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“It’s about breaking our own stereotypes”: Women in the ‘C-suite’ tell it as it is

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Is gender diversity a mere box-ticking exercise? What can be done to bridge the salary gap? Is discrimination or bias still a thing? What was your experience like? What will you tell the next generation of females leaders?

These are some of the questions we asked female leaders in private banking and asset management for this International Women’s Day.

HSBC Private Banking
In Asia’s private banking industry, gender balance is way better achieved than other segments of the banking industry, according to Tan Siew Meng, APAC regional head.

Tan Siew Meng, HSBC

While a lot of senior leaders are male, Tan said there is a tendency for men to network better with each other. So, as a female, unless you make double or triple the effort, it can be difficult to get into that particular ecosystem. That’s why having a supporting group for the female employees within the organisation is crucial.

“Women need to be more confident in themselves,” she continued. “Sometimes, even for me, we assume that we cannot achieve something because of our gender, and decide to give up before even trying. It is important to let your boss know of your aspirations and have constant conversations.”

HSBC aims to have 35% women in senior leadership roles by 2025.

Pamela Hsu Phua, VP Bank

VP Bank
Asia CEO Pamela Hsu Phua feels gender labels sometimes limit rather than expand us and often we are our own worst enemy. “So in any industry, it is about breaking our own stereotypes and the glass ceiling in our minds,” she said.

“I’m sure everyone of us has encountered such unpleasantness at different stages in our career and to differing degrees. Rather than dwelling on the specifics of these experiences, I drew strength from them.”

Phua recalled her earlier days, when she first came to Hong Kong to work for a bank that did not have a strong presence in Asia: “I went literally door-to-door to introduce and promote the bank. You can imagine the level of rejections that I initially received,” she said. “But in the end, I managed to grow the intermediaries business into one of the largest in Asia.”

Of VP Bank’s Asia management committee, 30% is female.

Diana Ng, Bank Julius Baer

Bank Julius Baer
Diana Ng, APAC CFO of Bank Julius Baer, witnessed unconscious bias in the early part of her career where [male] colleagues with similar interests or hobbies as their managers were given more opportunities for career advancement.

Her advice to future women leaders is challenges and setbacks are not unique to women. “As Albert Einstein once said ‘If you’ve never failed, you’ve never tried anything new’. Women should be encouraged to dream big, think big and if you fail, all is not lost. And when you get a seat at the table, be a voice for the unheard.”

“As a manager now, I firmly believe we should respect and celebrate diversity in the workplace because I know how powerful it is to have different voices of a diverse workplace,” Ng said, adding that “gender diversity is much more than a box-ticking exercise.”

Bank Julius Baer is striving for 30% female representation at senior management level by the end of 2023.

Madeline Ho, Natixis IM

Natixis Investment Managers
During her mentorship journey, Madeline Ho has heard stories about how interviewees have been asked difficult questions on how to blend in a male-dominated work environment. “So, some biases in the workplace still exist,” the Singapore CEO said.

However, on a personal level, Ho has not encountered discrimination in workplaces. In her younger days, she had to struggle between family and work commitments when her children were young — but thankfully, she had domestic help.

“Women have always been perceived as the primary caregivers of their families and can be pressured to give up their careers,” Ho said “To close the gender gap, employers should treat returning female employees fairly and award them for what they deserve rather than penalise them for the time they lost. Skill upgrading too is important to stay in touch with the world.”

Amy Lo, UBS GWM

UBS Global Wealth Management
Thirty years in the industry has convinced Amy Lo that gender diversity is “never” a box-ticking exercise, and comes with actual benefit to the business.

“Within the wealth management team in APAC, over 60% of employees are female, while within the wealth management team in Hong Kong, over 70% of employees are female,” said the co-head wealth management, Asia Pacific, and CEO, Hong Kong.

“Regarding salary gap, we underwent an internal audit entrusted to PwC proving that the bank applies equal pay for women and men.”

Marina Lui, UBS GWM

When she first joined the wealth management sector, recounts Marina Lui, head of wealth management for China, most internal or client meetings were 90% male dominated. Now, about 80% of her top producers are women. “It is important to face any bias with positivity instead of fear, and to take it as an opportunity to prove your own value and worth.”

Pictet Asset Management
Junjie Watkins, Asia ex-Japan CEO, believes in “staying curious and staying true to herself”. She grew up in mainland China, and her family hoped that she would stay in the “comfort zone”. Meaning going to school in the same neighbourhood and getting a job in the same city.

Junjie Watkins, Pictet AM

“Yet since I was young, I have always had strong curiosity to gain new experiences,” Watkins recalls. “The aspiration to step out of the comfort zone led me to decisively pursue my master degree in the UK where I then started my career in finance.”

Looking back on her career, Watkins feels lucky as it was a smooth journey. Nevertheless, she feels that in general, discrimination remains a social challenge. Watkin’s advice to women is to be “genuine” and “courageous”. “Showing your vulnerability, is crucial for authentic leadership. In my experience, I found it a strength, rather than a weakness that it’s often mistaken for. It helps us gain support and understanding at work when needed,” she explained.

Wong Chien Chien, Credit Suisse

Credit Suisse
Ensuring pay equality requires a set of measures that extend beyond legal requirements, points out Wong Chien Chien, CEO Singapore and COO of Asia Pacific. She said companies should create a transparent compensation system and metrics to help mitigate the wage gap.

“I would encourage everyone to speak up as and when they encounter discriminatory or biased behaviour, even if such behaviour comes across as unintentional,” Wong said.

Young Jin Yee, Credit Suisse

Unconscious bias is still quite common, according to Young Jin Yee, deputy head of wealth management Asia Pacific, and head of wealth Management, Singapore location.

Earlier in her career, there were times when Young was the only female in management, and that made her realise the importance of nurturing female talent. A challenging situation she faced was having meetings across different time zones which resulted in late nights in the office.

“From this experience,” she added, “I believe that offering a flexible working arrangement where calls can be taken at home to ensure better work-life balance can encourage more women to take on larger responsibilities.”