6 Women Leaders Discuss Progress of Gender Equality in Banking

Despite improvements, women continue to be underrepresented in the financial services ecosystem, from products and solutions geared to women's needs, to leadership roles within banks and credit unions. We reached out to female executives globally to get their thoughts on gender bias, diversity initiatives, and career recommendations for fellow women.

According to the United Nations, “Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.” Over the past decade, progress has been made globally in the banking industry, yet despite these gains, challenges remain which have a direct impact on the quest for equality.

In financial services, women are still underrepresented at all levels of management, with significant pay gaps still remaining. This mirrors the trends in business overall, where the gender gap in leadership widens as you climb the corporate ladder. According to Catalyst, only 26.5% of senior leadership positions are held by women.

And, while research shows that there is a general upward trend in women’s ratings regarding the commitment to diversity, promotion policies, and compensation in recent years, there is also a widening gap between men’s and women’s ratings on these components of equality. In other words, while both men and women believe progress is being made, men tend to overestimate the progress achieved.

The impact of the pandemic has also had a negative impact on gender equality and women’s rights. Women often are responsible for home schooling duties, as well as the care for elderly family members, requiring the difficult balance of work and home. This can impact both the quality of work performed, and the overall mental health of women.

Bottom line, while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go when it comes to achieving true gender equality.

To get a perspective on the gender bias in banking, the impact of recent diversity initiatives, and advice for fellow female bankers, The Financial Brand contacted some of the top women in financial services.

  • Sonali Divilek, Head of Product, Consumer Business at Goldman Sachs, including Marcus by Goldman Sachs
  • Claire Calmejane, Chief Innovation Officer, Société Générale
  • Yolande Piazza, VP of Financial Services, Google Cloud
  • Jill Castilla, President and CEO, Citizens Bank of Edmond
  • Natalie Bartholomew, Chief Administrative Officer, Grand Savings Bank
  • Pam Piligian, SVP, Marketing and Communications, Navy Federal Credit Union

Has the awareness of gender disparity in finance helped expand the potential for women in banking?

Sonali Divilek. Absolutely. It all starts with awareness, right? If you’re going to reflect products that suit a diverse array of customers, you need to have a diverse array of employees that are thinking through how you solve those customer needs.

It’s been awesome working in a place like Goldman Sachs that truly recognizes the need for diversity. It’s part of the active discussion. It’s not something that’s talked about behind closed doors. And, we really seek to get a number of very diverse perspectives, whether that’s by people’s gender, background, or even their discipline.

Claire Calmejane. With Jane Fraser at Citi, Christine Lagarde at BCE, Alison Rose at Natwest, and Diony Lebot as Deputy CEO at Société Générale, we have several role models in place globally. In France, two of our head of retail networks are women. Société Générale committed to 30% of women in senior roles by 2023, including the management committee I belong to.

Yolande Piazza. I believe it has. Awareness, along with fact-based data has highlighted the disparity which has forced institutions to make diversity a serious part of their agenda.

Jill Castilla. Yes. The American Banker has provided great research over the past few years showing that, although women comprise over 70% of financial services’ workforce, less than 2% of the C-suite are women. The data brings the issue to the forefront, and helps those of us in leadership see that we need to be more visible, serve as mentors, and normalize the idea that women should be fully represented at the top of our industry.

Natalie Bartholomew. This month marks my 20th year in the community banking industry. I started as a 18-year-old part-time teller, and worked my way up to the position I have now as Chief Administrative Officer of Grand Savings Bank. Early in my career, there was very little talk about equal pay, diversity or inclusion in the community banking space. There was rarely a focus on developing women leaders. The women who had made it to leadership roles were far and few between.

I’m seeing that change now, but feel that it’s a result of multiple cultural factors and the hard work of advocates that are demanding change. Women most certainly feel more empowered now than they did when I entered the industry. Young women are now realizing their voice matters in this space … and that’s exciting.

Pam Piligian. I think there has been some change. I’m blessed to work at Navy Federal, where women are and have been a part of our leadership team for years. That said, I think the conversations on diversity and inclusion help everyone look around and be more aware of the need to embrace diversity and inclusion. As a purpose-driven credit union, we are all about inclusion and serving our community.

Read More: Building Better Banking Services for Women

Is the environment within banking truly getting better? Or are many of the efforts just ‘window dressing’?

Divilek. I wouldn’t describe any of the efforts, or any of the conversations, as window dressing. Bringing a spotlight to the need for more diversity is incredibly important. For instance, we recognize that there’s change that needs to be made and we have our 10,000 Women Initiative, and the Goldman Sachs women’s network is incredibly active.

I’ve seen some incredibly accomplished women striving to the top ranks in the industry and I think that’s great. Stephanie Cohen was just made the co-head of our division, and it’s really great and inspirational to see a woman in a top leadership position driving the innovation that we’re doing at the firm.

Calmejane. Diversity is an economic imperative today. A study by McKinsey demonstrated that companies embracing diversity are showing improvement in performance up to 46%. Taking action to advance gender equality could deliver up to $13 trillion by 2030 to the global GDP.

We work closely with 50inTech to promote and encourage women CEOs in technology and financial services sectors and we also signed the Sista charter which engages us to provide diversity figures on start-up investment under SG Ventures. As a result, for the second consecutive year, Société Générale was once again featured in the Bloomberg Gender Equality Index, alongside 380 companies from 11 sectors and 44 countries and regions.

Piazza. Many organizations are focused on attracting a diverse slate and insist on sourcing more broadly. However, the pool is smaller for senior roles, and it will take time to build the talent pool to create an equal match of candidates. It is also much easier for newer organizations than for more mature companies, as change starts from the top.

During my role as CEO at Citi FinTech, we had 50% female leadership at every level, but that is because we started at the top. It is human to hire in one’s shadow, and that is why it is so important to focus on strong, inclusive and diverse leaders.

Castilla. Honestly, we still have leaps to make and we have to foster the talent pipeline. In our Alloy Labs collaboration with innovative bank CEOs, women dominate the representation. I believe that our propensity to serve in operational leadership roles makes us perfectly suited to lead innovative banks.

However, regulators and many boards still view lending as the gateway to bank leadership. We need to celebrate the ascension of leaders through non-traditional means, and encourage women in these areas to see a pathway to the C-suite.

Bartholomew. I started my platform, the Girl Banker, in 2017 after being discouraged not only by the low level of women in leadership in the community banking space, but also because of the low interest among young women in considering careers or degrees in finance. The point of the platform is to advocate for women already in the industry but also to tell the story to young women that there are plenty of opportunities for them and they deserve a seat at the table.

As I have had the opportunity to speak across the country on behalf of my platform, I’m seeing that women in banking are more empowered than ever. Whether their banks are making their development a priority, or the women themselves are taking a stand, the environment is improving. I do feel that the environment is improving, but it’s because of strong women who have paved the way for others and made it a priority to empower women in this industry.

Piligian. I think there’s true progress in the financial industry. At Navy Federal, both our CEO and COO are women with long, outstanding careers, accomplishing so much, as amazing leaders. Anne Finucane at Bank of America, Ellen Alemany at CIT group, and Lori Beer and Marianne Lake at JP Morgan Chase have paved the way for many.

It’s a journey, and there’s work to be done, but lots of progress has been made. I’m rarely the only woman in the room now, unlike when I started my career in advertising over 30 years ago.

What suggestions do you have that would help women in their careers?

Divilek. For women to be cognizant of the fact that they might be the only woman at the table is critical to overcoming it. It’s this level of self-awareness that I think is really important. And so, if a woman knows that this is the case, then she can think, “How might I represent myself and be authentic with my ideas, what sort of pushback might I experience, and how am I going to deal with it?”

Women also need to realize that they have a choice in where they work. There’s a lot of people looking for really accomplished women out there. And so, finding a workplace that encourages women to support each other is important. I think about back to my parents, when they worked at one place and were there for 40 years … that’s not the case anymore. It’s about finding the right culture.

Calmejane. We’ve recently launched a competition with 50inTech to source green fintech startups solving for the world challenges and led by women. Our winner, Lubomila Jordanova, built a large network through the Green Alliance, got sponsors and mentors, and was very ambitious through her SaaS solutions to calculate business carbon footprint and reduce emissions.

Women should apply to the top jobs in capital markets and financing and advisory … do a rotation in finance, compliance and risk … and get some regulatory exposure. Board seat positions are also a good way to broader horizons.

Piazza. There are many successful women in financial services, but they are just outnumbered. I believe there is an honest effort to recruit a more balanced slate into the organization, but it takes time to permeate throughout organizations.

My advice is to speak up and to ask what it will take to get to the next level. Too often we think somebody will advance us based on how hard we are working in our current roles, but we need to take our career advancement into our own hands. This means we must be open to coaching and feedback … but taking charge of your career clearly sends a signal of your professional goals and expectations.

Castilla. Network. Network. Network. Social media has allowed the most successful leaders in our industry to be just a click, tweet or DM away. Engage. Learn. Celebrate others.

Bartholomew. For starters, women must recognize that they have a right to be there and that they add value. Having that confidence can get you a long way. Secondly, don’t be afraid to do the work. Ask all the questions, read all the articles, and take all the courses to expand your skillset. Knowledge is power.

Lastly, network with other bankers through social media. Creating a peer network that doesn’t involve your direct competition can give you insight to new ideas that you can mold into your own for your institution. It can also create a great sounding board for when you’re needing advice or ideas for personal growth. I started doing this on Twitter … which led to group chats … which led to a fantastic community of bank marketers that has been extremely helpful. It also created opportunities to develop great relationships in person that I otherwise would have never crossed paths with had that social connection never taken place.

Piligian. Continue to help others – see each other as people with potential vs. competitors, and ask yourself how you can help, advocate, guide and give encouragement. Then do it.

In my office I have a quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg tacked to my monitor: “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”  A great reminder that leaders win heads and hearts by showing the way, inspiring others to follow, showing empathy for struggles vs. dictating. Fighting for right is honorable but how you do it counts.

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