You Want to Change the World? Help Two Women at Work!

Marisa Drew, an investment banker at Credit Suisse, is a leader in the world of finance.  Yesterday, she challenged each of 340 attending the Women in Banking and Finance Awards to help two women at work, saying that if only 25% of those made it to the top, it would completely change the  financial sector.

Marisa Drew is one of the most important women in the financial world.  She is a regular fixture on those “most powerful women” lists of which the media are so fond. When I saw her speak yesterday at the Women in Banking and Finance Awards luncheon in London, though, I was struck–as was everyone in the crowd, I am sure–by how down-to-earth and human she was.

The challenge with which Drew ended her speech, however, was the spirit that carried the day.  After telling the story of her career journey, emphasizing the unexpected turns and puzzling moments along the way, Marisa explained that she had reached a stage in her career where she wanted to focus on leaving a legacy.  She had decided her contribution to the larger society would be to help young women in their careers, especially in finance.  Then, Marisa delivered a call to action for the whole room.  She asked each of the 340 people present to help two women along in their career, arguing that if only a quarter of the 680 made it to the top of the finance industry, it would change the sector dramatically.

The lounge at the Dorchester, where I held a meeting before the luncheon, was pure luxury. See all those flowers? The lilies in those arrangements sent a fragrance through every corner of the room. Fabulous.

Marisa’s call was echoed in several of the speeches that followed.  Women in Banking and Finance is a 35 year old, not-for-profit membership organization which, along with its impressive corporate partners, helps organizations in finance recognize and develop its female talent.  The annual awards luncheon is a festive event, held at the spectacular Dorchester Hotel across from Hyde Park.  The affair seemed to be attended by people from every segment and level of the industry.

Awardees are recognized for their work in the industry, but also for their leadership efforts on behalf of women.  This year’s winners included: Marion Leslie, a managing director at Thomson Reuters, winner of the WIBF Award for Achievement; Helen Cooper, a senior manager at KPMG was chosen WIBF Young Professional; Safiye Ozuygun, of Citi, was named WIBF Champion for Women; Barclays Internal Audit was named the inaugural winner of the WIBF Team Diversity Award.

I was at the luncheon by invitation from Sylvana Caloni, the outgoing president of WIBF, who attended Power Shift last month.  She invited me to have a table from which to gather signatures for the financial inclusion petition begun at Oxford.  I set up before guests began arriving, putting follow-up cards on the lunch tables and then settling in to hope for potential signatories to come past the table.

People picked up their champagne and milled around, gathering in little impromptu groups to talk.  Several stopped past my table. Marisa Drew was one of the first to sign.

After a few minutes, however, Safiye Ozuygun (who I learned later is the 2014 WIBF Champion for Women) could see that it was going too slow.  She scooped me up, along with my book, and began approaching each little conversation knot.  Every group opened up to us. Safiye held the book and I handed over the pen–and offered to hold full flutes– while each person signed.  The crowd was about half women and half men.  Everybody was enthusiastic about the petition.

Here is Safiye (right), helping me get signatures. In fact, every single person she and I approached yesterday–male or female–responded enthusiastically to the request. Several speakers also called attention to the petition and asked people to stop and sign. I ended up with more than 200 names!

As Safiye and I moved through the crowd, several people told me stories about the need for financial inclusion in the UK.  One young woman told me about her parents, now in their mid-50s, who married when they were 18.  From the beginning, her parents opened shared accounts in her father’s name.  On a recent trip home, she listened to her mother’s worries. Despite having an excellent credit record as part of a couple, her mother had never developed any credit of her own.  If her husband were to leave or die, she would be unable even to get her own mobile phone!  Mother and daughter agreed that the situation was akin to having no individual identity.  And, actually, in historical terms, this was exactly the intention of financial exclusion:  the old femme couverte principle in English common law subordinated a wife’s financial rights to her husband, making it impossible for any married woman to exercise ordinary property rights or even enter some professions.  This principle prevailed in some parts of the English-speaking world (including some states in the US) until the 1960s.

The Barclay’s Internal Audit group, a global team of 620 people in 20 countries, has increased the female managing director and director population at Barclay’s, increased the share of promotions that are female and supports initiatives including a rotations program.

Indeed, another woman told me that when she first started working in banking–in the 1980s–it was still very difficult for a woman to get a home mortgage.  She recounted how proud she had been of her new career and that she made financial plans for herself, following the advice banks gave to customers.  But when she mentioned one day to her supervisor that she hoped at some point to buy a home and get a mortgage, he stopped in his tracks, turned to her, and advised her to change her plans because she would not be likely to get a mortgage as a woman.  “Things have changed,” she ended.  Indeed, they have.  But not enough.

Everyone at WIBF understood there was more progress to be made.  Yet the numbers of finalists for these awards made it clear that women in banking are making waves.  I was especially pleased that Sylvana made this point:  “This deep pool of talent challenges the claim that there is a dearth of women with sufficient experience, initiative or ability to be promoted within their organisations and other public bodies. Lord Davies’ Women on Boards 2014 report showed women’s representation on FTSE 100 boards was at 20.7%, up from 12.5% in 2011. Change is happening and the talent is there but the numbers are still too low.”  The argument made so often that there aren’t enough qualified women to push these numbers up faster is completely bogus–and WIBF’s efforts prove the point.

The spirit at WIBF is clearly positive, but determined.  I had no doubt that everyone there went home resolved to do more–but without fear, defensiveness, or a victim’s mentality.  This organization and the visible support it has from the industry contribute to this constructive attitude.

I could not help but compare what I saw to my own experience.  A million years ago (well, about 1986), I was in corporate banking in California.  There were so few women in banking then.  It was hard not to feel hugely conspicuous (maybe that’s why we grasped at those horrid John Molloy “dress for success” principles).  Many of the corporate clients my bank called on did not even have ladies’ rooms.

I made these postcards to give to people who didn’t have time to sign. Everyone I approached took the time, so I didn’t need them. I will take them to my next speech, coming up in two weeks.

There were more women in the big banks back in the 1980s than there are female faculty at business schools today, however, especially in the field of finance. Between the scarcity of female finance faculty, the paucity of financial women on corporate boards, and the 50 year old English housewives with no credit identity–well, it seems even the women of the United Kingdom could use a little financial inclusion.

It’s not just about the poor.  Please get behind the effort to put women’s financial inclusion on the United Nations’ development goals.  If we get this principle on the priority list, every nation in the world will have to measure its progress toward making financial services, education, and career advancement equally available to women.  Click through here to sign.  

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