Women bankers aim sky high
It was Chairman Mao who said Chinese women should play an equal role, working in the fields and factories: decades later, women are evident in the upper ranks of the financial sector, but seldom make it to the very top.
Mao Zedong knew how to coin a phrase. One of his best was his exhortation to women to leave their homes and work in the fields and factories. “Women,” he said in 1955, “hold up half the sky.”
It’s an expression cherished by many Chinese people, particularly women, even today. More than one of the senior female bankers interviewed for this story mentioned it – not just in passing, but with a clear sense of pride.
Yet when it comes to gender diversity in banking, China’s situation can be described as “not bad, and mostly heading in the right direction”.
“Looking at the senior management of major Chinese banks, I have come across one woman at president or chairman level – all the rest are guys,” says Citi’s China chief executive, Christine Lam. “I have met a lot of very senior and competent women, but women at the top of the house are still very much in the minority.”
Wang Wei, China country executive and head of Greater China fixed income, currencies and commodities sales at Bank of America, says: “At junior levels, we generally tend to see more females than males, which is true in China as it is in other markets. But higher up, at managing director level, the ratio of women tends to fall off.”
There are good reasons for this disparity. The main one is that the big banks are very much still in a developmental phase.
China’s leading lenders are enormous: Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China (AgBank), China Construction Bank, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China are the world’s biggest financial institutions, whether measured by assets or tier one capital.
Women at the top are still very much in the minority
AgBank only opened its doors for business in 1979, while ICBC, now the world’s biggest bank, followed in 1984. Until the early 2000s, all four were in dire straits financially. A series of bailouts allowed them to complete stock listings abroad and at home.
Since then, they have hardly had time to think. As soon as they adapted to life as listed lenders, the global financial crisis hit. The government ordered them to lend as fast as possible – which they did – before it reversed course in 2016, initiating a deleveraging campaign designed to temper rising financial risks. The same banks are now being used as policy tools to prop up a pandemic-battered economy.
One consequence is that they are now playing catch-up in the areas of governance and responsibility.
Citi’s Lam says that while China’s banks “are focused on talent and succession-planning”, they are “not as conscientious about gender diversity, and what they are doing with it, as international banks like Citi.
“Certainly, when I speak to counterparts at mainland banks, gender diversity does not come up as a matter of priority,” she says. “I don’t sense a lot of conscious effort and focus to accelerate progress there as much as we do, for example, in our bank.”
That should change in future for two good reasons.
First, because of the financial role women play in modern Chinese society – notably, in the way they often budget for the household and manage its investments. And secondly, because the industry is heading down this path. With each passing year, banks are becoming more gender diverse.
“When an international bank meets a Chinese client, whether it’s public or private owned, they are heartened if they see the delegation is led by a woman,” says a former investment banker who now runs a Chinese family office. “Ideally, you want a serious female banker on your China team more than you want a man.”
It could be argued that foreign banks grasped this long ago, as did the international investment banking arms of the big Chinese lenders. Wang, at Bank of America, points out that 79% of the US lender’s China workforce is female, with women making up 68% of leadership positions.
Miranda Kwok Pui Fong, president and executive director of China Construction Bank (Asia), says: “We are happy to see about 50% of the positions at division head level and above in our bank are taken up by females.”
But change takes time.
Lam says Citi’s “openness and resolve and determination to articulate the problem and to set goals, including representational goals, for ourselves constitutes a big leap forward” that only truly started to take root over “the last two to three years”.
Bear in mind that this is a senior banker at the US’s most globalized lender speaking. Yes, Western countries can claim to be leaders in gender diversity and inclusivity, but even they are novices. This is a global movement that has really only just begun, and it should hardly be a surprise to find emerging markets, even a huge and industrially advanced one like China, playing catch-up.
So far, Beijing’s big banks are working on putting the right building blocks in place. Most of them “have not set gender diversity quotas,” notes a senior investment banker, which is “critical to the success of an institution” in this field.
But the setting of explicit gender quotas will happen – it is just a matter of when.
One reason why Western banks have gone out of their way in recent years to set targets is because of internal pressure from staff, as well as outside pressure from investors and interest groups.
By contrast, most Chinese banks are really only answerable to their primary shareholder, which is the state. If there is a lack of sustained pressure from domestic non-profits, it’s because there really aren’t any in a country that lacks a strong civil society.
I never felt I was promoted because I was female
Pressure, then, will build gradually, likely driven by the creation and imposition of global gender benchmarks, much like those that increasingly compare a lender to its peers in areas such as digital excellence, or in its record on ESG investing.
Fast forward 10 years, and the financial world will probably look very different: the industry could well be following global measures that compare Bank A to Bank Z using a series of commonly accepted gender-diversity benchmarks.
You can also bet good money on several of China’s big lenders being global players by then, with an ICBC or a Bank of China competing with a Citi or an HSBC for the best international female talent out there. Beijing’s banks are big and competitive, just like the country itself. On the issue of gender diversity, these financial institutions will not want to be left behind.
Moreover, China is a progressive society. There are, of course, those who continue to believe a woman’s place is in the home, but their voices are rarely heard these days.
Those bankers who were interviewed for this story say they have never felt any particular bias either way, due to their gender, as they ascended the corporate ladder.
“I never felt like I was treated differently due to my gender,” says Rose Zhu, Deutsche Bank’s chief country officer for China. “I certainly never felt I was promoted because I was female.”
CCB Asia’s Kwok says: “I have been in the banking industry for over 36 years. I never come across a situation that being a female will put me into any disadvantageous position in moving up the career ladder.”
In fact China has been a trailblazer in this field for well over half a century. In 1979, long after Mao’s exhortations, the imposition of a strict family planning policy restricted mainland parents to having a single child.
The one-child policy was scrapped in 2016, but for decades it forced parents to pin their financial hopes and aspirations on a single child, whether a boy or a girl.
That in turn meant that for girls growing up, success depended more on hard work and commitment, talent, and a family’s ability to pay for a daughter’s higher-education, rather than on, say, culture or religion.
The interviews for this story reveal the level of familial and societal support that women have been able to rely on in China for decades.
Zhu’s first day at Deutsche Bank was in 2003, in the early days of another pandemic, Sars. When she joined, the German lender’s onshore China operations consisted of 50 staff at two small branches in Beijing and Guangzhou, and a representative office in Shanghai.
After a promotion to the position of China chief operating officer, her job “was to build up our presence and legal entities, and to make strategic investments in Chinese financial firms”, she says. “I upgraded the rep office in Beijing to a full branch, set up two securities rep offices in Beijing and Shanghai, and oversaw our investments in Harvest Fund Management and Huaxia Bank.”
These days, Deutsche Bank (China) employs more than 500 people working out of six locations across the country. More than 70% of the division’s employees and half of the local management team are female.
Zhu says she had no great personal aspirations when she joined the bank.
“I never thought I would reach this position,” she says frankly. “I certainly never set out to be the China chief country officer” – the position she holds today. “I just exerted my utmost every day, focused on what I do, and tried to do it to the best of my ability.”
While it is a fallacy to assume China is behind on this issue, its financial institutions surely have something to learn from the speed at which Hong Kong caught up with the likes of London or New York.
When Ada Ng joined Sun Hung Kai Financial in 1996, it was a solid Hong Kong firm offering wealth management, brokerage, corporate finance, capital markets and asset management. Back then, she says, “the financial industry in Hong Kong was male-dominated”.
All that has changed over the past quarter century. “Women have caught up, and a lot of that is down to our management team being more open-minded,” she says.
Ng, who is now executive director in charge of wealth management and brokerage, points to two important moments in her professional development.
The first took place in the wake of the global financial crisis. Aware that Sun Hung Kai did not have a bond trading division, but convinced it would be a key profit centre in the 2010s, she approached the board with a suggestion.
“I made every effort to convince senior management to add bond trading to our portfolio,” she says. “And it worked. We now have 900 bonds on our platform for clients to choose from, and bond trading accounts for about 20% of our segment income.”
That’s ‘agency’ in its literal form: a company listening to a reasoned argument from a key employee, and implementing what they have to say.
The second was the takeover of Sun Hung Kai Financial by Beijing-based Everbright Bank in 2015. “It was a decision that changed the company,” she says. “They brought in a new management mindset. I was surprised how open-minded they were, that they listened to us, were willing to let us make the decisions, that they approved what we proposed. The chemistry is very good.”
Overall, the future of banking for women in China including Hong Kong is promising.
There are no great secrets here, says Citi’s Lam. “What is needed in China is no different to what is needed anywhere else,” she says. “There has to be more of a pipeline of women... at the organization, hopefully all the way to the top.”
It’s true that few top positions at Chinese lenders are occupied by women, but that again will change.
Deutsche Bank’s Zhu says: “You will see an increase in female talent entering the board level at the state-owned banks and at the main Chinese policy banks over the coming years.” She points to the many women who occupy roles “at the general manager level and just below, and in senior positions at brokerages and asset management firms. The talent is there, it’s rising – it’s just a matter of time before it reaches the top.”