Women in finance – four perspectives

The financial services industry has a reputation for being a male-dominated space. International research shows that, although 90 percent of financial services company executives indicate a commitment to gender diversity, in practice, only 19 percent of top executives are female. Four women in the South African industry comment on their experiences and perspectives and offer advice for women hoping to enter this exciting and fast-paced environment.

Ahimsa Gounden – Market Risk Analyst at ABSA

Gounden graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Advanced Mathematics of Finance in 2010 and joined Absa as a graduate. She is currently a Senior Risk and Capital Specialist at Absa Corporate Investment Banking.

Would you agree that the industry is male-dominated?
That is not a perception. It is real – the numbers speak for themselves. There has only been one female CEO in the top 40 JSE listed companies. However, I have seen gradual changes in the industry, there are a lot more women in leadership roles now, and organisations are making a conscious effort to mentor female employees and build their career paths. Being a woman in this industry can be challenging, but it is rewarding to face these challenges and overcome them. It is not an easy ride, but it is an excellent industry – fast-paced and exciting. As a woman, you have to learn to put yourself out there. No-one will hold your hand; you have to own your career and make it happen.

In terms of redressing gender inequality in the industry, what do you think needs to change?
While there are female graduates entering the industry, the problem starts before that. I think more women need to know about the opportunities available when they choose their course of study so that they select programmes that prepare them for the industry. Also, the commitment is there from firms; there are programmes and work streams dedicated to diversity and inclusion. We have the layout. Now we need the people commitment, from men and women, in changing attitudes and putting these into practice, and for women to see that it can be done.

Do you have any words of advice for women planning to enter the industry?
Do not be afraid to be yourself. You don’t have to mimic men to be in a position of power. Also, don’t discount what you bring to the table – you will find that diversity is valued, not just in terms of gender but in different perspectives and experiences. There are plenty of opportunities in the industry; just be brave and believe in yourself.

Lucy Brickhill – COO of the FOUNDeRY at Rand Merchant Bank

Brickhill graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Advanced Mathematics of Finance in 1999 and has a career that spans many financial institutions and roles, having worked at Standard Bank, Sanlam and Gensec.

Would you agree that the industry is male-dominated?
Initially, at my first job at Gensec, I worked in a team of female quants. Later I worked more often with men, but I don’t think the numbers are that important. I’ve never felt at a disadvantage or that being a woman has hindered my career development. While I have mainly reported to men, they have always been exceptionally supportive. Especially when I had kids, I was given the flexibility to change my hours – at Standard Bank, I headed up an equity derivatives sales and structuring team, even though I left work at 3 pm to look after my children. Also, RMB is very supportive of women who want to work and have a family; it is a very accommodating environment.

Often women progress in their careers at the same pace as men until they want to start a family and then they opt-out. RMB’s approach is to encourage women to change their roles for a while or work with more flexibility – but not opt-out altogether. We also keep in touch with women who have left to start a family and encourage them to re-enter the industry when they are ready to.

RMB has a significant transformation drive to empower and advance women. We also focus on high school girls and encourage them to enter degree programmes based on maths and finance. RMB has 27 percent female executives on exco, which is higher than average.

Do you have any words of advice for women planning to enter the industry?
Financial services is not a monolithic industry – there are a lot of different organisations and many different roles. You will find something that suits you and accommodates all stages of your career.

Maryjane Mokgethi – Institutional Sales Trader at ABSA

Mokgethi graduated with an MCom in Risk Management of Financial Markets, offered by the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM) at UCT, in 2017.

Would you agree that the industry is male-dominated?
I am the only woman on my team. However, I don’t feel that it is a problem; it doesn’t feel like a boys’ club. At this stage in my career, the focus is all on the work – learning and applying what I’ve learned. It doesn’t matter how many men or women there are. However, it is not obvious why they are generally more men on the trading floor. Perhaps women and men are drawn to different careers. When it comes to the lack of female representation in more senior roles, it doesn’t bother me at the moment. However, in a few years I may start to question the lack of female representation on the executive boards and other senior roles assuming it continues to persist into the future – it can send a message that there is no space for me as a woman. I’d like to be believe that roles are open to anyone based on their expertise and what they can deliver, not on any gender biases. So far, though, my perception is that the industry is fair for the 2 years that I have worked in banking.

In terms of redressing gender inequality in the industry, what do you think needs to change?
I think there should be a better drive to encourage women and show them that it is a viable option to be a sales trader. Also, to mentor young girls at school level to inspire them to join this amazing industry. What I found helpful is attending events such as AIFMRM’s Women in Finance discussion panels, to meet women in leadership roles and ask them questions. This helps dispel many myths about the industry and is very inspiring.

Do you have any words of advice for women planning to enter the industry?
Go for the goals you set for yourself and never set limitations on achieving your goals. Be open-minded with the people you come across, learn from everyone, and have the courage to ask questions. Take every opportunity as it comes.

Nicole Alers – Valuations Analyst at RMB

Nicole graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Advanced Mathematics of Finance in 2000, and has nearly 20 years of experience in the industry, in South Africa and abroad.

Would you agree that the industry is male-dominated?
Initially, I joined the industry as a trader, working in Joburg, London and Hong Kong, and was always surrounded by males. I never saw this as an issue until I started trading metal options on the LME in London. This was undoubtedly a very male-dominated market, and I was treated differently. I guess in that time and place; men were not used to women having opinions! However, I just carried on working hard, and they came to respect my views. I ended up loving it.

Overall, I do not think my gender has ever held me back. I have been privileged to work in firms such as Investec and RMB, where diversity is respected. My experience in the industry has been nothing but positive.

I admit the gender equality numbers in Finance look bad, but if you dig deeper, it paints a different picture. For example, right now, I choose to have a very flexible work/life balance, and there is a value to that which doesn’t get factored into remuneration comparisons. I have been accommodated in how I structure my time so that I can raise a family. When I came back from maternity leave, I was offered counselling and support for reintegrating back into work. It is more important to look at how the women that are in the industry are treated, rather than only the headcount.

In terms of the industry having to redress gender inequality, there are systems in place, and many organisations are actively trying to recruit more women, but the real issue is actually that not enough women apply in the first place.

Do you have any words of advice for women planning to enter the industry?
Women often feel comfortable with a female mentor, and I can see why this would be valuable, but many wonderful mentors I have had have been men. My advice is, you can learn and grow with support from anyone, do not be focused on it being a woman.

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