Women in finance: pushing water uphill

Fighting for gender equality is an arduous struggle for women across all fields and the financial sector is no exception. Lorna Hutchinson reports on the perspectives of female powerhouses from the world of EU finance.
Valérie Derambure, Véronique Nejman, Vivienne Artz, Mara Catherine Harvey, Fiona Wilkinson, Milda Dargužaite and Susanna Di Feliciantonio

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

13 Dec 2019

A 10 percent pay gap between men and women could lead to women suffering a retirement shortfall of 40 percent.

This was one of the thought-provoking messages emanating from the recent “Women in EU finance: Perspectives from across the continent” event, organised under the auspices of the City of London Corporation and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).

Opening the event in Brussels, ICAEW President Fiona Wilkinson told the story of Mary Harris Smith, who was the first woman to complete the ICAEW qualification but was repeatedly denied membership because she was a woman.

Following the passing of the UK’s Sex Disqualification Removal Act in 1919, Harris Smith was finally granted ICAEW membership at the age of 76. “What is remarkable about Mary Harris Smith is that she made it quite clear that she was doing this, not for herself, but for future women.”


“What I am celebrating is her persistence, her resilience and her determination – I think she must have been quite a remarkable woman. As qualified professionals, we really need to think of these female pioneers who went ahead of us.”

Wilkinson explained that May 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of Harris Smith’s ground-breaking admittance to the ICAEW and to celebrate the occasion there will be an oil portrait painted of her, to be displayed in the Chartered Accountants’ Hall “in a prominent place – we’re absolutely determined that she’s not going to be put in a back room somewhere.”

"As qualified professionals, we really need to think of these female pioneers who went ahead of us" Fiona Wilkinson

Moderating the event was Dr Susanna Di Feliciantonio, Head of European Affairs at ICAEW, who introduced the panellists by asking each of them which words they would use to describe their own professional experience as a woman in finance.

Dr Mara Catherine Harvey, Head of Global UHNW Germany, Austria and Italy at UBS, said, “I guess my best description of what I’ve been doing over the past 15 years is pushing water uphill.”

Milda Dargužaite, CEO of Northern Horizon Capital, said, “My background is in finance as well as government, and especially in the government I would say that resilience is what was needed.”

Valérie Derambure, Deputy CEO at Ostrum Asset Management, added, “same thing, I would say resilience, but we also need some luck,” while Véronique Nejman, Chief Operating Officer at ING France, said, “As a woman in banking and even more as a woman banking in IT data, I think you need a lot of resilience and determination to get there.”

Vivienne Artz, Chief Privacy Officer at Refinitiv and President of Women in Banking and Finance, agreed with her fellow panellists, saying, “I’d absolutely go with resilience. You have to have sticking power and survival in order to get there, but I’d also add bravery – I think you have to be brave as well. Resilience might get you there by way of survival, but bravery will actually get you up the ladder.”

Asked what her take was on gender parity in the financial sector these days, Artz said, “Interestingly, 52 percent of the financial services sector in the UK are women, but the gender pay gap tells a very different story. The gender pay gap in the UK is more than double the national average, and when you look at the bonus pay gap it’s treble or quadruple – it’s absolutely shocking.”

She added that the pay gap itself is in the mid-30 percent range “and we’re not seeing any signs of that diminishing.”

Dargužaite said that the situation in Eastern Europe was “really dismal.”

“To give an example, Lithuania, where I’m from, was the only government in Europe this year where there was not one single female minister. When the Prime Minister was asked why there were no females, he said they were looking for people who were professional.”

"The gender pay gap in the UK is more than double the national average, and when you look at the bonus pay gap it’s treble or quadruple – it’s absolutely shocking" Vivienne Artz

Mara Catherine Harvey said that her home country of Switzerland was “fabulous at giving the perception that everything is wonderful, but when it comes to gender, we are not doing as well as many other countries, especially northern European countries.”

Citing the fact that only around nine percent of senior management across the top 120 companies in Switzerland is female, she added, “We’re only in single digits; we’re nowhere close to 30 percent, let alone 50 percent, so there’s a lot of work to do.”

Harvey said that as a wealth manager, the key question she asked herself was ‘how much are women missing out on?’

“I know how big the pay gap is, but what I want to know is how much less money do I have, by the time I retire? There were no statistics out there, so we went and calculated it and we simulated an indicative Joe and an indicative Jane, and it turns out that a 10 percent pay gap alone leads to 40 percent less wealth [for women].”

“And we know that the European average is closer to 30 percent, which means 85 percent less wealth. Which is essentially a social disaster waiting to happen.”

Closing the panel discussion, Vivienne Artz recalled the opening address on Mary Harris Smith, saying, “What such a 100-year anniversary calls to mind is how much progress we’ve made. We’ve made quite a bit, but absolutely not enough. McKinsey recently estimated that if men and women were paid the same, it would add $28 trillion to the economy globally by 2025.”

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