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Clearing a green path: women lead the way

Women have carved out an important niche in the field of sustainable finance, moving into the sector early on because of their interest in climate change and the environment.

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Socially responsible investing, or SRI, is a relatively new and different field in financial services – and one where women have played a prominent role from the outset.

Bankers who work in this area say they have a real emotional commitment to SRI and tend to be passionate about causes that are seldom rewarded in other parts of banking and finance. Their jobs are not just about profits or keeping clients happy; instead SRI, and its impact on climate change, social and other issues is a lifestyle choice.

“I really appreciate the fact, every day when I wake up… I am contributing to the sustainability of society,” says Luying Gan, head of sustainable bonds, DCM, Asia Pacific global banking at HSBC.

Gan, who was born in China, wanted to be a police officer or firefighter when she was a child. As she grew older, her focus shifted, but not her goal of making an impact. “Working in green and SRI and ESG [environmental, social and governance] investment is one of the most impactful parts of the financial market,” says Gan, who is based in Hong Kong.

For this article, the terms SRI and sustainable finance have been used interchangeably to describe the sector, which broadly includes green bonds and loans, ESG considerations, clean energy initiatives and social investing.

And what stands out is the high proportion of women who work in the SRI market in Asia.

I never thought I'd land in banking
Eugenia Koh, Standard Chartered
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Acre, a boutique sustainability executive search firm with offices in New York, London and Amsterdam, says that its ESG and sustainable investment search mandates in Asia were split equally between men and women in the last 18 months.

“For new search mandates, it is increasingly standard practice for clients to expect gender diversity in the candidate shortlist,” says Helen Pradas-Page, London-based principal consultant for ESG and responsible investment at the firm. “This is also influenced by more demanding shareholder expectations for more diversity at board level and in leadership roles.”

The proportion of women working in this field appears to be higher than in other parts of the financial services universe, both across banks and among clients and investors, at least based on anecdotal evidence.

Dominique Duval is head of Asia Pacific sustainable banking at Crédit Agricole, based in Hong Kong; she runs a team of four in the region, three of whom are women. Many other SRI specialists – including Yulanda Chung, head of sustainability, institutional banking, at DBS, Melissa Moi, head of Asia Pacific ESG at Bank of America, Eugenia Koh, head of sustainable investing and engagement strategy, private banking at Standard Chartered, and Herry Cho, head of sustainable finance for Asia Pacific at ING – all say they work in a similar environment, with more women than men on their teams.

Gan’s Asia office at HSBC is split fairly evenly by gender, making it much more balanced than other parts of the bank, she says. The sustainable finance team at ANZ, set up five years ago, has 11 staff globally, nine of whom are women.

Visible experts

The women leading sustainable finance are particularly visible, as they are experts in their subject matter, leading panel discussions and new initiatives across the industry, says Stella Saris-Chow, head of sustainable finance, international, at ANZ, who believes that high visibility is in part thanks to the rise of women in leadership jobs generally.

Women have been very active, not only in environmental issues but also in leading the debate and raising awareness, for example by writing papers, blogs and social media posts, adds Singapore-based Saris-Chow. “While women are driving a lot of the development of social responsibility…they’re also driving the discussions around a number of other sectors as well.”

Women working in SRI at banks say there are several reasons why the sector has so many women leaders.

When you are in ESG, you need to live and breathe the ideals
Melissa Moi, Bank of America
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Some say women were able to carve out a space for themselves in SRI early on, because banks did not consider this a core business. In China, the world’s leading issuer of green bonds, SRI has been a way for women to move into leadership positions in the banks, says Duval.

Women have been able to use their SRI work to fast-track their careers, says Chaoni Huang, head of sustainable capital markets, global markets, Asia Pacific, at BNP Paribas.

They played a key role in establishing sustainability teams and practices, says Huang, which meant they could build experience and become the best candidates for leadership positions when banks were ready to build exclusive sustainability teams.

Gan says the fact that SRI was a new and unusual sector may have deterred some men initially. In her view, some of this may come down to social pressure for men to be breadwinners, and for them to become experts and leaders in more traditional fields of finance.

“As a female, I think in some ways I have more freedom,” says Gan.

Some of those interviewed by Asiamoney said SRI was a natural fit for women. After all, how can banks preach about the virtues of diversity and inclusion to their clients without leading by example? As banks make an effort to have more diversity and to tackle gender pay gaps and other problems, perhaps it is not surprising if they are actively hiring women for their sustainability initiatives, says BofA’s Moi, who is based in Singapore.

“When you are in ESG, you need to live and breathe the ideals,” she says. “You’re going to be more mindful about how you hire, how you maintain and how you develop your talent.”

DBS’s Chung is a case in point, having been a somewhat unusual hire for the Singapore lender almost two decades ago.

She started her career in journalism but was inspired to get into finance after she interviewed a woman who led a non-governmental organization focused on sustainable investment.

Chung opted to take the leap to work with people in a position to influence, deciding that it is easier to change institutions from the inside. Fortunately for Chung, SRI was a new field 20 years ago, and banks were more willing to experiment and recruit “outside of the box”, she says.

Motivation

One advantage of working in SRI is flexibility. Sustainable finance employees work just as many hours as their colleagues in other departments, but the greater flexibility helps to attract women, says ANZ’s Saris-Chow. She feels there is less of an emphasis on face time in the office in her position, as well as a more supportive work environment.

There is also a case to be made for the type of work sustainability encompasses. Women are attracted to work in an area confronting issues that disproportionally affect their gender. There are social investing options that are specifically related to gender, but there is also data showing that climate change and pandemics disproportionately affect women, particularly those in developing nations.

“One feature attracting females into SRI is that females, driven by our own experiences, want to do more for our fellow women,” says HSBC’s Gan. “This has been quite a strong motivation, especially, I think in Western culture.”

Duval says she did not plan to work in financial markets initially, but she spent part of her career working in asset finance and emerging markets, something that allowed her to have a direct and visible impact – and which naturally led to an interest in SRI.

There was a bigger impact and role that I could play [in SRI]
Herry Cho, ING
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Similarly, Saris-Chow worked in project finance for 15 years before moving into sustainable finance. She says: “Sustainable finance has acted as a magnet to those of us that have long banking careers but see finance as a force for good or for change.”

She believes women have been quicker to realize the importance of sustainability in finance, inspiring many of them to enter the field early on.

Moreover, the women who have climbed to the top of SRI in Asia have done so in unusual ways, typically coming from industries unrelated to finance so that they are forced to learn on the job.

“I never thought I’d land in banking,” says StanChart’s Koh, who cut her teeth in public relations and later corporate social responsibility (CSR).

But that varied experience gave Singapore-based Koh – and others like her – an edge, especially when it came to sales and communication with clients and other stakeholders. These “softer” skills were, and are, needed to educate clients as they wrap their heads around SRI, what it means for them and how it can be implemented.

When ING’s Cho began working in an investment bank more than a decade ago, she had a variety of interests, and considered a career in mergers and acquisitions and in equity capital markets.

“There came a point where it was really just jarring with my own sense of purpose and happiness,” says Cho. She points to one area of her job that she most enjoys, working on renewable energy projects. “I came to the realization that there was a bigger impact and role that I could play [in SRI].”

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