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21-04-2022 09:06

Finance leaders reflect on the gender gap and how to close it

The 2022 SHE Conference brought together Nordea’s Philip Asp and the International Finance Corporation’s Denise Odaro for a candid discussion on gender equality and the financial industry.
Colleagues chatting and working on an online project together

When it comes to gender equality, there’s still significant progress to be made. According to a 2022 study by Equileap, out of close to 4,000 public companies around the world, only 18 have achieved gender balance at all levels of the workplace. Only 19 have closed the gender pay gap, and only around 5% have a female CEO.

The pandemic has taken a particular toll on women in the workplace, with one in three women considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce, according to a 2021 survey by McKinsey.

These sobering statistics set the scene for the virtual fireside chat at the 2022 SHE Conference, featuring Nordea’s Head of Investment Banking & Equities, Philip Asp; the International Finance Corporation’s Head of Investor Relations and Sustainable Finance, Denise Odaro; and Nordea’s Head of Sustainable Finance Advisory, Jacob Michaelsen, as host.

Philip Asp, Jacob Michaelsen and Denise Odaro

‘Stories fit for TV’

The speakers provided candid accounts of their experiences with gender in finance, an industry long known for being male dominated.

“As a woman, a black woman, in the financial industry, having had a global career, I have lots of stories that could make for TV episodes one day,” said Odaro.

She described experiences of feeling invisible in a room and spoken over at meetings – even at the leadership level.

“It’s often not done deliberately,” said Odaro. Rather, it occurs when the “picture you have in your mind of leadership is not this person you’re looking at.”

Asp, one of the original members of Nordea’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, emphasised that organisations must be genuinely willing to change their corporate culture and reshape their power structures. Part of that means having senior leaders scrutinise how they identify talent.

“People like me, a middle-aged white man in a senior position, have for too long fallen into the trap of more easily seeing talent if it comes in a package that looks like myself, although with less grey hair,” he said.

Getting the right ingredients

In terms of solutions, Odaro emphasised the importance of building the pipeline early. She used the analogy of a menu.

“When planning a menu, you need to start from the point of getting the right ingredients in place for the finished meal,” she said. While it’s often said there aren’t enough women at senior levels, it’s important to hire them at junior levels so they can rise through the ranks and one day become senior women, she noted.

Nordea’s Asp shared his experience as a young Swede trying out his wings in investment banking in London. While the gender balance was fairly even in his junior years, the relative number of women shrank as they grew older, more senior and family life entered the picture.

“This was, and partly still is, a failure,” he said.

Odaro added that, while she has never heard a male friend express having to choose between career and starting a family, this is a dilemma many women still have to confront.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us new ways of working, which Nordea will continue to use post-pandemic, including opportunities for remote and flexible working, Asp noted.

“I think we can take giant strides for parents of both genders of small children if we can help decrease the daily stress of the life puzzle… We can help people find balance in life,” he said.

I’ve seen an almost seismic shift in how management-level, boardroom, C-suite and division leaders think, talk about and act upon these topics.

Philip Asp, Head of Investment Banking and Equities, Nordea

Setting targets

When it comes to gender diversity, Nordea’s journey is well underway. The company has a 50/50 female-male split of the board; a one-third/two-thirds split of its top management and a 45/55 split among its so-called people leaders. The ambition is certainly there, with the Board actively setting the direction and KPIs, monitoring and demanding progress, Asp said.

Nordea has integrated gender balance into its sustainability targets and as a factor for executive remuneration. At its recent Capital Markets Day, the bank announced that one of its targets was to ensure that both men and women have at least 40% representation at the top three leadership levels combined by 2025.

“I’ve seen an almost seismic shift in how management-level, boardroom, C-suite and division leaders think, talk about and act upon these topics,” said Asp.

Using sustainable debt for gender equality

For its part, the International Finance Corporation has taken a comprehensive approach to tackling gender inequality at a global level. It has spearheaded partnerships, including with companies such as Uber, to boost opportunities for women around the world. It has also worked on providing access to financial services for women, including through its social bond programme.

Odaro noted that, while the sustainable debt market has boomed, less than 12% of it last year was addressed at reducing inequality between men and women.

“Gender-focused bonds remain relatively rare, even as the market for sustainable debt continues to grow at record pace,” Odaro said.

In response, IFC has, together with UN Women and the International Capital Market Association (ICMA), developed a guide on how to use sustainable debt to drive gender equality. Read the full report, “Bonds to Bridge the Gender Gap,” here.

Asp described a “significant trend” of Nordic companies using KPIs around gender diversity as part of their loan financing with Nordea.

“As we all know, what gets measured gets done. It’s my firm view that the financial market, loans and bonds, will continue to be key instruments used to finance and drive the overall sustainable development goals and achievement,” he said.

Watch the fireside chat

Watch the full recording of the “Virtual fireside chat on gender equality and finance” via the link below.

Watch the recording