Transaction banking calls for role models
Transaction banking has long appeared a male-dominated industry. But things have started to change.
Transaction banking has a reputation problem. Within the industry, it is seen – unfairly – as dour, worthy and technical.
“We’re sometimes described as the pipes,” says Lisa Robins, global head of transaction banking at Standard Chartered. “For a young person going into banking, how many would want to be seen as the plumber building these pipes?”
It is also seen as an area of banking where women are particularly poorly represented.
Robins seems very much an exception, particularly since her StanChart predecessor Karen Fawcett left the industry, while Citi’s Asia head of cash management, Morgan McKenney, moved to be COO of global consumer banking in New York.
Whenever Euromoney and Asiamoney staff go to awards pitch meetings with transaction banking teams, they are generally filled with men, with one or two exceptions.
However, those within the industry say that’s not the reality.
Citi is one of the exceptions: apart from McKenney, it has Debopama Sen as head of treasury and trade solutions (TTS) for Singapore and Asean, Ani Filipova as COO for Asia Pacific TTS and Kanika Thakur as Asia Pacific trade head, a job she took on in mid-August after having been head of trade finance for the region.. All told, women account for 43% of the headcount in Asia Pacific TTS.
“In Asia, there are several other women in leadership positions and we have a number coming up the pipeline, so I haven’t felt that women are relatively badly represented in transaction banking,” says Sen. “But we know we all need to work very hard to increase representation in banking in general.”
Both Sen and Robins note that there are strong female role models in global positions. Robins herself is one, but there is also Citi’s global head of trade Ebru Pakcan, and HSBC’s global head of liquidity and cash management, Diane Reyes.
Koh Lay Ling, regional cash and trade sales head at SMBC in Singapore, says global banks really started to focus on transaction banking as an important business about 15 years ago, and Asian banks about eight to 10 years ago.
“Along the way, the transaction services business has been redefined,” she says. “In the old days, people would associate it with electronic banking, and the people who joined that department tended to be from IT and, perhaps as a result, usually men,” Koh says.
“But as transaction banking has evolved into a business far beyond internet banking and channels, into providing solutions to help clients improve the way they manage liquidity and treasury operations, there has been a paradigm shift in the way people look at the business,” adds Koh, who runs SMBC’s diversity and inclusion network in Singapore.
“Now, transaction banking is about having the skills to listen to clients, understand their needs and pain points. A woman can perform those roles just as effectively as a man.”
Robins agrees. “We need to do a better job on our marketing. It’s a really cool business, and in some respects, one of the most versatile businesses that you can go into. We are an annuity business, but that doesn’t mean annuity is in conflict with creativity.”
So how can more women rise to the top?
Sen thinks of three pillars – hiring, development and promotion into senior roles. Much progress has been made on the first, she says.
“I am a big believer in the second pillar, which is really getting women ready for senior roles,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you have to do something special to get them technically ready, but they need to be encouraged to raise their hand and say they want to do that role, which women tend to be less likely to do.”
Here, management programmes at Citi have been beneficial – and Sen herself says she has benefited from these. “That intervention in the career development stage [was] really important to me.”
As for the impact of the Covid crisis on working practices, Robins at Standard Chartered says it has the effect of being “a great equalizer”.
“In the past, a male colleague in the workplace [would come] to work each day in his white shirt and tie and jacket, and I know nothing about his background because it’s all commercial,” she says.
“Now, on a video call, I see a child running around in the background. That has humanized people.” She does worry, though, that Covid may distract institutions from the diversity agenda.
Sen at Citi says the one positive experience of Covid is that it has “proven beyond doubt it is possible to be productive from home”. But she does recognize that much of the video conference dialogue she and her peers have enjoyed in recent months is built upon the goodwill achieved over many years. She also says that if managers are going to encourage flexibility, they need to lead in that respect too.
“You have to walk the talk,” she says. “If I don’t work from home a couple of days per month, my team isn’t going to do it either.”