diverse styles, skills and ways of thinking.’
And, for some of our leaders, confidence is the biggest challenge they’ve faced over the years. Katie Johnson, Managing Director of Savings, comments, ‘The main thing I’ve found challenging is having confidence in, and trusting, my abilities to put myself forward for new opportunities and challenges. As women, when we look at a new job description or opportunity, we sometimes focus on the things we can’t do, rather than the things we can. A key challenge for me in the past has been being afraid to say “yes I can do that” if I didn’t tick everything on the job description. In reality, having the right attitude, drive, and determination is what matters the most.’
Emma Williamson, Head of Origination for Mortgages, feels the same, ‘A challenge for me has been often walking into a room and feeling like I need to prove why I’m there. Over the last few years, I’ve worked hard on development to believe my self-worth. I’ve been lucky to receive great support from Hodge and external coaches to do that.’
How do you think things have changed for women in financial services – and what do you hope the future looks like?
‘There’s been a massive shift for women in Financial Services over recent years, and it’s fantastic to see an ever–growing female presence throughout the sector, with a number of women leading the way in the mortgage market across lenders, distributors, and key firms’, says Emma G.
Suzanne adds, ‘the push for girls and women to enter a career in STEM is now very visible, with groups like Digital Women Wales, Women in Tech Cymru, and Wales Women in STEM promoting female representation in these industries – and providing a vital platform for collaboration and support.’
‘People are recognising that a more diverse business works better and is more able to meet its customers’ needs and weather storms’, says Helen. ‘It’s simply no longer acceptable to have a board room or senior team with no women. I hope the future is a place where we no longer have to have conversations about the gender pay gap.’
Kim Criddle, Head of Compliance, agrees, ‘representation of female leaders on boards and executive committees is growing, which is great for the industry. But, there’s still more work to do to move this to an equal 50%.’
Laura agrees, ‘there’s lots more work to be done; only 4% of CEOs of the world’s 150 major financial institutions are women. Historically, there were obstacles about the type of leadership style needed to succeed. But, women are now realising they can have a very successful career in financial services without needing to change who they are and what they offer to do that.’
‘In the future, I hope the narrative becomes less about ‘first female CEO’, as it becomes far more the norm, rather than the exception’, she concludes. Katy agrees, ‘There’s still a long way to go, but I hope that in future there’ll be no such thing as ‘female leaders’ – there’ll just be great leaders.’
It’s got to come from the top, says Sarah, as she’s seen a ‘commitment from Boards and top exec to really take gender fairness and inclusion seriously, and to see it as a key differentiator, along with all diversity, as key to delivering for our customers and attracting and retaining talent.’
And, while signing up to initiatives like the Women in Finance Charter are really important, Katie highlights the need for ‘support and training for upcoming females showing ambition for leadership and promotion. It would be great for sponsorship and mentor relationships, focused on developing women, to become standard practice.’
What advice would you give to women starting their careers in Financial Services?
The first step is deciding what you want, and how you need to behave to get there, says Rebecca. ‘Recognise that there’ll be individuals (male and female) that behave in a sexist way or make assumptions based on gender. Develop strategies to work with those people, and try not to take things personally.’
Kim adds, ‘be confident in your ability, strengths, and value. Find a good mentor and champion to support you get where you want to land. Be kind to yourself and other females climbing alongside you. Finally, no matter the situation, never let emotion overpower your intelligence.
For Emma W, it’s important to look for a company that fits your own ethics. ‘If you work for an organisation that strives for the same goals that get you out of bed in the morning, it feels less like a job. Don’t worry about your career path being linear. I like to think of progression as stepping stones that could be placed in any pattern to help you learn transferrable skills.’
And, with the increased focus on gender diversity comes more opportunity, so don’t sit and wait for someone to recognise your great work, says Katie: show them. ‘If you want to progress, you have to help yourself. But remember, don’t change who you are to try to fit in. As women, we bring a different set of qualities to the table – like empathy, social sensitivity, and collaboration. Don’t underestimate the importance and impact of these skills.’
Suzanne agrees, ‘always consider yourself an equal to others in any interview situation. It’s your qualifications and experience that set you apart, not your gender.’ ‘Be prepared to work hard and invest in yourself – adopt a curious mindset, never stop learning, and create a really strong support network around you,’ adds Laura.
Lots of our leaders also recognised the importance of mentors and the role they can play. ‘Identify two great mentors who will help you – a man and a woman’, suggests Helen. ‘The man will help you to see how they see the world – which is vital while they’re still in the majority at senior levels. The woman will give you the confidence to succeed – and an introduction to a supportive network.’
Sarah encourages women to ‘leap into roles and opportunities that are unknown. You don’t have to be 100% experienced to try new things – be bold and be proud. I was once chair of a gas servicing company of 50+ employees (who all were men!) – it was terrifying, but if I could do that, I could do anything.’
Finally, Helen adds, ‘my other tip would be: always ask for your own pay rise and promotions. Ask every year – you deserve it at least as much as your male colleagues.’
How do you feel Hodge supports female colleagues?
‘Being a part of Hodge’s women’s network, Wonder, I’ve had the opportunity to support the business on its journey to becoming an inclusive and diverse workplace’, says Katy. ‘We’ve signed up to the Women in Finance Charter, with a target of 45% female representation in senior management by 2022, and recently introduced a parental leave policy that gives all colleagues – regardless of gender – equal paid leave when welcoming a child into the family.’
‘Having recently returned from maternity leave’, comments Laura, ‘I’ve personally experienced the flexibility that’s available, which really makes that transition easier while juggling parenthood.’
Emma G agrees that the ‘values-led workplace environment and family friendly policies are key, with flexible working helping us to manage and care for our families in parallel with our careers – making for a better work/life balance.’
In the IT world, there’s a ‘with us’ group to promote the roles we have to female applicants, says Suzanne. ‘From a Change Team perspective, the percentage of Scrum Masters and BAs is very much 50/50, currently with two female leads. We very much consider the best person for the job, and I’ve never felt a bias either way during my time at Hodge.’
Kim adds, ‘Hodge recognises talent irrespective of gender, so if you’re talented and ambitious to take on responsibility at all levels, opportunities are available.’
Sarah acknowledges, ‘We make a difference when we support our female colleagues with learning, coaching and career opportunities, like as the recent Chwarae Teg leadership offering. We need to keep a range of such support available and continue to build an environment where our female colleagues have the confidence and opportunity to be their best self and speak up to make a difference.’
Thank you to Emma Graham, Emma Williamson, Helen Molyneux, Katie Johnson, Katy Mathias, Kim Criddle, Laura Reid, Rebecca Hall, Sarah-Ellen Stacey, and Suzanne Lingham for taking part!