Women in Leadership: A Path to Parity

While companies in the financial sector are still lagging behind in diversity and inclusion, France is leading the European Union (EU) in percent of women in the workforce (48 percent) and on boards of large companies (44 percent). However, women are still very underrepresented in the C-Suite and on executive committees, particularly in positions with P&L responsibility — reflecting broader pipeline challenges.

Jennifer Baert is Global Head of Credit Risk Assessment at Euler Hermes, Chair of Allianz Gender Diversity Employee Network globally and head of partnerships at Financi’Elles — the leading federation of networks promoting gender diversity in France’s financial sector. In this interview, she spoke with the Financial Alliance for Women about her reflections on what has worked so far in France and what has yet to be done to get to 50:50 balance in the C-Suite there.

Financial Alliance for Women: First, tell us about Financi’Elles: its purpose, its membership and its work.

Jennifer Baert: Financi’Elles is a financial services sector–based alliance of companies’ internal networks promoting gender diversity. In the past 20 years, such employee networks have blossomed within the sector, boosting awareness of the specific problem women face in their careers and helping strengthen gender diversity at all levels of companies. To support these internal dynamics and their common aim, the networks of 12 companies — Allianz, AXA, BNP Paribas, Groupe BPCE, Caisse des Dépôts, Crédit Agricole, Generali, HSBC, ING, Malakoff Médéric Humanis, SCOR and Société Générale — decided to join together in a sector-based alliance. Financi’Elles is now the leading alliance of networks promoting gender diversity within France’s financial services sector.

The aim of Financi’Elles is to not only support and reinforce one another’s initiatives, but in alignment with a common vision, to advocate for policies favoring gender diversity. We also partner with initiatives and other organizations outside of France to spearhead progressive policies by sharing ethics and common values. Last but not least, our Observatory Committee works with our members’ corporate human resources (HR) teams that are responsible for gender diversity programs to promote best practices and collect workforce data on gender diversity — including employee perceptions of efforts relating to this agenda.

Alliance: Looking at the workforce statistics in the French financial services sector, we see some impressive gains compared to the EU average. Where has it gone well, and what are some of the choke points?

Baert: France is leading the EU in the percentage of women on boards of large companies at around 44 percent. However, I believe we should be careful when looking at this number, because the percentage of women on executive committees is still only 18 percent.

More concerning is the role held by women on these executive committees. Oliver Wyman’s outstanding study last year, “Women in Financial Services,” showed that the progress made in the representation of women has been to a large extent achieved by appointing women on executive committees to HR, legal and compliance, or marketing roles. Making some functions even more represented by women and others even more represented by men is the exact opposite of what we want to achieve. It goes against the reason why we need gender balance in the first place. We need diverse teams because they thrive, perform better, and are more innovative. Assigning roles to genders is definitely not the way to go, so we need to monitor the gender mix by level and function. It’s important to bring more men into HR, legal and compliance, and marketing, too.      

My second concern relates to our industry’s ability to promote women. While the 18 percent representation on executive committees in financial services is the same as all industries in France, the percent of women in the total financial services workforce is much higher than average — between 48 percent and 55 percent, depending on which study you’re looking at. This means that our industry’s ability to convert its entry-level workforce into executive and senior roles is more limited than that of other sectors. In industries where men are traditionally more represented, like manufacturing, for example, women represent only approximately 30 percent of the workforce overall. But they manage to convert a lot more into senior roles, because they end up with a similar proportion of women in their executive committees. If we applied a similar conversion ratio to our industry, the share of women in executive committees would be closer to 35 percent.

Alliance: Some would argue that while representation has improved at the board, executive committee and C-Suite levels, the ‘low-hanging fruit’ has been picked, and now it’s time to double down on building the pipeline of female talent. That includes, for example, focusing on the mid-career conflict, examining where the costs and benefits of a career in financial services is out of balance, addressing unconscious bias in promotion, and overcoming cultural resistance to flexible working. Can you give us Financi’Elles’ perspective on what areas really need improvement and what needs to be done to make that happen?

Baert: I believe it’s important to stop considering gender diversity as an HR topic only. For years, the topic has been siloed because we thought gender diversity was a workforce issue only, but it’s much broader than that. It’s about creating inclusive company cultures. Creating a level playing field where everyone can succeed, regardless of gender, and not be constrained by stereotypes or discrimination or microaggressions.

Gender equality is also a business topic, as the Financial Alliance for Women very rightfully frames it. It’s about addressing women as a customer base in our market management and distribution. It’s a finance and investment topic because it’s about our corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability policies and the role we want to play in society as private companies. So it’s not a topic for the chief HR officer only — it’s a topic for CEOs. So it is crucial that CEOs consider gender equality a priority, especially with digital transformation and the future of work. It is crucial if we want digital transformation to be an opportunity for gender equality and not come at the expense of it, that we put equality and inclusion high on our agenda.

Alliance: Finally, the event that the Alliance and Financi’Elles were jointly organizing, along with Mercer and Oliver Wyman in Paris earlier this month, was postponed until September 29 because of the COVID-19 outbreak. More generally, do you think the COVID-19 crisis will have an impact on gender D&I efforts in France?

Baert: The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented. In these circumstances, human creativity will be key. We need to reinvent our business processes — to adapt. And whenever creativity and innovation are required, diverse teams, with men and women, clearly make a difference. So I’m hopeful that the current COVID-19 crisis will emphasize the need for teams to be gender diverse.

Finally, we sometimes refer to the current crisis as a war. In past wartimes, usual processes were blown to pieces, and women were often given an opportunity to show what they were capable of. That was definitely the case during World Wars I and II when they suddenly played an increased and major role in running the economy with men being away. So let’s hope that the current crisis will give more opportunities to women!

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