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Breaking Barriers, Confronting Industry Challenges

In an empowering confluence at the Women in Financial & Fintech Industry (WIFFI) unconference, hosted by Financial Technology Frontiers in Canada, prominent leaders and pioneers gathered to address the unique challenges faced by women in the sector. This meet, supported by The Next Innings, TIE Toronto, Techpreneurs, and IBM, brought together voices from various echelons of the industry, including enterprise transformation consultants, venture capitalists, and fintech innovators.

The discussions shed light on the persistent challenges that women face in the financial and fintech sectors, from systemic inequities in funding to obstacles in career advancement. The insights shared by these leaders not only illuminate the path forward but also call for a concerted effort to address and overcome these barriers, ensuring a more equitable and inclusive future for all women in finance and fintech.

Annabelle Sarzana, a consultant in enterprise transformation and change, emphasized the need for workplaces to not only recognize the skills of women but to genuinely acknowledge their competencies and contributions. She highlighted the barriers that new entrants, especially women, face when integrating into new environments and cultures. Sarzana pointed out the slow progress in achieving wage parity, noting a minimal increase over two decades, and stressed the importance of effective communication and mentoring in facilitating smoother transitions for women entering the workforce.

Laura Scarlett, mentor at Matrix Mortgage Global and venture lead at Novella, a black-owned accelerator, addressed the significant disparity in venture capital funding for women-led startups. Despite women constituting a significant portion of the entrepreneurial landscape, they receive a fraction of available venture capital funds compared to their male counterparts. Scarlett underscored the systemic issues at play, including a lack of female leadership in influential positions and biased grant programs that disadvantage women entrepreneurs.

Shangeetha Jeyamanohar, Director of Fintech Partnerships & Innovation at Scotiabank, shared insights from the ‘Elevate’ group, which focused on helping women ascend from middle management. The discussion highlighted the necessity for organizations to foster environments where women can thrive and ascend into leadership roles.

Nikki Patel, Senior Manager of Client Strategy at CIBC, spoke on behalf of the ‘Engage’ team, which delved into strategies to support women returning from extended leaves, such as maternity leave. The focus was on ensuring successful reintegration and continued career progression for these individuals, underscoring the need for supportive measures that address the unique challenges faced by returning mothers.

The conversation also turned to the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) metrics. Annabelle Sarzana questioned the authenticity of hiring practices that prioritize checking DEI boxes over recognizing the true talents brought by new hires. She shared her personal experiences with interns who were underestimated and highlighted the importance of providing them with meaningful opportunities to build their confidence and skills.

Laura Scarlett, a mentor and venture lead, brought to light some stark statistics that paint a troubling picture of gender disparity at the highest levels of financial firms. Despite women’s evident capability and the gradual increase in their presence in the workforce, they remain significantly underrepresented in decision-making roles. Only 11% of check writers in venture capital are women, and a mere 2% hold positions as general partners.

Scarlett questioned the slow progress in achieving gender parity on corporate boards, where women’s representation seldom exceeds 30%. This gap in leadership is critical because it directly influences corporate policies, including those related to mentorship and advancement opportunities for women.

The discussion highlighted an essential point: the reliance on personal revelations – such as male team members realizing the importance of diversity only through family connections – is an insufficient and somewhat patronizing approach to addressing gender inequality. It underscores a systemic issue where women are often seen not as equals but as beneficiaries of sympathy or paternalistic support.

Scarlett emphasized the necessity for women to challenge the norms of self-doubt and hesitancy that society has ingrained in them. She argued for a proactive stance, encouraging women to pursue opportunities even before they feel fully prepared, combating the social conditioning that discourages risk-taking.

The need for transparency in compensation and contractual dealings was another critical area of discussion. By demystifying the financial aspects of careers, women can better navigate and negotiate the landscapes of their respective fields. Scarlett advocated for stronger policies that enforce gender parity, particularly on boards and in executive teams, which would pave the way for more equitable treatment across all levels of a company.

Navigating Systemic Challenges

Shangeeta Jeyamanohar’s insights further delve into the systemic challenges women face in navigating professional landscapes that are traditionally dominated by male networks. Her observation highlights a crucial aspect of the corporate world where pathways to the top are often informally structured through existing relationships and networks that do not typically include women. This lack of access can stifle talented women from reaching leadership roles simply because they do not have the ‘right’ connections.

Jeyamanohar pointed out that many at the top fail to recognize not just their biases but also the privilege that facilitated their ascension. This acknowledgement is essential for understanding how systemic inequalities are perpetuated and what needs to change to create a more inclusive environment. The comfort of similarity which often guides promotions within firms, excludes diverse talents and perspectives that women bring to the table.

The discussion also touched upon the necessity for women to advocate for themselves to gain visibility within their organizations. Unlike their male counterparts, who may benefit from existing networks and sponsorships, women often find themselves needing to carve out their own opportunities for exposure. Employee resource groups were mentioned as an example where women can demonstrate leadership, though these roles are sometimes undervalued compared to other direct business-driving positions.

A significant part of the conversation revolved around the difficulty of finding sponsors within the industry. Sponsorship is critical for career advancement as sponsors can advocate for an individual’s promotion and inclusion in strategic projects, which are essential for climbing the corporate ladder. The lack of natural pathways to finding sponsors means that women must often go above and beyond to make connections that might be more readily available to their male peers.

To combat these entrenched issues, there is a pressing need for organizations to reevaluate how they develop and maintain their networks and sponsorship programs. By instituting more formalized mentorship and sponsorship initiatives that actively include diverse groups, companies can ensure that all talented individuals, regardless of gender, have the opportunity to rise to leadership roles.

Segmenting Leadership Roles

During the discussions, Shangeeta and Shruti illuminated the issue of women being predominantly placed in non-functional leadership roles, such as in HR or marketing, rather than in roles involving profit and loss (P&L) responsibilities. This trend not only limits women’s influence on key business outcomes but also narrows their opportunities for advancement to the highest echelons of corporate leadership, such as C-suite positions. Although there are notable exceptions of women who have reached CEO positions, these instances are rare and underscore the broader trend of gender imbalance at the top.

The conversation also touched on concerns regarding succession planning within major banks, where it appears that women are often overlooked for top executive roles. This issue points to a significant gap in how institutions prepare for future leadership and the systemic barriers that continue to impede women’s ascent in the banking sector. The heartbreak expressed by Awasthi over the lack of female candidates in line for top roles after decades of contributions by women in banking highlights a crucial area for reform.

Career Gap Challenges

Nikki Patel brought to light the specific challenges faced by women returning from maternity or long-term disability leave. Misconceptions about these leaves contribute to a devaluation of women’s professional commitments and capabilities upon their return. The substantial professional setbacks faced by women during these periods – such as missed promotions and lost income – further exacerbate gender disparities in the workplace. Patel’s comments underscore the need for workplaces to better support and reintegrate women who take leave, recognizing the value they continue to bring.

Awasthi’s reflection on the inherent conflict between women’s career and biological clocks brings to the forefront the difficult choices many women face in balancing family life with professional aspirations. This dilemma often forces women to make career sacrifices during prime reproductive years, a challenge that is not equally shared by their male counterparts.

The overarching sentiment from the discussion was one of relentless challenge. From entry-level positions to attempts at breaking into the c-suite, women continuously confront systemic barriers. The cyclical nature of these challenges underscores the need for structural changes across the industry to support women at all stages of their careers.

Corporate Culture Shift

The insights shared during the panel reflect a pressing need for organizations to reassess their policies and practices to foster an environment where women can thrive equally. This includes rethinking leadership development programs, succession planning, and support systems to accommodate and leverage the unique life cycles of all employees, particularly women. Only through such comprehensive changes can the finance and fintech industries hope to achieve true gender parity and inclusivity.

Annabelle Sarzana’s comments highlight a critical issue in many workplaces: the myth of meritocracy. Despite the efforts and contributions made by women, there is often a perception that what they bring to the table is never enough. This imbalance becomes more pronounced when considering the extra hours and meticulous work that women frequently put in, which go unrecognized and unrewarded. Sarzana stresses that a true merit-based system should fairly measure and recognize these efforts, not sideline them into a checkbox of expectations.

Shruti Awasthi elaborates on the double standard that women face when exhibiting ambition. While ambitious men are lauded, ambitious women are often labeled as aggressive and undesirable in the workplace. This difference in perception creates an additional hurdle for women who must carefully balance assertiveness with approachability, navigating a much narrower path to success than their male counterparts.

Systemic Issues

Audience member Aditi Yagnik shares a personal experience that encapsulates the gender disparity in promotion and compensation. Despite equal qualifications and greater work input than her male colleague, Yagnik had to fight for recognition and promotion-a struggle that took an additional year to resolve, highlighting the systemic reluctance to acknowledge and reward women’s contributions on par

with men’s.

Another audience member brings an intersectional perspective to the discussion, emphasizing the compounded challenges faced by women of colour. Her testimony sheds light on the extra layers of bias that can prevent women, particularly black women, from being recognized for their capabilities and contributions. This lack of recognition not only hinders personal career advancement but also reflects broader systemic failures to inclusively support diversity.

The conversations at the panel illustrate the pervasive challenges women face across different levels and sectors of the workforce. From systemic biases in promotion and compensation to cultural stereotypes about ambition and assertiveness, women continue to navigate a workplace that often undervalues and underestimates their contributions.

To move toward genuine equity and inclusion, organizations must critically assess their policies and practices to ensure they not only accommodate but actively support the advancement of all employees, regardless of gender or race. This involves dismantling outdated notions of meritocracy that fail to account for the diverse ways in which individuals contribute to corporate success. By fostering an environment where merit truly reflects effort and achievement, and ambition is celebrated irrespective of gender, businesses can begin to address the deep-rooted inequities that have long plagued the workplace.

The overarching message of the gathering was one of empowerment of women and urgent action. Women in finance and fintech are urged to not only aspire to but actively pursue leadership roles. This involves demanding seats on boards, seeking executive positions, and advocating for fair compensation. The goal is clear: dismantle the barriers and redefine the norms that have long hindered women’s progress in these industries.


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