Financial services: no place for the faint-hearted
How women are bringing about culture change in a male-dominated industry.
By Hayley Brightmore, founder and director, Knight Transaction Services
After ten years working for two of the “top 10” multi-national accountancy firms, I’ve learned a lot about the culture of the financial services sector. I’ve worked with businesses of all sizes – from start-ups in the pre-profit stage to well-established enterprises with revenues of over £500m. I’ve also engaged with the banks, PE firms and all the other organisations that form the financial ecosystem supporting these businesses. Women have been as conspicuously absent from the ranks of entrepreneurs as they have been from the VCs handing out the money, and many of the industry’s working practices are still based on long hours and a “masculine” culture.
As the female founder of my own start-up, surrounded by a senior team of women, I can see that some much-needed change is beginning to take place. There’s still a long way to go, but the pandemic has given working practices a shake-up everywhere, and with more women taking senior positions in the workforce there’s a good chance that we can finally drag the work culture of the financial services sector into the 21st century. In this article I’ve outlined a few of the ways that we can make this happen.
Avoid the “always on” game
Long hours are still common in financial services, particularly if you’re working on deals, which don’t necessarily conform to the traditional 9-5 timetable. That isn’t going to change any time soon, but it’s up to us to stop equating success with the number of hours that someone is seen to be working.
As flexible and hybrid have become the norm, we’ve moved on from the old competition to be first in and last out of the office. That contest was generally won by men, who still have fewer childcare responsibilities than women. Now the danger is that everyone taking advantage of flexible working feels the need to demonstrate their dedication by sending emails late in the evening or at 2am.
With the new working patterns in financial services, you have a choice as a boss. Either you can trust your team to get on with the job, wherever they may be, and at whatever time, or you can worry obsessively about who has logged on when and what they are doing. Do not do this! Financial services can be stressful enough without trying to micro-manage the lives of all your employees.
Placing trust in your team is far more likely to produce the best results, allowing them to work at their highest level at the times that suit them best. It’s not always easy to show that you are embracing flexibility without pressurising your team to respond to messages at all hours, but it’s a goal worth striving for. For women who are acting as primary caregivers in the majority of cases, flexibility of hours opens up opportunities for them to aim higher in their careers. And many men are appreciating the freedom from the long days and evenings of a work-hard play-hard culture too. We’re already seeing a backlash against flexibility, with some big financial firms demanding a return to the office, but to me this looks like a desperate backwards step.
The lack of self-belief among women in business is well-known, and in a sector where all the senior posts are held by men, it can be crippling. Overcoming it takes guts, but it’s worth it. I remember taking a deep breath and making a conscious effort to speak up and assert myself in meetings when I was younger – knowing that I’d never give myself a chance to be heard if I didn’t. The feeling I got when I noticed a flicker of recognition was second to none, and it fuelled my ability to value my own contribution.
The other side of this is to encourage other women. We’re only just getting beyond the fear-driven “pull up the drawbridge” attitude that women who’ve succeeded in financial services sometimes adopt. There’s still a clear tendency among recruiters – regardless of gender – to rate a man’s ability higher than that of a woman simply because of perceived levels of confidence. If you’re a woman in a senior position, this is a pitfall to look out for and avoid.
Infiltrating the ecosystem
The “confidence” question is starkly evident when it comes to finding investment. In an FT piece last year, a female entrepreneur claimed that ‘the venture capital industry is short-changing humanity’ because of the disproportionately large amount of money invested by male investors into companies run by men. Certainly a tiny percentage of venture capital money goes to female start-ups and access to finance is one of the biggest barriers facing female entrepreneurs looking to grow. With investor panels themselves being so male dominated, bias – however unconscious – is likely to be at play.
There’s a long way to go. Wired magazine reported little change in the VC sector in 2021, but women are gradually raising their heads above the parapet, and lists of female-focused and diverse venture capital funds are emerging. My own company has so far played its own part by showing that a company led by women can make an impact in one area of corporate finance. But this industry still needs far more diversity of all kinds, and on a larger scale. That includes social background, ethnicity and age as well as gender. I’m an optimist. I believe that progress is happening and that the new wave of start-ups will help wash away the old stereotypes. We’ll get there in the end.