No easy task breaking down barriers in the finance industry

Securing a leadership position in the field of finance is a tough nut for women to crack but as the world celebrates International Women's Day, the tide is changing, experts say.

While it is more common to see women working in the finance industry now than 50 years ago, when it was all bowler hats and pinstriped suits, it’s still much more of a man’s world. But on the continent of treasury, things are changing.

Halina Bernard, the treasurer for General Motors Middle East for the last six years, says there is a “real glass ceiling” for women to get beyond middle management in the Middle East.

“It’s more of an issue here than in the US or UK. Fortunately, General Motors has a lot of women in management, especially fin­ance. We also have a women’s council to share experiences and overcome barriers.”

Polish-born Ms Bernard, 46, has an impressive pedigree. With a British bachelor’s degree in corporate finance, she went on to get an MBA with a focus on banking and finance, working at Philip Morris and Infor­mix before GM, and living in Italy, the UK, the US, Switzerland, Bahrain, Kuwait and now Dubai with her French banker husband.

She juggles a full-time career with mothering her 11-year-old son and speaks five languages.

“Treasury means risk management and getting involved in business functional projects,” she says.

“When I started, sometimes I was the only woman in a big boardroom and felt I had to prove myself. But once you get credibility and a track record, it’s much easier. Now I don’t have that issue.”

But, as the world celebrates International Women’s Day today, she says finance is still a tough nut for women to crack.

“It’s harder for women to balance the longer hours of finance – and finance is always longer hours. I know other women working in finance who have moved to other jobs after two or three children, often real estate or consultancy.”

Matthew Hurn, Middle East chair of the Association of Corporate Treasurers (Act) and executive director and head of finance for emerging sectors at Mubadala, says more men are in treasury roles in the region than women, but the tide is turning. “We are pleased to see this changing as more women, including nationals, enter the profession,” he says. “We see the value of having more women on boards and hope to encourage and support more women towards this.”

The Act, the chartered body for treasury, has just run a course on communication and leadership skills for women, which Ms Bernard attended – taking half a day’s holiday to do so.

“I found it extremely refreshing to look at behavioural and confidence issues and get feedback from women with similar issues,” she says.

Mr Hurn says that, traditionally, 75 per cent of the Act’s membership was male; “the balance is now moving towards parity as female students take up the qualifications”, he says.

The former banker and UK government minister Lord Mervyn Davies has been outspoken about getting more women to the top. He recommends that, in the UK, a third of boardroom positions at Britain’s biggest companies should be held by women by 2020.

Speaking at the Act course, attended by 25 women working in finance in the UAE, he said: “It has been proven that the most profitable businesses are those with a company board consisting of talented men and women. Yet women globally – and in the region – are underrepresented on company boards.

“From my work in this area, it is apparent that the key issue holding women back is self-belief. Men and women view risk differently, and women often lack the confidence to say yes to new opportunities.”

Mentoring, he said, was the answer. “I would like to encourage all women to mentor two or three other women. In the UK, mentoring has had a significant impact on increasing the number of women on boards, and I believe mentoring is a true sign of leadership. There are additional cultural issues that need to be addressed in the region, but a lack of self-belief is by far the biggest obstacle.”

Ms Bernard agrees. “Overall, women do not have enough confidence. There are cultural issues too – western women tend to have the confidence to take on more challenging assign­ments than Asian or Middle Eastern women. Women should cooperate, share experiences, both good and bad, and promote and support other women.

“I used to manage a team of 12 – 10 were women,” she adds.” I took a lot of time coaching and explaining that their career belongs to them. Over three to four years they developed the skills to move to the next level and take on managerial positions, not having had the confidence or courage before that to demonstrate that they could do so much more.”

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