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Banks in the Philippines get diversity (almost) right

In a matriarchal society, it is no surprise that the Philippines has a high proportion of women in finance – but there is still room at the very top for change.

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Marie Josephine Ocampo, Bank of the Philippine Islands

The Philippines is one of Asia’s success stories when it comes to narrowing the gender gap and confounding gender stereotypes.

It is well known that, in the Philippines, women play an important role in society, both as family treasurers and breadwinners. Not only that: they are also indispensable to millions of families overseas, thanks to their work as carers for children and the elderly.

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 report measuring gender equality shows that the Philippines boasts the smallest gender gap in Asia by far. It ranks 16th in the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Index (Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden occupy the top four slots out of a total of 153 countries) and it is the only Asian country to feature among the top 40.

The southeast Asian nation has closed 78% of its gender gap. In terms of economic participation and opportunity, women outnumber men in senior and leadership roles, as well as in professional and technical professions, making it one of only four countries to achieve this feat.

So it is no surprise that women have steadily made a mark on the country’s banking industry.

“Challenges due to gender were never really an issue for me in the Philippines because it’s a very matriarchal society,” says Marie Josephine Ocampo, a 24-year veteran at Bank of the Philippine Islands, who is an executive vice president and head of the firm’s mass retail segment. “Across the organization, gender is not a factor when it comes to hiring and getting ahead in the workplace.”

BPI has a laudable track record in terms of the representation of women: about 69% of its total employees and 52% of its senior management are women. Two of the bank’s four-member executive vice president group are women, including Ocampo.

Across the organization, gender is not a factor when it comes to hiring and getting ahead in the workplace
Marie Josephine Ocampo, Bank of the Philippine Islands

Other banks in the Philippines also have a higher proportion of women than men in the workforce – 68% at Security Bank, 66% at Philippine National Bank, 62% at Union Bank of the Philippines and 54% at First Metro Investment Corp, according to Asiamoney’s first Women in Finance survey.

“The stereotypical ideas that men work and provide for the family and women stay at home don’t quite apply,” says Michaela Sophia Rubio, UnionBank’s human resources director. “It stems from the society being more accepting of the role of women in raising the family and contributing to the finances of the family.”

A close-knit family system, where grandparents often step in to take care of their grandchildren, also makes the workforce more accessible for women, she adds.

This means that in most cases, the archipelago’s banks end up having more women on their payroll naturally, rather than due to any concerted effort to create gender balance.

Yet women have not reached the very top. Many of the women interviewed for this piece noted that none of the banks in the country has a female president and that the central bank has never had a female governor.

Working from home

Perhaps when it comes to these top positions, women in the Philippines face the same issues as their counterparts in other countries: the difficulty of balancing family life and a high-pressure job.

For all of the country’s progressive ways of thinking about gender diversity, it was not until the coronavirus crisis that it recognized the importance of working from home arrangements for women in the finance industry.

Abbie Casanova, president and chief executive of SB Finance, a subsidiary of Security Bank, recalls the many resignations from her female staff throughout her career because they were the only ones who could stay at home and take care of the family.

“I myself have experienced that balancing act in my career and it was difficult raising a growing family of three children and advancing [in my] career,” she says.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has forced banks to be more flexible about working from home, such policies should have been put in place sooner so that women could still pursue their careers.

“More women could have stayed employed in the industry, and worked their way up while taking care of their families,” says Casanova, reducing anxiety in cases where employees had to take unplanned leave to care for family members.

She says that things have improved in the past decades when it comes to women climbing to the top of the banking ladder. “The opportunities are there, but it also comes down to the willingness of women to step up.”

UnionBank’s Rubio adds that firms are now more consciously preparing women for leadership roles. “It will improve over time,” she reckons, “but we’re not seeing a tipping point just yet.”

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