Gender Balanced Business

African Women in Global Banking: a daunting journey?

One afternoon, after browsing websites of several global banks, my goddaughter said: “I do not see any African faces in the Management Teams of these banks, is that normal?” Caught off guard by her million-dollar question, I asked her how many women she had seen. “Well, not many” she replied.

The lack of women in leadership positions in the banking industry is a serious issue: according to the IMF, only 2% of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of banks across the World are women.

In a 2017 paper on Women Leaders in Banking, the IMF measured the gap between the representation of men and women in the top management of banks worldwide. In one of its conclusions, it showed that, while a higher share of women on bank boards is associated with greater bank stability, as represented by higher capital buffers and by lower non-performing loan ratios, only 20% of board members of the 800 banks evaluated are women.

When it comes to African women and men - or people of African descent - they are hardly present in the Executive Committees or Board of Directors of the largest global banks. Tidjane Thiam, from Ivory Coast, the current CEO of Credit Suisse and the first ever African appointed CEO of a FTSE100 company, is the rare exception in a sector still largely dominated by Western men.

While factors that entail the lack of diversity at the top of Global Banks differ from country to country, interestingly there are less women in the boards of banks on Wall Street or in the City, the largest World financial centers. The US has 12% female representation in boards and the UK 19%. Contrary to perception, developing countries had more women in their boards, for instance the biggest economies African economies (23% for Nigeria and 18% for South Africa).

How easy then, will it be for an African woman to reach the C suite in the Global Banking industry? Close to none in the short term.

First, the sector lags behind in progressing towards gender balance. Oliver Wyman, a global management consulting firm, estimates that, at current rates growth, female representation in financial services Executive Committees will not reach 30% in 2048! Secondly, internal factors related to the low level of financial inclusion overall in Africa, and the lack of access to financial services for women in particular, are visibly an impediment to the rise on the corporate ladder for African women: the proportion of sub-Saharan African women taking a loan from a formal financial institution was only 4% according to a 2012 report by the Global Banking Alliance for Women. This demonstrates how daunting it is for an African woman to embrace an industry whose products nor services they have not been exposed to.

While in grad school, I recall an African classmate reminding me how tough that it would be for us to grasp the structured finance projects. At that time, in the late 90s, we had seldom heard of foreign exchange swaps, futures and stock options before enrolling in Business School. Hilarious as it was, it was not far from the truth; our finance professor, the late Pr André Farber was flooding us with exercises of an Aunt Simone who had a portfolio of bonds and stock, looking for hedging strategies. It was obviously impossible for me to relate; my aunt owned cows and a few fields but not yet bonds. Derivatives seemed to us products from another planet…

Yet, through personal resilience on one hand, and the will of global banks to provide competent women with leadership trainings and opportunities to harness their potential on the other hand, there will be more and more African women following in the steps of Top Global Bankers.

At the education level, more young girls are enrolled in Economics and Business studies than ever before, with a share as high as 50% in many countries. Nevertheless, this doesn’t yet translate into more leaders in the Banking industry.

In addition to sacrifices that women and men alike have to make in order to move from middle-management to top management, women in any business continue to face a real bias against female competence. Moreover, they wrestle more with the impostor syndrome, i.e. people who believe that they are not capable, intelligent or creative, in spite of evidence of high achievement. Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook cited the devastating effect of self-doubt on her career in her book “Lean In”. Hence, high self-esteem, strong mental discipline, but equally important, a very supportive network of female and male mentors, friends and family are absolutely crucial to progressing in a high-powered career.

Will we see more African women as leaders of Global banks in the next decade? Probably. However, this requires work from the grassroots: financial inclusion of more women, and more importantly, pan-African banks that become global, just as Chinese banks have grown to be among the Top 5 global banks in the last 15 years. A female Tidjane Thiam will certainly emerge, but there’s a long way to go.

As for my goddaughter, whether she chooses or not a career in Global Banking, I know she will excel and progress faster than most African women of my generation. She lives in a society that has now embraced the need for diversity, albeit at a different pace depending on the industry. Mostly, she is more informed, better educated and has been exposed to financial services from the time she was a teenager. She is certainly more assertive, less naïve and more outspoken than we were at her age.

My final word to her: dare not linger.

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