Early speculation at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic suggested that women in business could be set back as much as ten years by changes to the working environment.[i]
However, our recent report, Women in Business 2022, suggests that in many ways, women in mid-market organisations are actually benefiting from the new order. Businesses it seems, are seizing the day, with plenty of evidence to show that diversity & inclusion (D&I) is higher on the agenda than ever before.
However, it will take continued focus and dedicated action to ensure that these benefits translate into further progress, particularly in the financial services industry, where stakeholder pressure to achieve and maintain gender balance is rising. How can leaders continue the drive to create flexible, inclusive environments and ensure the door is open to diverse talent at a time when 57% of mid-market businesses are concerned about a shortage of skills?
Flexible working: A positive picture of progress
Our 2022 research shows that Covid-19 has had profound implications for women in financial services, over and above the benefits felt across the business as a whole. An overwhelming majority of female and male business leaders from our sample – 82% – believe that new working practices have benefited women during the pandemic, almost 20% more than the global average. An even higher percentage (85%) are using new ways of working to create a more inclusive environment for female talent.
“I think that we’re entering a new era,” suggests Athanasia Gerasimopoulou, financial services partner at Grant Thornton Greece.
“Apart from the difficulties with lockdown and Covid-19 itself, personally I’ve found that this has been a good opportunity for me both to work effectively and to be with my children, and we’ve had the same feedback from clients.”
Tari Makanda, partner at Grant Thornton Australia agrees. “In the past, many women were driven out of the workforce due to a lack of flexibility. But now you can manage the way you work and even your hours, while businesses know you can still do the work wherever you are. The ability to attend leadership courses or networking events online has also brought more opportunities for women to engage and learn outside of work.”
“The new way of working is benefiting women, but I think more broadly it’s benefiting everyone; it’s more inclusive which is really positive to see,” suggests Vivian Lagan, director at Grant Thornton UK.
“The challenge for our clients in the financial services sector now is to continue working on D&I and not assume that they have overcome the problem,” says Hilkka Nyberg, director at Grant Thornton Sweden.
“It has become clear that gender equality and diversity is a prerequisite for future growth in any company. New companies are coming into the market, so if established organisations want to keep their clients and talent, achieve better results, and have more satisfied employees and customers, they need to keep up with these new players.”
How can financial services maintain momentum towards gender balance?
The growing competition from new start-ups and FinTechs may be just one of the reasons why 81% of financial services organisations surveyed in our Women in Business research have seen stakeholder pressure to achieve or maintain gender balance increase as a result of Covid-19, a considerably higher figure than in other sectors. “Companies need to look to their corporate culture,” explains Hilkka. “If you're not an attractive workplace, you will not only lose competent employees but also risk losing investors who are becoming more aware of this.”
Our research shows that financial services organisations are responding to this pressure by taking dramatically more actions to ensure employee engagement and inclusion, including promoting work-life balance and flexibility for employees.
Opening the door to diverse talent
“We’ve seen some really stand-out actions by clients,” says Vivian. “One company is introducing an IVF programme which includes fully paid support for women and has received immense recognition across both the firm and the board. Women pursuing their careers are likely to have children later in life and so this initiative really stood out for me. Firms are also taking action on things like childcare, providing emergency cover, and we’ve even seen some big investment banks setting up creches within the office. It’s really positive to see; hopefully these actions will improve the talent pipeline and the statistics.”
The second fastest growing action to promote D&I identified by our research was creating an environment where all colleagues can 'speak up' with ideas, issues and questions. It’s something that Tari has noticed a definite increase in.
“We’ve seen a lot of work in Australia around engagement surveys. Organisations have revamped the way they do these to make sure that they hear exactly what people are saying. We've also been involved in a number of culture audits to see whether clients’ cultures are fit for the future. There’s a drive towards creating an environment where everyone can speak freely. People are the highest risk within your organisation so if they can’t speak freely, that will hinder your risk management.”
To succeed, banks and financial services organisations will need to change their outlook, suggests Vivian, because the new generation of talent view things differently. “A good pay package and bonus is no longer enough. It’s more about what type of firm am I going to work for? Is the firm socially engaged? And what impact is the organisation making on society?”
Accounting for the benefits of diversity and inclusion
There’s more evidence that banks are realising the need to demonstrate progress to their stakeholders, rather than just set goals. Our research shows that while drivers of engagement and inclusion are much the same for financial services as for other sectors, one area of greater importance is improving or maintaining gender balance.
“Stakeholders want to associate with an organisation that has the same values as them,” explains Tari. “They want to see tangible actions and results. So, organisations and banks are beginning to realise the importance of having gender balance, integrated reporting and the benefits that brings.”
Athanasia recognises the same trend in Greece. “What I see here is that banks are increasingly trying to include measures and metrics in their transformation and ESG programmes. They are in the process of building KPIs around diversity for the next five or ten next years, because up until now they haven’t had tangible results to show.”
“Within the UK there's an increased focus on diversity of skill set and thought. Clients within the internal audit community are no longer interested in just qualified accountants or finance professionals, they're interested in a talent pool with FinTech experience as an example, or someone that studied politics or art, because they bring that diversity of thought into the established skill set of the financial services community,” adds Vivian.
Future of work: Battles still to win
The pandemic has allowed workers to rethink their careers, work conditions, and long-term goals, driving them to seek work with organisations where they feel valued, listened to and looked after. Yet one driver of engagement and inclusion for financial services that our research identified as lower than the global average is the importance of retaining existing talent. Does this worry our panel at a time when all sectors across all continents are facing talent shortages?
“There is increased competition for talent so it's really critical to have a clear way to retain women in the workforce,” Vivian suggests. “The very best of our clients are looking into this and asking questions, such as ‘How can we retain our talent? How can we upskill them? How can we develop the broader perspective that they require to stay with the firm rather than bringing in new talent?’”
According to Hilkka, we need a holistic view and approach to the issues. “As women we might want to commit ourselves to building a career in a bank for example, but we need to be able to actually see ourselves represented in the leadership. Everything is linked together.”
Which brings us to perhaps the most worrying findings in our research around women in this industry. While female representation across many of the positions improved markedly, with double figure rises for women heading up human resources and marketing in particular, the number of women in the top leadership roles has fallen significantly. There are 11% fewer female CEOs and 6% fewer CFOs in 2022 than in 2021.
“It was disappointing that where we want to see the change is where we are actually going backwards,” admitted Tari.
“I think we need more and louder voices within organisations; more allies. If women don't see any women ahead, then they think it's impossible. But what we see today is not what it’s going to be in the future. I know two female CEOs in Australia’s banking sector and I've noticed that somebody mentored them throughout their career, sponsored them to be able to get to where they wanted to. It’s this sort of thinking that has led Grant Thornton Australia to launch our own Gender Equity Network in an initiative that's been driven by the CEO.”
“I agree that sponsorship and mentoring are critical,” says Vivian, “and having a really strong women’s support network within your organisation is really powerful. Also developing a keen focus on promotable tasks – those tasks that will get us up the ladder to that level that we want to be.”
Will banks rise to the ongoing challenge?
In the once traditionally male-dominated world of banking, there are the definite signs of a march of progress. Organisations are waking up to the benefits of a more diverse, gender-balanced workforce and recognising the strengths and talents that women can bring when given the flexibility and support to reach their full potential. But there is still a distance to go.
Until we see more female leaders at the head of our banks, the future for women remains uncertain. If businesses are going to seize the opportunity to accelerate into a more inclusive future, they need to be held to account; progress needs to tangible, monitored and measurable. Men in leadership positions also need to recognise the benefits that diverse leadership can bring, and have an important role to play as allies in accelerating progress. Unless women have access to all areas – including those at the very top of our financial services – it may well be a case of one step forward, and two steps back. In which case, banks may well pay the price.
To find out more about how businesses are opening the door to diverse talent and driving gender parity, read our Women in Business report and diversity and inclusion insights.