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Where are all the women?

Yesterday, I was at a briefing event for Bank and Building Society CEO’s, held at the Prudential Regulation Authority’s headquarters in the City.

As we arrived, it quickly became clear that in a line of men in suits, I was the only woman – and as I entered the auditorium, my suspicions were confirmed. Amongst 150 or so male CEO’s, there were perhaps five women present.

So it begs the question: where are the women? Within both Fintech and banking, there’s still such a marked gender imbalance when it comes to those top spots, and as a female CEO, I’m still comparatively – even in 2017 – one of few. Despite the great work being done to raise the profile and professional confidence of women, I was still only one of about five female CEO’s at this prestigious event. But why?

There’s clearly still a gender bias at play, which isn’t really surprising considering how deeply entrenched some of the old attitudes are, and how much it takes to change systemic imbalances of power. I’ve seen and been through it all, to get to the position I’m in today, and have experienced first hand the toxic consequences of gender inequality.

And that’s why it’s so important for me to get things right at Starling. I want to build a culture that champions and elevates brilliant women, and instils in them the confidence and career growth to reach those high-profile positions and achieve their fullest potential. It’s been reported that women account for only 7% of board chairs and 6% of chief executives in the largest companies in the EU – and this shouldn’t be the case.

As I walked into the event yesterday, I started to think about all the advice I wish I’d been given as a woman at the beginning of my career – and how the lessons I’ve learned through decades of experience might benefit a new generation of women hoping to make their way in these male-dominated industries. Here are just a few of them…

Networking is hard

And it’s harder for women. Walking into a group of men can feel intimidating at the best of times, and breaking into the conversation of a group of four high status men at a networking event – who often all know each other – is even harder.

Most women in a professional capacity have at one point or another, felt themselves talked over or interrupted in favour of a louder male voice. The male ‘alpha’ position is something that we’re unconsciously taught as both men and women from a young age – but it’s just another example of gender bias.

My advice for young women trying to connect or network in a professional environment? Don’t be afraid. As Sheryl Sandberg says, “we need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored”. Stand your ground and make your voice heard; don’t be afraid to say ‘I haven’t finished my point yet’ or to lead the conversation. What you have to offer is just as valuable as anyone else – so don’t let imposter syndrome or ‘intimidating’ company hold you back.

Don’t underestimate the power of unconscious bias

It’s an unfortunate truth that in a room packed full of CEO’s, people sometimes still assume that I’m not one of them, because of my gender.

Given my wealth of experience and years spent in highly senior leadership roles, this seems faintly unbelievable – but shows that even when you do get to the ‘top’, you can still encounter unfair stereotyping and belittling assumptions. Even yesterday, I was asked what I ‘did’ at Starling – which was amusing, as in a room exclusively full of CEO’s, I was unlikely to be anything but!

But still, the assumptions remain. My advice? Use it as the fire and fuel you need to power you to that top role. Until the entrenched issues around gender are changed from within, you’ll unfortunately still come across sexist attitudes from time to time – but the way to beat them, is just that – to beat them!

Be the best in your field, go for those top positions, demand the same treatment as others and never give up. We need women like you to reach these positions of power so that we can change things from within – and so it can filter down the chain and through the culture for the benefit of everyone.

Don’t let a few bad apples spoil the barrel

I think it’s important to note that your relationships with the men you work with are still important. While it can be incredibly valuable to have nurturing female mentors as a woman, there are still a lot of great men who can provide essential advice and career mentoring – and they shouldn’t be overlooked just because of the sometimes complex relationship between genders.

But that’s why it’s important to work for a company that has the right values – because then they’ll hire the the right people. Finding a mentor with the right set of skills and experience (rather than the right gender) is instrumental to your success. With the assumption that you feel comfortable and respected by the person you’re working with (regardless of gender) there’s no reason why you can’t foster valuable relationships with the men that you work with and learn from – and, of course, benchmark yourself against them!

It’s important that the company you work for actively tries to employ people who share great values. I’ve noticed that most of the men who hold senior positions at Starling have partners in professional and engineering roles, and most share the childcare responsibility equally. We try as far as possible to hire the kind of men who see a woman’s success as not a threat to their own – but as something that benefits everyone. Try, where possible, to work for a company that does the same.

“Men are ‘assertive’ – but women are ‘bossy’.”

If you’re a woman, you’ve probably heard something similar to the above at some point during your career. Yesterday, I met a business colleague for a coffee on the way home. I mentioned where I’d been, and was asked whether a female mutual acquaintance of ours had been there – and that ‘she’s done a great job, but there’s something about her I don’t like – although no, I’ve never met her’.

This is sadly fairly common. It’s an unfortunate truth that if a woman is judged to be something other than ‘nice’ in the workplace – say, assertive, or powerful, or argumentative, or strong-willed – she’ll be instantly blacklisted as ‘difficult’ or ‘bossy’. A man with similar attributes, however, is usually respected and admired for his strength, confidence and decisiveness. This was the case in the 80’s, and it’s still – rather unbelievably – often the case now.

It feels unfair, and prejudiced – and it can really hurt. But you have to be strong enough to rise above it, and understand that you don’t have to be likeable – you just have to be good. That doesn’t mean that rudeness or a bad attitude are OK, of course – it just means that you don’t need to fulfill some antiquated idea of female ‘politeness’ or ‘niceness’ in order to succeed.

Trust your instincts, and try not to worry too much about what people think. I realise that I’m speaking from a privileged position now – but I’ve been there too, which is why I’m so passionate about addressing this subject now that I have more power and agency (and therefore, more of a voice).

It’s important to learn early on that you don’t ‘owe’ anyone anything, and you don’t need everyone to like you in order to reach your goals. The people who are worth knowing professionally won’t be threatened by a strong woman who is great at her job and speaks her mind.

A final note

At Starling, we’re champions of equality and diversity, because we know that it takes a mix of people from all walks of life and cultures to create a truly exceptional company. I’m an optimist, and I believe that by giving a range of people opportunities – both male and female – we really can create a fairer society, and give people of all genders and backgrounds a fulfilling and exciting career. From encouraging women to become engineers and flexible working through to teaching coding in the office and mentoring, everyone at Starling is totally committed to this vision – and I’m proud to lead it.