Women remain rare visitors to the highest echelons of European banks.
The 25 biggest banks by assets have seen 22 changes in chief executive and chair over the past two years, including announcements of upcoming appointments, according to a Reuters review of senior industry roles. Twenty-one of those 22 jobs went to men.
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Only one lender -- Britain’s NatWest -- has a female CEO, while two -- Spain’s Santander and the Netherlands’ Rabobank -- have a woman chairing their governing boards.
“Tim goes away, so who looks like Tim?” said Claire Godding, the former long-time head of diversity for BNP Paribas in Belgium, citing unconscious bias as the prime culprit.
“It’s usually not a Sarah.”
The review, on International Women’s Day, provides just a snapshot of the industry, yet indicates how far banks have to travel to achieve equality at the top.
It suggests that, while Europe is making progress in diversifying its C-Suite, it has fallen behind Wall Street in an area that could provide a competitive edge.
Some of the most stubborn obstacles to change revolve around the intangible working culture at institutions long dominated by men, such as bosses favoring staff who stay late, according to interviews with more than two dozen specialists including senior executives, board members, investors and academics.
There is a greater degree of diversity within European banks’ wider executive teams, which typically comprise around 10-20 senior managers under the CEO.
The review found that women make up about 25 percent of such teams. Yet the Europeans lag the eight US banks with major global reach -- including the likes of JPMorgan and Citigroup -- where the proportion is 30 percent on average.
The data, collected by Reuters through early February, does not reflect pending appointments which will affect several lenders’ gender diversity. Some banks said they already had female top managers lined up in the months to come.
At the European banks, the most common executive role filled by women was chief human resources officer, a job that industry experts say does not usually involve the level of operational experience that would feed into becoming a future CEO or chair.
‘Room suddenly fell silent’
Citigroup’s Europe head Kristine Braden sees training as a crucial tool to make staff aware of the gender dynamics at play.
“When I moved to EMEA, I became the first woman appointed to one of our executive committees. I remember walking into my first meeting and looking forward to meeting everyone,” she said.
“What had been a room full of cheerful banter suddenly fell silent.”
“Men and women develop relationships in different ways. When a woman wants to establish rapport with another woman, she may compliment her in some way,” Braden added. “Men often banter with each other. Establishing professional rapport across the genders requires building trust with each other.”
Citi’s CEO Jane Fraser, who made history when she became the first female chief executive of a Wall Street bank a year ago, credited work flexibility early in her career when she had young children as a key factor enabling her to rise to the top.
“That phase for me of being part-time working, but being able to be with the kids when they were very little, was very precious,” Fraser told a conference shortly after being named new Citi CEO, referring to her time at consulting firm McKinsey.
“I honestly don’t think I would be here today if I hadn’t.”
The equality drive goes beyond social justice.
“We see a lack of diversity as a lack of competitive advantage over time,” said Stephanie Niven, Global Sustainable Equity Portfolio Manager at investment manager Ninety One.
“Broadening the voices in a room broadens the understanding and context of decision-making.”
Boost in boardrooms
Women are closer to parity on bank boards, partly a result of these supervisory panels being the main focus of governance scrutiny from policymakers and investors. The female representation is about 37 percent on both sides of the Atlantic.
“We vote on board members, so pressure is first on the board,” said Vincent Kaufmann, director at proxy advisor Ethos. “But I can imagine, once we’ve solved those problems, progressive investors will start focusing on management in coming years.”
Some of the industry figures interviewed cited the predominant focus on board diversity as one reason for the lack of progress in the C-Suite.
“With that push for more women at the board level, I think there was an opportunity for women,” said Simone Stebler, head of executive search firm Egon Zehnder’s financial services and
legal practices in Switzerland.
“But there was also the demand for them to leave their management roles and step onto the board, sometimes even without having passed through this executive committee rank.”
Globally, a 2021 study by finance think-tank OMFIF found that European commercial banks fared above-average on board-level representation but lagged peers in North America, Asia-Pacific and emerging markets at the executive committee level.
What’s with the culture?
Despite policymakers’ efforts to reform banking culture, Europe’s sector still rewards inflexible hours, which often favor men, according to many of the people interviewed.
And an “old-boys” network of men helping each other get ahead in their careers is still alive and kicking, they said.
“Every year many talented women are leaving universities and schools -- too few are visible after 10 or 20 years,” said Gertrude Tumpel-Gugerell, a former member of the European Central Bank’s executive board who is now on the supervisory board of Germany’s Commerzbank.
Yet overhauling a company’s DNA is a long-term endeavor, multiple interviewees said. Filling up a diverse candidate list for executive roles can take many years as it often relies on a pipeline of experienced middle managers.
“The easiest part is achieving gender diversity at board level, the more difficult part is actually at the second and third layers down in an organization,” said Gavin Rochussen, CEO at London-based fund manager Polar Capital.
Former BNP Paribas executive Godding, who now focuses on diversity at the Belgian financial sector lobby Febelfin, said some executives were not aware of the scale of the challenge.
“Most banks discover they have two or three glass ceilings instead of one,” she said. “They lose women in the middle of middle management.”
‘Feel it in the bank’
UniCredit CEO Andrea Orcel told Reuters that banks needed to change their mindsets.
“We take this commitment seriously, recognizing that meaningful progress comes not from quotas but from establishing,a fundamental change in culture within our business,” he said.
Elena Carletti, a finance professor at Bocconi University who joined UniCredit’s board in 2019, believes meaningful change can happen quickly if the will exists, citing the progress made by Italy’s second-biggest bank under Orcel and chair Pietro Carlo Padoan, who were both appointed last year.
Of the 25 banks reviewed by Reuters, UniCredit has made the greatest senior executive-level progress since 2019, boosting women’s representation from 4 percent to 40 percent.
Carletti said almost half the CEO’s direct reports were women compared to one under his predecessor.
“The change has been dramatic, and you can feel it in the bank.”
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