2020.12 The Taiwan Banker NO.132 / By David Stinson
Gender Balance Results from Work-Life BalanceRecent high-profile appointments of female leaders in banking reflect more than just personnel policy
In every industry in every country, the childbearing years are an impediment to female employment. This is especially the case for those who aspire to leadership positions. Once mothers take years off work to care for their children, they lose contacts and up-to-date industry knowledge, making them unlikely to ever reboard the train to the executive level. Companies hoping for quantitative improvements in the executive gender ratio encounter problems further upstream, at the mid-career level or earlier. In September, Citibank announced the appointment of Jane Frasier to the role of Chief Executive Officer, marking the first such appointment for a woman in a major bank – a sector that has remained stubbornly resistant to gender integration. According to the management consultancy Oliver Wyman in its Women in Financial Services 2020 report, only 6% of banks around the world have female CEOs. Besides gender diversity, Frasier’s appointment is also significant news for work arrangement diversity. Rejecting the somewhat macho work culture typical on Wall Street, Fraser spent the entirety of her five-year partnership at the consultant McKinsey, which began just as her first son was born, on a part-time basis. At a recent Most Powerful Women virtual summit hosted by Fortune magazine, Fraser recalled the advice one of her mentors gave her at the time: “Jane, you’re going to have several careers in your life, and your careers are going to be measured in decades, so why this sense of rush and trying to have everything at the same time? Just relax, chill, take a step back and enjoy the process more, and enjoy the different phases of your life.” In the end, she was able to fully return to the corporate world. On the policy level, governments have crafted maternity leave policies to ease the transition between life stages – and also to give employers confidence ahead of time that younger female hires will make good long-term investments. Still, most of this work has to be done on the company level. In fact, efforts to make the workplace more female-friendly overlap almost entirely with the broad concept of corporate culture. It’s difficult to improve one without the other, and visa-versa. What women want One might be tempted approach gender diversity from an economic perspective. A female-friendly workforce could potentially double the number of candidates available, providing more choices for executive roles and more positions for junior-level talent. Although this point is undoubtedly true, the effects of both diversity itself, and the measures required to achieve it, to go far beyond it. Because a great deal of behavior is learned and culturally dependent, stereotypes are always dangerous. Nevertheless, as far as gender is concerned, there’s broad evidence that women think differently than men in ways that are relevant to business. In addition to family orientation, one area of different that is particularly relevant to finance is perception of risk. Popular wisdom has it that women are more risk-averse than men, but the reality is more complex. Research by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has found that women simply prefer to take in more information before making investment decisions. A typical female portfolio might overweight cash and indices, while a male one would feature frequent reallocations based on gut feelings. This difference in risk management could help explain why female leaders appeared to handle the coronavirus pandemic better overall than their male counterparts. Countries like Taiwan, New Zealand, and Germany – and even on the local level, San Francisco, led by Mayor London Breed – didn’t wait for conditions to become severe before acting. This doesn’t imply that women make better leaders in general, as this situation may not be entirely representative of the decisions a leader faces, but it does demonstrate fairly conclusively that they use different decision-making processes than men. One might even extend this insight to career risks. Women are usually shier than men about claiming credentials and asking for pay raises, and they fear that expressing career ambition can appear unfeminine, all of which are important advancement strategies. Companies can adapt to these tendencies by proactively communicating their expectations. The customer is always right Besides employees, another aspect of gender inclusion that’s frequently overlooked is the customer. BCG estimates that women control 32% of the world’s wealth; this is significantly less than their representation in top management positions. To make another broad generalization, women want their investments to work for them, rather than the other way around. The Women in Financial Services report, for instance, quoted a female customer complaining about excessively jargon-packed sales pitches: “I’ve worked hard over my career – my goal is to enjoy my retirement and be able to look after my kids, not ‘beat the market.’” Women have different financial needs from men. Here the maternal mid-career gap reappears, this time from the perspective of the financial consumer. Male wealth advisors may not appreciate the financial implications of the income volatility in this period. The same report also quotes Mary Ellen Iskenderlan, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, a nonprofit institution facing banks and other financial institutions. “The product you are selling to men is probably a good product for them,” she asserts. “But the product you design for women is going to work better for everybody.” At a minimum, a diverse product design team would be a good way to hedge against the loss of important market segments. Gender inclusion is good for companies’ relationships with their employees and customers, and it should come as no surprise that the same is true of other stakeholders as well. Female investors are more inclined towards ESG investment than male ones, reflecting a more communal outlook on finance. Beyond the numbers It remains unclear to what extent the beneficial effects of gender diversity are the direct result of hiring more women, versus the factors that might attract women to work in an organization in the first place. The issue has been extensively studied, but it’s usually difficult to sort correlation out from causality. For businesses, however, this distinction isn’t worth dwelling upon. The more prudent conclusion is that if a company focuses on creating a sound corporate culture that takes all of these issues into account, gender equality will be the natural result. Including gender issues within the larger frame of culture makes it clearer what actions men as well could take to resolve them. Greater flexibility for work arrangements among men, for example, would also send a message to female employees, and maybe even make the staff more relatable to customers. Moreover, as this example shows, by no means does a female-friendly workplace come at a cost to male staff, much less overall competitiveness. The past few months has seen a number of milestones related to gender equality. In October, Odile Renaud-Basso was named the first female president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a multilateral development bank founded shortly after the end of the Cold War with a focus on Eastern Bloc countries. In November, the United States elected its first female vice president, who will serve alongside its oldest incoming president. Hopefully, these new appointments will be significant not just for the individuals involved, but for the institutions they represent as a whole.