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The (female) view from the top

What do women need to do to reach the top of the banking ladder in Asia, where they hold just 24% of senior jobs? Executives tell Asiamoney how they have risen up the ranks – and why they think dramatic changes are needed to move the needle on diversity .

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Has the glass ceiling been shattered? It would appear so, based on an Asiamoney survey of banking executives in Hong Kong, one of Asia’s biggest financial centres and home to about 7.5 million people.

Local lender Hang Seng Bank is now on its third consecutive female chief executive. Louisa Cheang took the helm in 2017, a little over a decade since the bank appointed its first woman head.

Angel Ng at Citi, Mary Huen at Standard Chartered and Amy Lo at UBS are all CEOs of Hong Kong banking operations. Women also run the Hong Kong-based, international operations of two of China’s biggest banks: An Liyan is CEO for ICBC International Holdings; Li Tong has the same position at BOC International.

Beyond Hong Kong, there are small, but visible signs of progress. In Thailand, the chief financial officer of Bank of Ayudhya (Krungsri, as it is commonly known) is a woman. At Vietcombank in Vietnam, Phung Nguyen Hai Yen is deputy chief executive of finance. At Deutsche Bank, Chandra Mallika wears two hats – she is Asia Pacific chief operating officer as well as chief country officer for Singapore.

Working in banking is a marathon. You really need to be able to persevere
Chien Chien Wong, Credit Suisse
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More senior women heads of businesses are scattered across businesses and banks, both international and regional, in Asia. The absolute number of women in positions of power offers hope for those pushing for gender equality, but the relative number is less encouraging.

Asiamoney’s maiden 2020 Women in Finance survey, which received responses from close to 60 Asian and international banks, found that on average, only about a quarter of senior management positions in Asia are held by women. Both international and regional banks self-reported their female staff numbers across different levels of seniority.

A report by consultants Oliver Wyman showed that women accounted for 18% of the positions on executive committees and 23% of those on boards at banks globally last year – increases of four and five percentage points respectively since 2016.

The numbers show improvement, but don’t tell the whole story.

“We have made some good progress [in Asia],” says Aude Schonbächler, a partner in the financial services practice of Oliver Wyman, “but what is skewing the numbers is that women take up a lot of non-executive positions at different boards. As all banks are trying to increase diversity, there is more appetite to find women to join board committees to bring different perspectives, and better comply with female representation targets.”

She says senior women representation in executive committee boards in Singapore and Thailand has been above the global average since 2009, but progress has been flat in recent years. On the other hand, in Indonesia, Hong Kong and India, female representation has increased.

Left out

Angel Ng, Citi’s Hong Kong CEO, says that 30 years ago, 90% of the people at a bank-organized management off-site were men, while Andrea Fletcher, Citi’s Asia Pacific COO, adds that over the years there were countless occasions when she was the only woman at two-day off-site events. Chien Chien Wong, Credit Suisse’s Singapore-based COO, says when she first joined banking, there was less awareness of diversity and inclusion, and women often felt left out.

Not anymore. Wong says that awareness around diversity and inclusion has improved over time, and has become a key focus for many organizations. Banks, particularly international banks, have focused on educating managers about diversity and unconscious bias, and have set up female advocacy groups as well as diversity and inclusion (D&I) units to take a stand against irresponsible diversity-related practices.

But it has taken a long time to see any meaningful change. “Working in banking is a marathon,” says Wong. “You really need to be able to persevere in this entire journey.”

Patience has been especially important for all the women bankers with whom Asiamoney spoke for this article. Take Hang Seng’s COO Eunice Chan as an example. She moved to Hang Seng in March 2016 after working at its parent, HSBC, for two decades. She says that in her first 20 years with the HSBC Group, there was one thing that always disappointed her: that she was never part of the firm’s global talent pool because that required a willingness to relocate overseas. But with two children and a husband who worked as a civil servant in Hong Kong, Chan couldn’t leave the city.

“The requirement to check that box was restricting female talent,” she says. “The group eventually removed this requirement because they realized it was limiting the potential of female talent in Asia.”

Once that barrier was lifted, Chan says she was considered for different senior jobs at the bank.

Credit Suisse’s Wong remembers asking to be promoted to a managing director role. She was told her platform in Asia wasn’t big enough to justify a managing director title. But she was sent to New York to work on global projects involving expanding the firm’s Latin America franchise, while keeping her Asia emerging market responsibilities.

The moment you start getting three or four women in the room, that’s when the narrative changes
Andrea Fletcher, Citi
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That global experience proved critical, and gave her the ability to see things in a broader Asia versus global context, she says. “The entire global exposure enriched my leadership experience and helped me to eventually become a managing director.”

A 25-year-long career in finance with postings in France, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore and now Australia is also what stands out for Karine Delvallée, who took over as head of territory for Australia and New Zealand at BNP Paribas in October last year, after being the bank’s chief risk officer for Asia Pacific for about four years.

Delvallée, who has three children, says what has helped most is her family’s support.

“It was important to have the support of my family, to make sure that we can keep the balance and all benefit from the [travelling] experience,” she says. “And it ended up being very successful for them as well because they were exposed to very different environments and today they feel like citizens of the world.”

All the bankers interviewed for this piece pointed out that women do have to help themselves, and that women leaders also need to help other women.

“Women have a tendency to feel apologetic and are shy about accepting compliments despite the fact that they have done an excellent job,” says Wong. “That thinking needs to change.”

Delvallée adds that while there is no real glass ceiling for women, “whether they always have the support to take up new challenges is another question”.

This means many women are championing diversity across their own banks in an effort not only to improve the environment in the workplace, but also to offer their peers some support.

Citi’s Fletcher helped to establish the bank’s women’s network in Hong Kong in 2014, and was the co-chair of the network in Sydney in 2009. Citi’s Angel Ng is the Asia Pacific co-lead of the women’s affinity steering committee, while BNPP’s Delvallée founded the bank’s Hong Kong chapter of MixCity, an internal women’s network, in 2012.

“Women advocating for other women they’ve had exposure to for promotions is a very powerful thing,” says Fletcher. “The moment you start getting three or four women in the room and around the table, that’s really when the narrative changes, and when you can actually start having a much larger impact.”

Career progression

There are stark differences across various countries and banks in Asia regarding career progression for women.

In Asiamoney’s 2020 Women in Finance survey, there were clear leaders. Asia-headquartered banks lead the way in diversity, particularly Philippine and Thai banks, with the top 10 leaders based on the proportion of women employees being domestic firms.

At Vietnamese privately owned Techcombank, women dominate the workforce at 72%, followed by Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank and Bank of Ayudhya (Krungsri), both with 70%. Among the international banks, women account for 57% of HSBC’s workforce in Asia, 52% at Standard Chartered and 50% at Citi.

When it comes to women as a percentage of senior management positions, Trade and Development Bank of Mongolia and the Philippines’ Security Bank lead the way for Asia’s banks with 58%, followed by 56% at Hang Seng Bank and 52% at Bank of the Philippine Islands.

The glass ceiling is definitely broken
Duangdao Wongpanitkrit, Bank of Ayudhya
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Of the international banks, HSBC says women occupy 35% of the top jobs in Asia, while at Standard Chartered the proportion is 30% and at BNP Paribas 29%. About 28% of the senior bankers at Bank of America, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank are women, while at Citi, the proportion is 25%.

Duangdao Wongpanitkrit, Bank of Ayudhya’s CFO and one of two women in the Thai bank’s 10-member executive committee, says she has never felt different as a women in banking, even a couple of decades ago when she started her banking career.

“Though Thailand is still an emerging economy, women already account for more than 50% of the banking and finance workforce,” she says, adding that the glass ceiling is “definitely broken” as there are more women in the C-suite or at the decision-making level now compared to 20 years ago.

Auraratana Jutimitta, chief retail and business banking officer at Siam Commercial Bank in Bangkok, agrees, adding that women are given opportunities to perform and to be in senior positions. She reckons women in the country are not limited by gender, but that it is important to ensure women are eager, and have the drive to take on more difficult and senior positions.

At the other end of the spectrum is a country like Myanmar, which struggles to get diversity right. Ei Ei Mon, HR business partner at CB Bank, says it is quite common for women to leave their jobs as soon as they become pregnant because of cultural and social pressure.

“We as society have some work to do to improve the representation of women,” she admits, adding that gender equality is rarely discussed in the country, despite a “lot of” women holding high level positions in the civil service as well as in the private sector.

All the bankers that Asiamoney interviewed say that an environment conducive to taking up challenges, access to education, networking, support from mentors and sponsors, confidence among women in asking for job opportunities and a can-do mentality all go a long way.

The signs are more positive. Hang Seng’s Chan says that when it comes to the next generation of bankers, “the new joiners are evenly distributed between women and men”. But she reckons the difficulties they will face in future will be very different to those encountered by the current crop of leaders. It will be all about data and technology.

“Technology will become the change engine for financial institutions, so women leaders will need to have a strong grounding in science and technology,” she says. “That is a new area we need to focus on to better prepare female leaders for future challenges.”

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