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Why is private banking so different?

Private banking and wealth management, where it is common for the majority of the workforce to be women, is the only area of banking with anything like equality of representation. But women are often in junior relationship manager positions and thin out at the higher levels of management. Those women who have reached the top explain why their corner of the industry looks different to the rest and what can be done to make it better.

Different Approach - Different Direction

If there is a positive story to tell in terms of female representation in Asian banking, it is in wealth management and private banking. It’s a better picture, comparatively speaking, than the rest of the industry. But that’s the key word: comparatively.

“It’s all relative,” says Kam Shing Kwang, Hong Kong-based CEO of JPMorgan Private Bank.

“If you’re talking about other lines of business like investment banking, which is still very dominated by male colleagues, then on a relative basis the private bank is faring better. But if you are talking about representation at the senior level, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”

She adds: “I think it’s happening, but still not enough, in my opinion. It is two steps forward, one step back.”

The roster of women in leadership positions in Asian wealth management includes Kwang herself at JPMorgan, Amy Lo at UBS and Siew Meng Tan at HSBC – all of whom are regional heads of private banking. Tan Su Shan had that job at DBS, overseeing all wealth management, before she moved to head of institutional banking to gain wider experience ahead of a potential elevation to CEO, whenever Piyush Gupta retires. Other women in senior positions in this particular field of banking include Pearlyn Phau, deputy head of the wealth business at DBS, and Eleanor Yuen, head of wealth and tax planning in Asia at Julius Baer.

Given the size of the private banking industry in Asia, perhaps there should be many more women in the top ranks. “You can name three female heads?” says one leading woman in the industry, dryly. “Well, there are a lot of private banks in town.”

There’s still a lot of room for improvement
Kam Shing Kwang, JPMorgan Private Bank
Kam Shing Kwang_400.jpg

At HSBC’s private banking business in Asia, women account for 47% of what the bank describes as senior positions and 53% of overall headcount. At Credit Suisse Private Banking Asia Pacific, women account for close to 50% of the relationship manager positions and nearly 40% of the managing director, director or head of business roles. China Construction Bank says it has more female relationship managers in private banking than male. At DBS, women make up 58% of the wealth management business.

However, this is a theme commonplace across banking: that representation is improving at the lower levels, particularly at intake, but thins out the higher you get.

At UBS Wealth Management in Asia Pacific, for example, over 60% of employees are women, but by the time you get to senior management, the proportion of women has dropped to 40%. That’s much better than any other area of banking beyond support services such as HR, communications or legal, but it’s still a significant difference.

Amy Lo, co-head of wealth management for the region, says: “There is no glass ceiling for women.” She adds that she has faced no particular hurdles as a woman in 25 years at the bank. But clearly something is happening to thin out the numbers of women out as they rise through the ranks.

Kwang says that at JPMorgan, the intake of new staff from schools actually has a slight majority of women, before a steady decline at higher ranks, her own success notwithstanding.

“If you want it to be equal at a higher level, you may have to take in more females at the start so they survive through the journey,” subject to their own performance, she says.

“At the same time, you also have to have enough women at senior levels so that there are role models. Success begets success.”

One interesting element of the relatively high representation of women at the relationship manager level is that this in turn starts to attract more women.

“The environment becomes self-fulfilling,” says Kwang. “If women think the private bank is going to be more friendly to them, they will go for that as their first priority. You have to make a deliberate step to create the end outcome you want.”

'Natural fit'

But why does it happen at all? There’s a sense that women, historically, have been considered more natural fits for relationship manager roles than for other banking positions, and for face-to-face sales positions rather than for technical jobs. Whether or not that patronizing attitude was ever the reason, Kwang doesn’t think it holds up today.

“I have a lot of people come to me and say: I assume women make better private banking relationship managers, and that is why you see more women represented,” she says. “I don’t know if I would entirely agree with that. A good banker is one who has the technical skills, the empathy and knowledge for the job, and also being able to deliver advice and solutions to clients. I don’t think there is a gender difference in being able to do that.”

Siew Meng Tan, who heads private banking for Asia at HSBC, agrees. “I do not think there is any reason why there should be more females in the private banking space than other areas of banking,” she says.

She is in a good position to know, having been regional head of global trade and receivables finance before joining the private bank in 2017, and having been country CEO for Thailand and, before that, Mauritius.

“Having done other roles, it’s seriously no different: when you’re leading a business the capabilities you need are the same. The only conclusion I can draw is that it is historic, a legacy of the fact that private banks were able to attract more females in the past, and they have risen to be leaders.”

Lo at UBS goes further and suggests that there are particular attributes distinct to women that mark them out for roles in private banking.

“Women are better listeners, more loyal and more detail-minded,” she says. “That helps them build credibility. Being a good listener helps them be more sensitive and empathetic, because you need to be able to listen to, and understand the needs of, the clients before you can advise them. But they also need to be more strategic and look at the bigger picture.”

As a female, unless you make double or triple the effort, it can be very difficult
Siew Meng Tan, HSBC
Siew Meng Tan_400.jpg

Even if there are more women rising up the ranks of banks, they still face hurdles, some of them subtle.

“So far in my career, if I have been unsuccessful in applying for a senior role, I have not been able to attribute it to the fact that I lost out because I am female,” says Tan.

“But it’s not all rosy so that everyone has a fair opportunity: subconscious bias does come in. A lot of senior leaders are male, and there is a tendency for men to network better with each other so, as a female, unless you make double or triple the effort, it can be very difficult to get into that particular ecosystem.”

It is incumbent on senior leaders, men included, to create the right environment and opportunities, and to reach out to women to make sure they are included in those opportunities, she says. Women, in turn, need to be very clear about what they want from a career development perspective. Having worked out what that is, they need to make that known to their bosses. “Speak up and make sure your ability and ambitions are known,” says Tan.

Jin Yee Young, managing director and market group head for Singapore and Malaysia, private banking at Credit Suisse, says: “The problem around increasing diversity in private banking is that we tend to target the same set of women.” The talented ones who get missed, she says, are those who don’t network and build their visibility with the same gusto as men. “That needs to change and we need to boost our focus on those women too if we want more diversity in private banking.”

Another nuance Young has noticed is a difference in representation in different parts of Asia. At one point in her career she moved from covering North Asian clients to covering Singapore.

“My first team leader meeting in Singapore was mind-boggling,” she says. This was partly a matter of cultural differences. “But what stood out to me was there was not a single female. All the team leaders were men. That’s when I decided that the next team leader I hire will be a woman because there was simply no diversity back then.” Today, roughly half the team leaders are women.

She does think things have improved. “In the past, it was very hard for me to bring in people into my team who know they will report to a woman. But over the past few years, there has been a shift in attitude, and candidates see the advantages of reporting to a woman.”

Worthy goal

Diversity is a worthy goal for several reasons, female bankers say.

“My 30 years in finance has convinced me that a diverse workforce not only attracts the best talent and promotes the right culture, it also taps a bigger pool of knowledge, expertise and perspective,” says Lo at UBS. “When you have a diverse talent pool, you will also attract diverse clients. Women are important for that.”

This brings us to another important point – the changing nature of the client base. Women play increasingly important roles as custodians of family wealth in Asia, and as entrepreneurs in their own right.

“More and more of our clients are female now,” says Kwang. “It wasn’t always the case.” There may be cultural reasons for this, for example the prevalence of one-child families in China. “A single-child family means you are not going to differentiate on gender: if your only child is a daughter, you want your daughter to succeed,” Kwang adds.

In places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, the widespread availability of domestic help means it is much easier for women to thrive in the workforce.

“In Asia, culturally and historically, it has always been the males looking after the business and the wealth of the family,” says Tan at HSBC. “But gradually it has changed, whether because of the one-child family or everyone being given equal education opportunities.”

Does this trend make a difference for advisers? In China, it is common to have service offerings specifically tailored to women clients. Yet a woman in charge of the family business or finances will have the same concerns as a man about the growth, protection and stewardship of the family wealth.

“I come across female clients who would rather be served by male RMs, and others who are more comfortable speaking to a female,” says Tan. “It is not one size fits all. It is very personal in nature and that is why diversity is so important.”

As in other areas of banking, there is much discussion about the impact that Covid-19 might have on the gender divide.

“This environment makes it a little easier for women,” says Kwang at JPMorgan. “I have a lot of colleagues telling me they are finding it easier to cope with working from home. Their performance hasn’t suffered a bit and they’ve also been able to look after their family.”

That’s true in a general sense too: people working in finance have learned that they don’t need to fly around the world as much as they thought they did, and that there are also benefits to cutting back on travel.

“Relationship managers have found that the fact they are not travelling has allowed them a lot more time to spend on building those relationships,” Kwang says. “Some of those client relationships have deepened a great deal.”

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