Redressing The Balance – Tackling Female Under-Representation Across The Industry

Wendy Spires Group Deputy Editor London 1 March 2012

Redressing The Balance – Tackling Female Under-Representation Across The Industry

Joanna Thornell, managing director at Coutts, discusses the importance of female representation across the piece and how this can be improved.

With upwards of 27 per cent of the world’s high net worth individuals being women, wealth management firms are clamouring to tap female wealth – estimated to stand at $20 trillion globally in 2010. Female HNW investors are rightly a priority, but marketing specifically to them without being patronising or prejudging remains a tricky balancing act.

One really effective way of signalling a female-friendly proposition is having lots of women within the organisation, particularly at senior management level, but this remains easier said than done. And so what may seem initially to be a marketing issue actually cuts to the heart of an ongoing industry problem: female under-representation, particularly as regards CRMs. But a lot is being done to tackle this and progress is being made, explains Joanna Thornell, managing director, banking services at Coutts.

Increasing the ranks of female relationship managers has been a priority for the industry for some time, yet while firms have been actively trying to rectify this lack there remains a widely-acknowledged gender imbalance. Some firms, like Coutts, which organisation-wide is 51 per cent female, are making great progress, but others - it would seem - are not doing as well in this regard as they would hope. When the world’s leading firms were contacted by this publication on this issue very, very few indeed were willing to give hard numbers on how many female bankers were on their books.

Reticence on figures

It seems likely that this reticence was due to wariness about how such figures could be misinterpreted by those with an axe to grind, and it should be noted that broadly the firms were able to give details of pleasingly progressive policies regarding the recruitment and retention of women. It is clearly not that wealth managers aren’t trying to raise their female representation levels but perhaps rather that progress isn’t coming as fast as they would like.

While firms may be shy of confirming that they lack female bankers, industry-wide it’s an acknowledged problem, says Thornell, who points out that you only have to look at recruiting new bankers to see that it’s “predominantly a male talent pool you’re looking at.”

The reasons behind this are twofold in Thornell’s view. “It is a combination of not having enough role models out there doing jobs that inspire people, particularly as you go up the organisation at senior level, and also that the industry is a traditionally male-dominated environment,” she says.

Thornell, along with various other senior executives who have spoken to this publication, regards female representation as an invaluable means of subtly marketing to female clients. This methodology avoids treating them according to gender stereotypes with prejudgements made about their individual needs – both of which would fly in the face of the client-centricity that is at the heart of the wealth management proposition.

“This is a very personal view, but if someone came up to me and said ‘I’m marketing to you as a woman’ I would probably find that less appealing than someone saying ‘I’m marketing to you as an individual and therefore let’s start talking about you as an individual’,” she says.

Are females, in fact, a distinct segment?

Of course, this comment highlights a salient point – that of whether female clients should actually be targeted as a distinct segment at all. The fact of the matter is that the profile of female clients has radically altered since women fully entered the working world, and a HNW woman of today is as likely to be a high-powered executive or entrepreneur as a widow or inheritor. Intra-segment differences will therefore probably be as marked as those found inter-segment and so it is probably unwise to lump all women together with their gender placed before other considerations. Indeed, one would hardly decide to market to a segment called “men.”

But while marketing directly to women solely as women is best avoided, wealth managers do still need to bear gender differences in mind – and that means differences of psychology as well as lifecycle. “The fact that I’m female may mean that I consider certain issues in a different way to a male counterpart,” says Thornell.

Here, she brings up an interesting point concerning the female mindset and how wealth managers entertain clients and prospects. While not suggesting that female clients only want to interact with bankers of the same gender, she points out that giving women the chance to socialise with their peers and female staff can be really valuable. Although it’s “only one option”, networking events such as those for female entrepreneurs do go down very well at Coutts, she notes.

In her view, part of the reason for the popularity of these events is that clients can talk to “true peers who happen to be women” – something which they may not be able to do in their own industry. While globally women have made great strides in recent decades, and continue to smash through “the glass ceiling”, it is probably true to say that it can be lonely at the top for women across most industries, even today.

The quota question

The general issue of female under-representation on executive boards - particularly within financial services - has been a popular topic for discussion since the financial crisis. Many commentators blame a testosterone-fuelled culture of risk-taking for the global meltdown and have suggested that with more women at the helm the world’s financial institutions would have steered a steadier course. That is debatable, but wealth management firms are certainly making great strides in this regard; Coutts itself can boast three women on the RBS Wealth Division Executive Committee and four women on the Coutts UK Senior Management Committee.

On the issue of female quotas on boards, Thornell points to an interesting outcome from a recent Coutts Women In Business event. At the outset of a debate most of the female clients were “completely and utterly against quotas” she says, however, by the end there had been a complete volte face. While it was initially felt that board positions have to be awarded strictly on merit with no regard to gender, the participants eventually concluded that if used wisely quotas would “kick-start” the process of addressing female under-representation and ensuring that talented women do reach the top spots. In her words, with quotas “it’s about how you use them” and while the emphasis has to be on meritocracy, the fact remains that this may need a helping hand.

Support structure

Thornell believes that providing support is key to the recruitment and retention of female employees and highlights that at Coutts this is a priority “right across all of the disciplines.” This is an important point from a marketing perspective if female representation is approached as a manifestation of brand values rather than a token gesture. However, supporting female employees in climbing the corporate ladder has to be approached as delicately as marketing to female clients, Thornell points out.

Key to Coutts’ approach to supporting female staff is the firm’s women’s network, which is open to staff at all levels and which Thornell says is another example of how impactful simply facilitating interaction can be. Several of the wealth management firms contacted by WealthBriefing for this feature gave details of pre- and post-maternity leave courses for employees and their managers; Thornell, however is of the view that something more informal might be best. Mentoring is part of what goes on through the Coutts Women’s Network, she explains, and she believes that networking can be a better way for employees to gain support as it “doesn’t make it a process.”

While parenting duties are certainly no longer the preserve of women, how to juggle a career and a family is arguably still more of a concern for women – and Thornell certainly has relevant experience on that front, having a nine-year-old daughter as well as a top job at a high-profile wealth management firm. While she doesn’t pretend that combining the two has been entirely plain sailing, Thornell was able to draw on a whole host of provisions at Coutts, including part-time and compressed hours, and working at different locations.

The firm, like several others, also provides emergency childcare cover for when the nanny calls in sick – an invaluable resource for both male and female employees, particularly those in the upper echelons of financial institutions.

WealthBriefing will in fact be taking a closer look at firms’ provision of maternity and paternity support in a series of forthcoming features as it is clear that this might be a key piece in the retention puzzle. Helping staff to balance work and family life is a key issue for the industry and is as much of a juggling act for firms as it is for staff, Thornell concludes. In her words: “You have to help people to make it work and still run a business… this is a crucial balance that all firms need to master in order to retain and attract talent at all levels.”

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