Has the environment for women working in financial services changed? We share real-life, personal stories and experiences from across the sector 

by | Mar 8, 2024

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Earlier today, as celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee released a powerful new report entitled “Sexism in the City“. But, be warned, if you’re hoping for some positive news to start your day, this does not make for inspirational reading. It shows quite starkly that the world of financial services is not doing much at all to follow the theme for today’s IWD to #inspire inclusion. 

However, what’s been the experience of individual women working in financial services? As part of our ‘Women in Finance’ campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2024, we’ve been asking many women for their personal reflections on whether they think that gender diversity has changed during their careers. The good news is that many of them have seen positive change throughout their careers, although, of course, there’s always further to go.

See below for their responses: 

 
 

Sally Boyle, CSO, Defaqto said: “Gender diversity, and other diversity, has really improved my experience. Younger generations are far more used to women in the industry. 

“I started working in financial services in my mid 20s and women in the IFA community were much rarer back then. I worked as BDM for a product provider at the time, the role involved a lot of attending events to present on the proposition. 

“I hosted an event once – there were about 50 advisers there, all male. Everyone was milling around having refreshments before it started, and one adviser came up to me and said, “White with one”. I looked very confused and then he repeated “Coffee. White with one”. Only then did it occur to me that he assumed I was a waitress. 

 
 

“I remember feeling really embarrassed, rushing to grab the coffee, and hoping no one else heard. I had to fight the urge to let this confirm all my worst fears, that no one would take me seriously because I didn’t belong in this world. Minutes later, the event started. I stood up at the front and caught his eye in the crowd. He looked mortified, I smiled and got on with it. 

“I was very careful not to wear a black dress at future events, in case it confused people. I also learnt never to waste energy worrying or getting upset over gender-based mistakes or comments. Now, I honestly don’t think about my gender as a point of difference at all. I know that isn’t the same for all women in the industry, but I hope it’s the trend.” 

According to PIMCO’s Head of Business Management for EMEA & APAC, Mangala Ananthanarayanan: “The industry in Europe is much more global and diverse today, across a variety of measures including gender with a clear focus on meritocracy. This is a huge positive as we now have a larger talent pool to recruit from for entry-level roles at present. That said the journey is far from over. STEM oriented subjects, which are critical for success in the investment management industry, still have low take up by girls for their university degrees today.”

 
 

Vicki Kingston, Business Development Team Manager at Coventry for Intermediaries, said: “Over my nearly four-decade journey in the financial services industry, I’ve witnessed a remarkable evolution in the sector for female professionals. From when I started in 1984, at the age of 16, the landscape was starkly different. Women were a rarity in roles like brokers and Business Development Managers (BDMs), and walking into a room of usually older men demanded extra confidence. Prior to flexible working, there was a feeling of not wanting to be the first to leave the office, almost as a way to justify keeping up with male counterparts. The industry’s competitive nature often made balancing family life challenging, due to longer working hours and less flexibility. 

“Being a young woman in a male dominated industry was challenging, as the 80s and 90s fostered a ‘ladette’ type culture, meaning that you potentially didn’t fit in. Balancing career aspirations with family obligations seemed like an uphill battle, with less support and flexibility for maternity leave and managing family life. That being said, we’ve seen a huge shift in the industry within the past decade. The percentage of women in finance has increased, accompanied by a growing awareness of women-specific challenges like menopause and childcare. Flexible working arrangements, accelerated by the pandemic, have also eased the burden of juggling work and family. 

“Today, there’s a palpable culture of inclusivity, with more women taking on senior roles and embracing leadership. I now feel more empowered to manage my team in a way that takes into consideration everyone’s needs regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. While these strides have been made, achieving gender parity in the highest echelons remains a goal. Nonetheless, the balance, particularly in our team with a BDM team split of 16 women to 15 men, reflects progress and offers hope for a future where talent knows no gender.”

 
 

Lesley Terry, Business Development Manager, Saffron Building Society, comments: “I’ve worked in financial services for just over 20 years now and although some progress has been made, it does remain very male-dominated, particularly at senior levels – for example, less than ten per cent of UK FTSE 350 companies are led by a female CEO. Many women in the financial services are still also subject to sexism and discrimination, and there is a lot of work to be done before we can be considered an inclusive industry. 

“Despite this, I have been incredibly fortunate to work for some fantastic bosses along the way who wholeheartedly support the women on their team. It has also been brilliant to see Saffron commit to fostering equality and diversity by implementing inclusive hiring practices, and promoting a supportive work culture for all employees to thrive.

“The wider outlook for women in business is also improving, and doors which were previously closed to women – such as prestigious industry groups and networking opportunities – are also being increasingly opened. Businesses are also progressively introducing more supportive and flexible workplace policies, such as hybrid working and flexi hours, which help to support women in balancing their work and home lives. COVID of course had a significant impact on this.”

 
 

Olivia Geldenhuys, Investment Director at Schroder Investment Solutions said: “Firstly, besides the knowledge a qualification provides, it gives you a framework for how to think and it does not limit the roles available to you. In my case, I studied Investment Management in South Africa. The course provides you with the fundamentals for becoming a portfolio manager and although I found the subjects engaging, I just couldn’t see myself making investment decisions on a daily basis. 

“I was more attracted to dealing with people over dealing in stocks. Hence, I re-focused my career path so I could combine my investment management knowledge with my desire to engage and connect with people as a client specialist. 

Secondly, seek out people who inspire you. This includes people who support your growth professionally and personally, and people who highlight how you might want to do things differently. 

 
 

“Lastly, women have an important role to play in changing the dynamics of the industry. By sharing our experiences, we can empower others to step confidently into investment roles, creating synergy through diverse perspectives and a more inclusive environment. 

Rose St Louis is a Protection Director for Lloyds Banking Group. She believes there’s still a way to go towards equality as she comments: “I’ve seen more women choosing and embracing careers in financial services since I started out. But I think there’s still some way to go in the wider diversity aspect, so more work to be done in increasing representation of women who are, for example, categorised as ethnically diverse, disabled, or according to their sexual orientation. We do see appetite for change though, perhaps the change is not happening as fast as I’d like to see. 

“I remember a time when I was often asked to be on a panel or speak at an event to tick two boxes as I am a woman and black. What’s refreshing, and a little bit sad for my ego, is that I receive fewer requests these days. However, as we are still lacking prominence of diverse women, this is an area that needs real work along with women in the LBGTQ+ community and those with both visible and non-visible disabilities.” 

 
 

PIMCO’s Head of EMEA Marketing, Sarah Shove, has seen significant change during her career as she comments: “Reflecting on my journey in the industry, the transformation in the environment for women is both profound and inspiring. When I embarked on my career 24 years ago, it was very different from what is it today. I recall attending my first industry awards event where I was the only woman at my table: looking around the room, there was probably a woman at every ninth table. This was a visual representation of the gender imbalance that characterized the industry at the time.

“Today, the industry has moved towards a more balanced and inclusive environment, though there remains a lot of work to do. I work in a team that is culturally diverse, with a broad mix of people from a myriad of backgrounds. The infusion of diverse thoughts and experiences is invaluable, driving innovation and enhancing our ability to serve a broad spectrum of clients.”

Annabel Hornsby, Business Development Director, Cazenove Capital has also seen much positive change as she comments: “City culture has changed dramatically over the past two decades. I started my career in the late 1990s and regularly witnessed behaviour that we thankfully don’t see any more. Things were already improving before I took a career break in 2010 and worked in a completely different field. When I came back to finance in 2016, it was a very different place. Being able to take a step back and work in a different sector allowed me to see the cumulative effect of many gradual changes. I’m pleased that we’ve gone beyond simply stamping out poor behaviour; there’s now more awareness that we actively need to correct disparities that have built up over many years. My firm, Cazenove Capital, and many others are taking issues like pay inequality and unconscious bias very seriously. I am also encouraged by the extent of female leadership I see around me; our CEO and many of our most senior executives are women.” 

 
 

Laura Grenier, director of operations at WHEB Asset Management has also seen change for the good as she explains: “My first role, in investment banking, was very much male dominated and women were not really expected to do much more than supporting roles (e.g. PA, office management), and that those in the earlier stages of their career would soon leave to take time out for childcare. I have seen this attitude, and expectations change significantly, and I feel that nowadays women are encouraged and supported to work towards senior roles and not necessarily be the prime carer for children.” 

Caroline Stuart, Paraplanner, Ex-PFS President and Owner of Sparrow Paraplanning, admits that she has seen quite a change throughout her 25 years experience within the profession saying: “I’ve worked in financial services and financial planning for coming up to 25 years, and I never ceased to be surprised, but also really proud, of some of the amazing women we have working in our sector. 

“FCA data shows that only 16% of regulated individuals are female and we of course need to address this to make the profession more appealing to women. However, in that 16%, we have some of the most incredible, dedicated, and forward-thinking women, who certainly inspire me every day. 

 
 

“Whilst focus is often on that 16%, we shouldn’t overlook the other parts of our profession, which also has some incredible women who have been blazing a trail. In compliance, platforms, research, paraplanning, administration and support services, as well as training and development. 

“We have come along way as a profession, and whilst we still have some ways to go to really Inspire Inclusion, it does feel like we are now definitely on the right track.” 

Jenny Hunter, Paraplanner and Senior Financial Journalist at IFA Magazine has 10 years’ experience of working in financial services and has seen quite a change as she explains: 

“I, like almost all of the women I speak to, fell into financial services rather than sought it out as a profession, and have been working in the industry for over a decade now. 

“I have been lucky enough to work at firms that have always strived to #inspireinclusion and so I have always had fantastic female (and male) role models throughout my career. I have certainly seen an increase in female faces in the workplace and the wider industry over the past ten years which is something to be celebrated. 

“However, this does remain a male-dominated profession, whether it be as an adviser, a paraplanner, an analyst or another, the balance is still not quite there, and so there is still work to be done. The industry as a whole should play a part in creating more pathways into and through the industry for women. But it’s also the women (and men) already working in the profession who are responsible for advocating for themselves and other women to improve gender diversity. It cannot be overstated, how much of the battle is won in the day-to-day interactions and decisions. 

“That doesn’t mean tipping the scale in the other direction, (there’s enough space for everyone!), it means working towards fair opportunity and representation and making that the norm. Diversity brings insurmountable benefits and advantages, and that should be the underlying goal. To make the profession even greater so that it can better serve our clients.” 

Rupi Bahra, Head of Strategic Accounts and Implementation at MetLife UK agrees, and has seen positive change in her career saying: “I have been working in financial services for over 25 years now, but if I am honest, financial services wasn’t my first choice of career. I fell into my first sales role by chance. At the time, I felt that sales was certainly seen as a “man’s career” and that women just didn’t have the skills to do such a role, however, I knew I was capable of the challenge – of both excelling in the tough world of sales and entering a male dominated industry. I built a strong career in financial services but for a long while I was one of few women to do so. 

“Thankfully this has changed greatly, I now sit among many other women both within MetLife and the financial services industry globally, it is more equal, although there is still a long way to go! For instance, prior to working at MetLife, I held several roles at other financial companies where women barely made up even 25% of the workforce. There’s certainly always room for improvement and I’d love to see more women rising up the ranks and joining roles across the sector. 

“Our Women in Business network and Women in Sales regional group at MetLife called WISe does some of this important work. Wise is a community that brings together ALL women in sales to collaborate, grow visibility, create a more inclusive network of women leaders and showcase career stories of women from all areas of distribution. 

“It is essential we as an industry continues to ensure women’s roles grow in both financial services and sales departments.” 

Sandhuni Correa, management accountant at WHEB Asset Management said: “I started my career in financial services in 2011 while studying for my Chartered Accountancy qualification. I worked in a number of previous roles and am extremely proud to have been a part of the team that facilitated what was at the time the biggest insurance backed buyout of a corporate pension scheme. 

“In 2020 I took a short career break to start a family. When I was ready to return to work I started looking for a roles within financial services. Whilst interviewing for different roles prior to my appointment at WHEB, I came across some firms were not keen to offer flexible working or family friendly hours. 

“As a first-time mum, I found the thought of returning to work daunting, however the team at WHEB really made things easy for me. They offered me a lot of flexibility in my role which has helped me to 

achieve a good work-life balance. I feel that I am able to put my education and training to good use whilst enjoying being a mum to my little boy which is important to me.”

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