Dr Samone McCurdy, executive manager of capacity building at the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), told InvestorDaily that the financial services industry is perceived in binaries, which poses challenges to attract a new pipeline of women to the sector.
“We don’t necessarily understand how broad the sector is, and what other opportunities it presents. There’s a lot of strengths in the sector that I don’t think is promoted well,” she said ahead of the inaugural Women in Finance Summit 2023.
At the summit, she and a panel of speakers will unpack the unique challenges women face in financial services and strategies to overcome them.
“If we ask adolescent kids what occupation they would choose, most think about whether they’re strong in maths and science or English and language; whether they’re a caring person or are about making money.
“They think financial services is all about commerce, economics, and profit and loss. It has such a tight association with maths.”
This perception, which Dr McCurdy said has not altered in 50 years, deters women who do not find maths and science as appealing.
To change this, she urged the industry to educate newcomers about the different roles available in financial services that require skill sets other than maths.
“If you think about it, financial services providers share insights and support clients, which appeals to lots of people, particularly young girls and women,” Dr McCurdy said.
What does success look like for women?
Alongside this, Dr McCurdy encouraged the industry to redefine success, as women may measure it differently to men.
“We tend to define success as climbing the ladder. That’s not necessarily what success looks like for all women. Defining success as the rise to power is narrow and a masculine ideal,” she said.
“Interestingly, I think the things that will move you up the hierarchy aren’t necessarily the things that will keep you there or make you a good leader.”
Another concept that is not well understood is the currency that employees use to rise through the ranks in an organisation. Some women may not have access to the tools and levers required to do this, she flagged.
“Many areas of financial services require employees to build good relationships, which is about networking. A lot of that happens after hours,” she said.
“We know that for [some] women in particular, working long hours in competitive industries is difficult, especially in money-making sectors like investment banking. Networking after hours is also hard given their caregiving responsibilities.”
The pervasive gender pay gap
Simultaneously, the gender pay gap remains a significant issue in the industry, with WGEA data revealing that the gap in financial and insurance services is 28.6 per cent (the second highest out of all industries after construction).
Dr McCurdy observed that remuneration peaks for women at around 45 years and for men at 55 years.
“That says a lot about how they’re valued. When women reach ‘mastery’ in terms of their earning potential, there is a sharp decline. But for men, it’s slower.”
The fact that discretionary pay such as bonuses and performance also contribute to remuneration widens the gender pay gap as they are linked with presence in the workplace or networking events after work hours.
Create a ‘coalition of influence’
However, Dr McCurdy is optimistic that “alignment of thinking” and changing perspectives on what the ideal worker is could close the gender pay gap.
She encouraged employers to embed a “coalition of influence” so that the responsibility for change is shared by different levels of the organisation.
The first step is for CEOs and boards to be responsible for gender equity and align with human resources and the diversity, equity, and inclusion cohort.
Subsequently, executives must invest in the capability of line managers as they determine the employee experience, Dr McCurdy recommended.
“It’s important for line managers to demonstrate a gender-attuned leadership for all genders because they’re the ones who work closely with employees every day,” she said.
The moments that matter
Finally, Dr McCurdy encouraged employers to implement a workplace gender equality framework with objectives that cover the life cycle of an employee’s journey and moments where disadvantage due to gender norms and stereotypes could appear.
They include recruitment, remuneration, retention, promotion, performance management processes, succession planning, training and development, and resignations.
“The levers that we need to pull haven’t altered over the last 15 years. We know what we need to do. It’s about how we’re going to do it,” Dr McCurdy concluded.
To hear more from Dr Samone McCurdy about how to empower women in financial services to build a stronger future, come along to the Women in Finance Summit 2023.
It will be held on Friday, 10 November at The Star, Sydney.