Spotlight on female FinTech leaders continued: breaking glass ceilings

Although more women are entering the FinTech industry, their representation in leadership positions is lacking. Female executives in the industry provide their thoughts on how much of the blame lies with society, and what those hoping to break glass ceilings can do about it.

Last week, FinTech Global spoke to a number of successful women in senior positions in the industry, discussing the career challenges they’ve encountered, and what can be done to achieve greater gender equality. In a follow-up article, FinTech Global explores their insights regarding what could be holding some women back from leadership positions.

What is encouraging is we are seeing more women enter the tech and finance industry, and more than ever before are in leadership positions. There is still a long way to go, however. According to RegTech firm IDmissions’s chief operating officer Angela Schmuck, women must be given opportunities to lead and have a seat at the table but they must be chosen based on their work ethic and results, not their gender.

Remonda Kirketerp-Møller, founder and CEO of RegTech firm Muinmos, agreed. “I think it’s very important to encourage more women into senior roles, but we should not lower the quality in order to achieve this,” she said. “There are many extremely competent women out there and we should earn our senior role and work as hard as our counterparts and not promote people into senior roles largely because they are women.”

According to the FinTech Diversity Radar research, published by global data and analytics firm findexable, women account for less than 20% of all senior and C-level executives. Moreover, of all the female executives at the world’s leading FinTechs, less than one in ten sit in the CEO’s office. Instead, women remain clustered around roles such as head of HR, chief people officer, or chief marketing officer, and are underrepresented in sales, strategy and finance.

Societal and systemic

What is holding women back in the application process, or once they have arrived in the industry? Does it lie with the individual: is it a self-belief issue, or a wider societal and systemic one?

IDmission’s Schmuck said it is both. “If a woman’s experience in her career has always shown that men run things, then that is probably her default belief. But if she has had the opportunity to work in a more inclusive environment, she will more likely pursue leadership opportunities.”

Similarly, Marsha Parker, chief strategy officer and founder of eflow Global, which provides regulatory compliance solutions to the financial services industry, said FinTech’s gender diversity problem is both societal and systemic, and that can feed into the confidence of individuals; the two forces are not mutually exclusive. But, she added, “The wider societal issues holding women back are diminishing by the year, and I think this will lead to the increase in self-confidence required for women to go for these roles.”

However, Jenny Cohen Derfler, co-founder of travel InsurTech Air Doctor, said women themselves have control and responsibility over their own success. She said, “You can easily point to others, but in reality, the only thing under my control is myself. I need to look inward and ensure I’m making the right choices, on a personal and professional level.”

Fiona Tee, chief financial officer at cross-border payments company Currencycloud, said the issue is systemic as well as individual. “From talent acquisition through to organisational structure and business culture, the way you run reviews and provide opportunities, support and tools for everyone, within the framework you operate in – these should all be neutral in tone and inclusive in approach to ensure equality,” she said.

The confidence gap

Tee added that in her opinion, women tend to be more cautious and risk-averse, and less willing to go outside of their comfort zone. As a result, they may be more reluctant to seek new and different opportunities or have the self-confidence to promote themselves. “We need to support women in building self-confidence,” she said. Tee is not alone in this belief, Muinmos’ Kirketerp-Møller also said women are more risk averse in nature, and often prefer to climb the career ladder slowly, proving themselves every step of the way.

This is not a new phenomenon. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, women consistently rated their performance on a test lower than men, even when they were told that an employer would use their self-evaluation in the hiring decision, they still self-promoted less than men. It is easy to imagine how this could hinder a woman’s career progression.

Kirketerp-Møller said she has come across a number of women who deserved to be promoted because of their excellent skills and leadership but turned down the opportunity because they were apprehensive about the additional responsibility and commitment. “Ultimately, they were afraid of failure. It is rare you see this amongst men,” she said.

“Women prefer to often go out as “we” rather than “I”. “I” is a tough one for women and being promoted means you are ultimately standing there alone and can’t share the position with others.  Many women feel the need to share our success and not stand there alone and feel entitled!”

Kirketerp-Møller said she has seen this pattern of behaviour from women in small, early-stage organisations, as well as in large corporates. “For me, particularly as founder of a company, being afraid and taking risks is something I have to get through every day. It makes you stronger but I also recognise that it’s something that’s not for everyone, even for men – although men are better at saying yes to such opportunities and then figuring out the rest later.”

Breaking out of boxes

Besides risk-taking and self-confidence, some argue men and women cultivate slightly different skills that hence lend themselves to different job roles. This would go some way to explaining why those women that are in senior positions within a company in the FinTech industry, are largely clustered in HR or marketing roles.

Currencycloud’s Tee said, “I think it is fair to say that there are soft skills that perhaps mean more women gravitate to certain business functions more than others, for example skills such as networking, influencing, persuasion. Roles in people and marketing are all natural areas for these skills.” This is not a bad thing she said, and we should not try to change it, rather it is other areas we should focus on building representation up.

Muinmos’ Kirketerp-Møller added that given HR and marketing are typical female-dominated professions, it isn’t surprising to find female leadership in those areas. What is great to see however, is that it is steadily becoming acceptable for HR and marketing heads to be appointed to company Boards, and this diversity pays off.

“There’s been a lot of research which shows that organisations with females on their boards perform better and that a more gender equal team results in the company being better at problem solving, having better levels of productivity and come up with more “out of the box” solutions,” she said.

Throw your hat into the ring

More conversations are being had surrounding how to tackle gender gaps, and there is hope for the future, but in the meantime the executives FinTech Global spoke to had some wise words of advice for those looking to climb the ladder.

IDmission’s Schmuck said, “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable in taking a risk on yourself.” Women have to be willing to throw their hat into the ring for leadership positions, she added, some may be working in an environment where they feel they might not even have a chance to be chosen, “but you never know if you don’t put yourself out there.” Importantly, she added that women in leadership positions have a responsibility to ensure other women have the same opportunities when new positions open up.

Representation and visible female role models matter. Air Doctor’s Derfler said, “The more females we see in a role, the more women will apply to these positions.” Schmuck added that some women have been made to feel that they can’t operate “like men” in fast-paced and high-demand roles because of family obligations, “but many strong women have paved the way for us to show that is simply not true.

“It is possible to do both, you just have to work in an environment where this is not only supported but encouraged. Women should not be afraid to make a switch to a new company that offers such support,” she said.

Thinking of the future, Schmuck added, “More and more women are getting involved younger and more women are in leadership companies and even running large scale operations. We all need to continue to lift each other up and the opportunities should continue to expand.”

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