Professional success should not be based on gender, yet it is a hard reality that women must often work twice as much, be paid less for the same job and suffer innumerous balancing acts to make it to the top of her career. The banking sector is one of the primary pillars of the country’s economy and has played a pivotal role in fostering women bankers of careers although they are still under represented in the top positions of banks.
Research suggests that women make up to 52% of banking sector employees globally but they average only 38% of middle managers and 16% of executive committees. In Nepal, the scene is not that different. However, banks have begun to understand that a diverse and inclusive workforce is critical to the strength and vitality of the industry.
Nidhi Rana, Head of Financial Market and Treasury Market at Standard Chartered Bank claims that Standard Chartered Group and Standard Chartered Nepal conduct numerous programs when it comes to women empowerment. According to Nidhi, “We have a diversity inclusion committee and we make a conscious decision to have more women in the recruitment process as well as in leadership roles. So, when you talk about SCB Nepal, I think the number of women staff in the Nepal franchise was about 38% around five years back and which has currently gone up to 45%. The target is about 48% – 49% in the next 4-5 years. Also, when it comes to our leadership roles, I think we had only 9% of women representation when it comes to management team in 2013 – 2014 and it is up at about 15% as of 2018. At present, it has significantly improved to about 23%”. Initiatives taken by banks such as Standard Chartered ensure that there is a drive to promote gender and women empowerment.
But do women prefer to work in banks? The general belief is that they do. Most women we spoke to found that a career in the banking sector was preferable because of the security it offered and the prestige of being associated with an established brand. Women also feel that banks offer better working conditions, better salary and perks. Aarti Rajya Laxmi Rana, Deputy CEO of Sunrise Bank elaborates, “It is because it’s a transparent industry; it demands professionalism and one needs to be dedicated and disciplined in this industry. The environment in banks make women feel respected and as such women feel more secured working in a bank rather than other industries. Lastly, banking is a very challenging job where you are required to commit lots of time and effort but the perks and benefits are also considerably better.”
Pranu Singh, Head Corporate Affairs, Brand and Marketing at Standard Chartered Bank supports the statement and reflects, “I don’t think it’s just women but people in general prefer to work at a bank. For example, when you go back to a decade, most of us wanted to join a bank. Number one factor being, maybe at that time choices were limited and the banking and financial industry gave you a security for your future and they are also well paying which was quite important at that point in time.”
There is no lack of opportunities for women in banking. According to Nidhi Rana, “There are innumerable and tremendous opportunities for women in the banking sector. And I think it’s a conscious decision also to encourage women at the moment into the banking industry.”
In Nepal there is a case of unconscious gender bias, outdated cultural beliefs about gender roles, lack of confidence among women and added societal obligations. Nidhi Rana says, “The cultural background we come from and the family structure is crucial. I believe half the battle would be won if we would just accept that there is a bias, we would be able to enforce the change in mindset.” Vidya Kumar, Chief Financial Officer at Standard Chartered Bank expresses, “There is an unconscious gender bias, plus there is also this sense even within the women that they don’t put themselves up for senior level roles and when they do, they get restricted when they reach a certain level. So, it’s both ways: it’s the gender bias and it’s also women themselves since they are not confident enough to taking up these roles. But I think it is changing.”
Nidhi Rana shares, “I’ve been in the banking industry for almost 17-18 years. When I initially joined, the professional roles of women were not very demanding or challenging. Normally, women would prefer to take an easier role and perhaps even the backseat. But the current situation is different. I have witnessed immense improvement in the confidence in women and they are taking up challenges and competing for demanding roles.”
Aarti Rana expresses, “You also see many males who have not been able to reach the top. Rather than putting the blame on the gender, I believe that everything seeps down to the individual drive. The commitment of the person counts the most.”
Is balancing both work and personal life challenging for women bankers? Aarti Rana explains, “Sometimes, women feel this guilt that they are not being able to give time to the family or kids. Family and work life balance is very important but it is equally important not to have that guilt because if you are ambitious and want to reach the top, there are bound to be some sacrifices.”
Similarly, Singh expresses, “Personally, I have been quite fortunate as my in-laws are bankers so they understand the pressure and commitments that the profession demands. But this is not the case for everyone. Even if a woman reaches home late from work, there are always questions to be answered”. She continues, “To really empower women, the support system should start from the home. In Nepal and in the Asian society we have to abide by societal norms but to balance work and family life, women need that support system.”
Women in the global banking sector are assumed to be dealing with the ‘double glass ceiling’ effect, where of the 38% of women reaching middle management, far fewer are able to ascend again to executive roles. Aarti Rana claims, “When you talk about shattering the glass ceiling, Nepal already has a female CEO. If you look at the managerial level, there is already 22% female representation. When you talk about Sunrise Bank, we have 17% female in managerial positions. For a man or a woman to reach to a leadership position, s/he has to put in a lot of hard work. I don’t think there is any substitute to hard work.”
Singh counters, “Women have been at a disadvantaged position for centuries so to catapult them to the same level of men needs extra effort. Therefore, I would not say that the glass ceiling has been completely shattered but yes because of the persistent efforts of women and those who support them, we have been able to at least crack the ceiling. But in Nepal we have a long way to go”.
Kumar states “It’s been a long journey and it is still a long journey ahead. We are not where we should be but I think what has helped women over the last few decades has been the legislation. For example, 50 years ago there was no country or economy which had legislation around gender diversity or equal pay or work place reforms. But today almost half the globe has legislation that supports gender diversity and equal pay.”
Awareness has been a major factor when it comes to promoting and supporting gender diversity and equal pay and opportunity in the work place. “There has been research and data that has helped people become more aware and therefore promote and support women in the work place,” states Kumar. She adds, “Pioneers who walk the talk; people who set examples are sources of inspiration. Even in Nepal you had the first woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the first woman President of the country and these are the examples that we women look up to and which helps us believe that this is possible.”
What does more women in higher executive and managerial level positions really mean for an organisation and the industry? Studies show that larger boardroom representation by women actually leads to higher income, higher diversity in thought and well-balanced decision making, better investment decision and risk management. Kumar elaborates, “There are researches that prove that women in decision making position are able to give a balanced perspective and women tend to be less risk takers and pragmatic decision makers.On a lighter side, I read a very interesting thing some time ago that during the 2008 financial crisis, all the firms that went under barely had any women on the board”. A recent example could be of the countries with women as the head of state having handled corona virus better than their male counterparts.
As hiring decisions are strictly made based on the merit of the candidate, it is important that women work towards amplifying their skills. Aarti Rana says, “When we are recruiting, we don’t have, for example a quota or a target that states that we have to hire a particular number of male or female staff. In fact, we hire people on merit basis. We want to attract the best of talent in the organisation but we do encourage diversity and inclusiveness at the same time.”
Singh concludes, “Of course, you have to be qualified and prove yourself, that’s absolutely non-negotiable. I came in with lots of apprehension when I stepped into this role but the journey has been interesting and whatever issues and challenges that I have had has nothing to do with my gender. Had it been a man or any other woman in my role, s/he would’ve faced the same problems. I’ve never felt that I was given an advantage or a disadvantage by virtue of my gender and I guess this is how the organisation is structured. I would encourage all women to pursue a career of their choice. More importantly, women need to have confidence and self-belief, and when you have it, then you transfer that confidence to the people around you.”