Do company diversity programmes actually help women get ahead?

Executives across the corporate world discuss what works and what doesn’t as companies attempt to diversify their leadership

FT graphic: Kari-Ruth Pedersen

Diversity has become a highly publicised corporate goal, but progress has been slow. As part of our series ‘Management’s missing women’, we spoke with executives tasked with building diversity, as well as women and minorities attempting to advance their careers. This is a collection of their stories, taken from interviews and FT reader submissions.

Share your experiences

Interviews and submissions have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Anonymous

Large law firm

London, UK

I should be a target for diversity as I am a [black and minority ethnic] woman lawyer. However, I find diversity and inclusion initiatives to be quite shallow because of my role as a contract lawyer. I have noticed while working at a variety of large, multinational law firms in London that I am surrounded by diverse women who are also contract lawyers rather than associates. At the firm where I currently work, 100% of the contract lawyers I sit with are non-British women. In general, 70-90% of the contract lawyers/‘paralegals’ (who are actually non-English-qualified lawyers) I have worked with at white shoe/Magic circle firms have been non-British women. Many have applied to these same firms for permanent associate positions, but none has succeeded. Rather, non-British women are pigeonholed into temporary paralegal or contract lawyer positions which offer no opportunities for growth.

The reason we are excluded is not explicitly because we are women or non-British. Rather, it is because we didn’t attend the ‘right’ universities, and because we come from outside the English legal/academic system. Many of us attended high-ranking universities/law schools in our countries of origin, which include the U.S. and Australia; and while working in these firms, we demonstrate ourselves to be at least as capable as the associates who would otherwise perform them. However, the stratified system ensures that we would never be hired for associate roles, regardless of how competent we actually are.

It has occurred to me that while doubtlessly unintentional, this system is effectively discriminatory. I find it deeply distressing, and will likely leave law as a result.

Sarah

Top 5 UK bank

London, UK

In 2012, I was asked to take up a extremely challenging role to transform a team to help it deliver an important financial outcome for the bank at the time. It was a classic “glass cliff” opportunity, but offered me the chance to improve my internal profile and step up to senior management. The transformation was successful and the opportunity to step up was a key factor in further moves into senior management. My company [also] has coaching and mentoring programmes for mid level female employees with good performance scores. Very helpful at different stages of my career.

My experience of diversity management across 4 large international banks had been entirely positive until a restructuring programme was implemented following a change in senior management in 2015. At this point, some frankly appalling behaviour kicked in and I was left feeling excluded from the newly formed inner circle and chose to leave before the situation threatened my mental well being. I was genuinely horrified to see colleagues, who had previously behaved respectfully towards those with different perspectives, line up behind the boss, replicate his views, and isolate those who didn’t. I would love to see the impact of restructuring environments on diversity. My personal experience suggests you would see much of the progress achieved during more successful years eroded as the fear factor kicks in and people seek to fit in.

Anonymous

Shell

London, UK

There is a lot of positive support for diversity on the “soft” side - formal and informal training, mentoring, development programmes, etc. But diversity metrics have not changed much in the past decade. I believe this is because the “hard” measures are missing. We do not track metrics at the right level of granularity. Leaders and line managers are not held accountable for diversity targets and there are no repercussions for lack of diversity in their teams.

Women make up less than 15% of our company’s senior executive population and most are not in [operational] P&L leadership positions. Until very recently, there was not a single woman on our executive committee. Climbing out of ‘middle management’ into the ranks of ‘senior executive’ continues to be a massive struggle for women in my company. Some do get there after 30 years, but few will gamble their careers for such slim chances and instead choose to leave.

There are “talent forums” where each line of business is represented by a VP and an HR Manager, armed with a list of job vacancies and a list of talented staff whose current assignments are coming to an end. The intent is to match talent with available opportunities which may not be visible due to the complexity of our organisation structure. The forum’s objective is noble, but having been one of the names on the “list” on more than one occasion, I have found it to be rather ineffective. I was misrepresented by the VP and HR manager; they made no effort to meet with me before the meeting and made wrong assumptions about what I wanted in my next assignment. I found the experience to be rather degrading. I was expected to follow-up on actions emerging from that meeting (i.e meet with persons X, Y and Z) and be grateful for the introductions.

Sally Blount

Dean, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

USA

If we want to see more women in senior leadership positions, we need more high-potential women filling the talent pipeline. The first step is a strong post-college launch, and that’s where the challenge begins.

US data shows that women graduating from top colleges/universities are significantly less likely to pursue jobs in business than their male peers. This is especially true for a broad class of entry-level jobs at premier consulting firms, investment banks, and certain Fortune 500 companies. These jobs are proven upward mobility generators for leaders across all sectors: business, government and not-for-profit. If women aren’t taking these jobs in equal numbers to men, even if just for a couple of years in their 20’s, they aren’t gaining the benefit of these early career accelerators.

Case in point: After university, my first job was with the Boston Consulting Group. I spent long days (and nights) learning about business fundamentals, developing critical problem-solving and strengthening my communication skills (I can still write a mean Powerpoint deck) – all of which have been instrumental to my career. While ultimately I decided that consulting was not for me, that first job set me on a strong trajectory. It led me to get a PhD and rise through the ranks of academia to become what I am today: the only female dean leading an FT top-20 business school.

Clearly, we need to coach more high-potential women on how to launch their careers well. We need them to take first jobs that are designed to build their skills, test their abilities, and [link] them with the best organizational practices and brands of the private sector. That’s how talent and resumes get developed.

Sofia

State institution

Austria

Bounded by law, our institution has to comply with a 50 per cent quota for all management levels - until this level is achieved, a female candidate with equal qualification has to be chosen. A six-year action plan was approved, and every two years a progress report is sent to the ministry.

In our company, the main problem is that for every senior position, there are few (if any) female candidates. It is well known that with a senior position you need to dedicate more time to work, often at the cost of your family life. You can do this as a woman when you have no children, or a very supportive husband, or a good childcare net. Otherwise, you will be torn.

This is not easy to resolve for an employer. The only thing they could do is change the culture to be more work-life-balance oriented. The company is already doing a lot in trying to attract and hold female employees: kindergarten, home office (only recently introduced), flexible working hours. But still, many women, after having returned from maternity leave, work part-time for years. And the others working full-time like me are afraid of not having enough time for the family with longer hours, evening meetings, etc.

In general, I’m convinced that quotas are needed; they just don’t work for me personally yet. I’m not interested in investing more time on the job for only a bit more money and much less time for my family and myself. Maybe they will later, when the children are older and I can be more flexible with my time.

Jo Hensher

HS2 railway bid director, Siemens UK

London, UK

There’s a sense that in the rail industry it’s still unusual to be a woman. I am different from the average person in the rail business: I’m a woman, I’m 10 to 15 years younger than the average person and I’m not an engineer. I felt very self conscious about the fact that I was a woman and a young woman. I never really experienced overt sexism or ageism but many people in the rail industry have been there for 20 years, and it took time to gain credibility to talk to colleagues and customers.

I recently went to a conference on HS2 where [a senior male speaker] made three sexist jokes within 20 minutes, one of them comparing his wife to a train. I walked out at the break, which I regret, because if things are going to change you have to be present, you have to challenge those views.

I’ve had really supportive managers and line managers at Siemens who have always pushed me and challenged me and seen what I can offer…I want to be able to see more women being promoted into senior positions both in the UK and within the global organisation. I think that takes time. We’re doing a lot of work, [but] it will take a number of years to see women progressing to that extent.

Simon Cooper

CEO of corporate and investment bank, Standard Chartered

Singapore

I think we’re doing a lot, but I’m not happy with where we are. If you look at the management team that (CEO) Bill Winters has, it’s got good gender diversity. If you look at the point of selection, diversity is good. But there are some gaps around the MD [managing director] level where we don’t have as much diversity, and we’re addressing it.

Everybody must be given the same opportunity to be considered and to be developed, with no unconscious bias, no stigma attached to parental leave, and no stigma attached to needing more flexibility. It would not do anybody any good not to have a meritocracy.

Unconscious bias is something that can impact not just gender diversity but also decision making across any organisation. so we’re trying to ensure that there isn’t any bias - conscious or unconscious. ln the recent promotions round I was involved in, I made absolutely sure that that the pipeline we were looking at for promotion was representative of diversity, and that results coming out of the panel were representative. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t have been anyway, but it’s about being thoughtful regarding the inputs and outputs.

Kate Richdale

Co-head of investment banking in Asia ex-Japan, Goldman Sachs

Hong Kong, China

I think this is probably the best example I’ve seen in this industry of a place that has the environment for women to flourish and grow, and gives women the opportunity to run businesses. Across the partners in Asia Pacific and the Asia Pacific management committee, about 30 per cent are women who run actual businesses. Fabulous women, incredibly talented women, punchy go getters who stand shoulder to shoulder with the men.

They are able to flourish because they are given the system to work within. There’s very detailed mid- and year-end reviews as you move up the ranks. There’s training which we take incredibly seriously. The training programme is tailored to individuals: this person needs English, this person needs gravitas. There’s very much the mentee/mentor system. The partnership is incredibly motivational and obviously it’s an environment where there is respect and politeness. It’s not motherhood and apple pie; this is a hard core focus on the business in a team environment.

We run our business on a quality first basis, so it’s a meritocracy, We do have female attrition for family but also quality reasons. We have women that we let go because we’re always letting go the bottom 5 to 10 per cent.

We’re always on the lookout for good talent. If I had one position and a woman and man (applying) I’d look at quality and return before I looked at gender diversity. If I had two equally good candidates, I’d probably make a big effort to hire both.

Karen Fawcett

CEO of retail banking, Standard Chartered

Singapore

Women are the ones that produce babies. That’s not likely to change in our lifetime. We are working on things to make an environment to allow women to stay and be successful, particularly as they’re going through the years of having their kids.

Until recently, maternity policies weren’t consistent enough. We have increased the length of maternity leave and that will make a difference. There’s also our flexible working policy, which has been standardised globally. I’ve seen people who have managed to have their families and move into very successful roles.

Where I think we need to put our attention next as an industry is the people who choose to stay at home and look after their kids. My mum took years off teaching and looked after us. In teaching, there is possibly an easier way back in; we all need to focus on how bring people back into banking.

The effort around gender diversity has to be from both sides. It would be rather naive of us all to assume that our employers are going to do all the work for us; from a business point of view, we’re also not being sensible if we don’t spot talent and make sure that talent is nurtured. Women may not make themselves as obvious or put their hands up as much for career moves. We have taken that into account when we look at our talent.

Dr. Sylvana Storey

Change management director, diversity and inclusion consultancy

London, UK

Speaking generally, the majority of companies do not have a diversity strategy aligned to their business strategy. Rather, companies have a series of one-off disjointed initiatives generally tied to the fad of the moment, i.e. gender or unconscious bias training. There are very few companies who would be able to marry their financial outcomes (ROI) with their diversity initiatives because there are no measures or lines of accountability in place at the top.

I am a prime target [for diversity & inclusion initiatives]. However, as a contractor trying to make the move into a permanent position many companies have resisted employing me. Of course, there may be a host of reasons for their decisions, however I have been told on several occasions (sometimes anonymously) that I was not selected due to the colour of my skin.

Where I have seen D&I make some inroads is where the leader of the organisation has championed it and formed councils, Board positions and [performance measures] to amplify and demonstrate his/her commitment to the cause.

Anonymous

Large luxury retailer

New Delhi, India

My ex-employer gave extra hiring points to me, and I suppose a lot of potential employees, if they had international (read European) experience while hiring in Asia. However in many ways the policy was counterproductive, despite its good intentions.

HR pushed up my profile, as it helped their diversity dashboard slide on presentations. But I found that executives of the company, often from the European office, found it hard to tolerate being countered by an Asian. The air of superiority lingers on in everyday interactions, through subtle condescending remarks, ultimately suffocating the often bright and promising Asian employees who understand the difference between offering equality for [image purposes] and offering equality in real life.

The outcome helps no one. Employees quit, strategies in emerging markets fail, and and it’s often because the diverse team couldn’t click nicely. This strategy will work more effectively if leadership is on board with the policy.

Anna Cook

Director of women in leadership and internal communications, Sky

London, UK

In a relatively short space of time we’ve been able to move the dial. Each year we’ve hit our target early. Three things have made a difference: one, having a really bold target. Second, a lot of senior manager buy-in, and third, it has not been driven by HR, it’s been driven by commercial.

We’ve given all our headhunters mandates that they need to give us a 50/50 shortlist. Our internal recruiters are fully behind us, but in areas where it is harder, where [headhunters] have said it cannot be done, we’ve had to push them really hard to get them to do it. They have to give us a credible short list, they can’t just have women on the list to make up the numbers.

We need to super-charge the women we’ve got. [We’ve seen a change] in getting women to think beyond their set horizons. We now have lots more women moving into operational and commercial roles. Our head of corporate responsibility moved to become head of property services group, for example.

In order to choose women for our sponsorship and development programme [in which 350 women currently take part], managers in each area were asked, ‘Who is your top talent for the future?’ Once you’ve been sponsored, you then have to sponsor the layer below you. We specifically matched women to an executive or director with whom you build an individual relationship. They are your advocate, they help you to think about what you want out of your career, help match you to jobs and stretch your thinking. These relationships are already doing [reverse mentoring] for us.

I thought there would be more internal resistance. To begin with, some people were concerned about positive discrimination from men. Jeremy [Darroch, CEO] had quite a compelling statement that he kept repeating: ‘If we go on being 70 per cent men, we’re not doing it right. We need to upset the apple cart.’ The objections went away fairly quickly.

Ana

Financial institution

UK

I am a woman who has been working in finance for about 10 years and I think there are three problems that will continue to be obstacles:

  1. Lack of paternal leave: despite being legally allowed, this seems to be culturally taboo in the UK. Men who take it are actively mocked and discouraged, or simply don’t approach the subject for fear of missing out on promotions. Women also miss out on promotions, but the difference is they don’t have a choice but to take maternity leave.

  2. Despite a lot of progress and encouragement for women from senior men in my organisation, I have encountered many a sexist comment in my career, including occasions when I have been excluded from networking opportunities as the ‘bros’ won’t be able to relax while I’m there. When I started out I persevered and pushed, but every incremental comment wears you out.

  3. This is broader than gender equality, but current corporate culture rewards a certain type of personality and worships an overconfident, aggressive, smooth talking cult. This has led to the exclusion of more balanced personalities - both men and women, and perhaps proportionally more women. Until there is a fundamental change in corporate culture and rewards, this will persist.

I hope of course that more visibility on all these issues leads us towards better and more nuanced progress than a forced target.

Neeta Bhudia

Returnship programme, KPMG

London, UK

I went straight into investment banking at UBS. I qualified as an accountant with them and then went into front office sales and trading. I was there for a decade, worked my way up to mid senior level (director) and then, as tends to be the norm, I chose to stay home with my children. It was always part of my life plan. I was at home for almost eight years.

When you apply to advertised jobs and you’ve got an eight year gap on your CV, people just do not look at you. I must have done hundreds of applications. You just get an email back and fall into a black hole. Agencies were the same. They were quite brutal. They said to me, ‘You haven’t worked for eight years, we’ll struggle to place you.’

I signed up to this website called women returners. They send you emails of all the different companies running returnship programmes. I applied to two programmes and got onto both. There were 300 applying for KPMG, and 12 got in. I often wonder what happened to the other 290 that couldn’t get through? They are brilliant programmes but they are incredibly oversubscribed.

Flexible working has massively changed things. I couldn’t do without it. In my second or third week, my son got ill and I was just dreading asking to work from home. I worked myself into a bit of a frenzy, but they were absolutely fine about it. Because I hadn’t worked for a while, I still have that concept of ‘you can’t ask’. But now you can, and you should. Flexibility works both ways. Last week we had some serious deadlines and I was working until 10 at night, albeit from home, and at the weekend.

Anonymous

Distribution company

Yorkshire, UK

My company does very little outside of basic flexibility to cover child care. They allow women to progress to a level, but there are very few at a senior level and none on the board.

Only women use the flexible hours to pick up children. This has a negative effect as it lessens their position in the company. Even when people know I have to leave early, they still arrange late meetings. The culture of having to be in the office to be recognised as a hard worker goes against the flexible way many women need to work.

I find men are given a chance to prove themselves in new roles. Women have to prove themselves before being considered for a promotion. Appearance is also far more judged for women. They are often categorised as drab, power hungry or overly provocative. Men never seem to be asked to dress appropriately.

If my son is ill, I have to take time off as it would be seen as a weakness and inappropriate for my husband to. He knows this puts all the pressure on me, but can’t see a way round it.

Caroline Stockmann

The Association of Corporate Treasurers

London, UK

I have been engaged with diversity for most of my career. My current organisation is passionate about diversity, and its bursary and mentoring schemes are witness to that. But I had a different experience in a former job working with a large international organisation.

Here are things that worked well: I built global virtual teams, so people did not always work in the same place as their colleagues - that was to encourage as much diversity of thought as possible, as well as foster good work-life balance. I empowered staff working remotely to lead on initiatives, as I had previously to good effect at Unilever - this helped break down the idea of a central ivory tower. We had a diversity calendar and used it to celebrate different cultures, and set up lunches where people brought dishes from around the world. Over two years, my global teams’ motivation scores jumped by 20 per cent in our ‘people survey’, and all my teams scored above the global average - sometimes way above.

After I left the organisation there seemed to be a problem with performance and financial sustainability, and of course people panic at these times. So everything was unravelled. At least one person I had appointed overseas was made redundant. The organisation also could not accept home working. …In my experience, unless there is very strong leadership, when organisations are feeling some kind of crunch they tend to drop diversity matters - which actually compounds the issue as you lose both motivation and creativity/optimisation through diverse teams.

Anonymous

Managing Director, Corporate and investment banking

New York City, USA

Being one of a few senior level managing directors providing corporate and investment coverage (at bulge bracket banks) in a male dominated industry sector, there were no role models. Today, there are fewer than three women in MD positions at bulge bracket investment banks leading coverage efforts for their clients. The diversity programs are only in place to provide a helpful defense for the banks against any claims. The nuances of being silently excluded have not changed in over 20 years. Unfortunately the only thing that will allow it to change is to have more women in senior MD positions.

The maternity policies at the bulge bracket banks are typically generous. Because there are few female investment bankers that choose to have children and even fewer that return [after having them], these policies, while helpful, will not be the top method to retain females.

Highlighting an example, one bulge bracket bank assigned senior level male bankers to mentor high potential female bankers. On my initial meeting, within less than 10 minutes, the guy was telling me that I sounded “just like my wife”. His tone was condescending and his wife didn’t work. Needless to say, after the meeting I asked for a different person.

Swedapino83

FT commenter, large bank

UK

I work for a bank and I’m a middle manager. Fortunately my manager has been very supportive of my parental leave plans (four months). I’ll be the first father/partner to take this amount of time off in our department and so I’m hoping this will encourage other men to consider this in the future.

One way to make headwinds on this issue is to encourage a level playing field. The mother is still expected to take more time off compared to her partner. Although there is legislation [in the UK] that now allows both parents (or carers) of a newborn to share 52 weeks off, there’s no pay guarantee for the entire period (just statutory pay, which is very low). If my wife takes the first 26 weeks and I then take 26 weeks, we are only entitled to 20 weeks of pay, which is paid only by my wife’s company. Companies could do more to overcome this. For example, the employers of both parents (or carers) could each offer up to 20 weeks of pay. As it stands, taking advantage of shared parental leave legislation presents a huge financial disincentive.

Robin Rankin

Global co-head of M&A, Credit Suisse

New York, USA

If you start to mandate a certain number of folks from a particular category, it may be good short term but it’s a very bad thing long term. Suddenly everyone looks at a woman and says, ‘Is she really good, or is it just the quotas?’ I personally think we’re far better off if we give opportunities and provide all the right elements to succeed but we don’t create this different class of individuals. That takes a little longer.

I think that women are very serious and focused and want to succeed. I think that they want to be at the top of their field as well. The way that manifests itself or shows in the workplace may be slightly different. Women don’t pound their chest very much and they try to work in a collaborative way, and sometimes maybe that’s perceived as not being as motivated. Ambition doesn’t appear the same on the surface, but the women I know in banking are all determined to succeed.

Preyoshi

Fortune 10 company

Bangalore, India

I joined my company exactly six years back, as a young graduate in the supply chain function. As I found out later, I was the first female graduate to be hired in that particular business. Since then, the situation has changed dramatically - not only is there a visible push towards recruiting more female talent, there is also the presence of strong role models in business - and not just technical roles. In fact, the India business is headed by a lady.

My husband shifted from Delhi to Bangalore last year. When I started the conversation with my line manager about possibilities, I assumed they would ask me to wait and later help me find a role in our Bangalore office. They actually did one better. My line manager worked it out with the business that I could work three weeks a month out of Bangalore, spending one week a month in face-to-face meetings with stakeholders based in Delhi. It has not been an easy transition, but the arrangement worked because of the faith my line manager had in me. Working virtually also wasn’t a barrier to me being considered for a promotion when the time came.

Noreen Doyle

Vice-chair, Credit Suisse

London, UK

Progress has been slower than I would ever have guessed. The original thought was to build from the bottom up…that natural progress will result in more women through the ranks. Some banks have been hiring 50/50 since the '80s. It’s not 50/50 at MD level 30 years later.

Women tend, and this is a generalisation, to do their job, do it well, and expect that doing your job well will be recognised. That’s how it works in school: you get the best grades, you get recognised. But in a big organisation, doing your job well is kind of what people expect. What you need to do in a big bureaucracy is make sure that not just your boss knows you’re doing your job well, but that other people around the organisation know it too. There is something to be said for self promotion. I think men are much better at this than women.

If you’re a manager and you want to promote two or three people and you’re in a big promotion meeting, you put someone’s name on the table and a couple of other people will say, ‘Oh yeah, I know the guy, I see him in the gym,’ or ‘I know the guy, he was on this charity run with me’. And if you put a woman’s name forward and there is no echo, you know, it doesn’t resonate and it’s harder to get promoted. Some of it is we females have to be a little bit more concientious about building networks internally. That lowers the risk for the boss promoting a woman.

Jim Cowles

CEO of EMEA, Citi

London, UK

We are making progress. We’re not making as much progress as we need to make and we need to accelerate. When you look at our pyramid, you see broader gender diversity at entry levels and then often a narrowing as we get more senior in the organisation. That’s where we need to make sure that we focus on the development of our female population. When we see greater diversity in a particular role or function, that helps bring more women into that area.

I believe what is effective is to have targets, not hard quotas…A target means that you’re going to end up with the right behaviour in terms of making sure that we develop our people to the best of our ability and promote the people who are appropriate for promotion. If you put quotas on something, I think it can have a negative outcome because all you’re focused on is a specific number. What we have to focus on is how do we recruit the right people, develop them, retain them and promote them?

The information we’re looking at is getting better. This is a database that we put together and just rolled out, so we can do extensive analysis anywhere in the world - within any country, any business, any function - in terms of the gender diversity we have, how that has changed over time, and what the pipeline looks like. We can look at who has left the firm and analyse the reasons why, and then we can sit down with managers and talk about either the progress they’ve made, or the progress they haven’t made, and how to make faster progress.

Jeremy Darroch

CEO, Sky

London, UK

Over the past 18 months we have placed a real focus on gender equality in our organisation, through our Women in Leadership programme. Today, 40 per cent of our top 400 leaders are women - we plan to get that figure to 50 per cent in the next few years and we have a strong plan to get there. The mandatory 50/50 interview shortlists and unconscious bias training we’ve introduced are forcing our recruiters to work harder to find the men and women who are best suited for each job. But most importantly the programme has forced us to confront the status quo, appreciate its limitations, and seek something better.

Dan Simpson

Head of talent, Siemens UK

Surrey, UK

The irony is that we’re over 350,000 people, one of the most diverse companies in the world, present in so many countries and regions. There used to be an old joke – that the Catholic Church and Coca-Cola are the only two organisations better represented around the world. [Yet] our senior management teams are too German, too male, and too white.

We’ve tried the whole ‘hoping it will get better and trusting in good will to make it better’ approach. It had absolutely zero effect. The National Equality Standard gave us a crystal clear picture of where we had good practice - for example a really effective women’s network, young people’s networks, good policies around maternity, flexible working, shared adoption. But it also pointed to a lot of areas where we could do better. Through it our mantra was born: ‘Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice.’ Inclusion is a less threatening topic.

One of the benefits of Siemens is there’s lots of internal mobility, but you tend to recycle the same people, who are not necessarily the right people. My view would be for every management role, we should have a woman on the short list. If there isn’t a woman internally, we should look outside.

Cressida Williams

CFO, RWC

London, UK

I have always found empathy at an individual level important – how [managers] react when you first tell someone you are pregnant or want to go on a career break. I’ve been very lucky and have had positive conversations. I remember those moments.

[It is also important to] stay in touch with individuals when they are on maternity leave and make them feel like they are still part of the team. This could mean phoning them up to see how they are, or going to have a coffee with them near their own home, rather than getting them into the office. That makes a real difference.

Third – being honest and genuine. At RWC the culture is absolutely honest and open. I spent a long time speaking about flexible arrangements and how they would work [during my interview] – because we were honest about that, I felt proud and happy about my flexible working arrangements and continue to today.

I really believe technology has moved forward and you can try [new flexible arrangements] on a trial basis. A man at RWC has a very long commute – for three months, we tried a new system where he works from home one day a week, and it’s been great.

Adriana Ennab

Director of public affairs and policy, Credit Suisse

London, UK

I began my banking career working for Goldman Sachs in the fixed income division. I was there for nine years, many years ago. In 2008 Goldman asked me to come in to talk to them about coming back. Credit Suisse was then the next big bank to offer a ‘returnship’ programme, [which I joined] in 2014.

The function of the Real Returns Programme is not to put someone back into the specific role they had before they left the industry, but to use their transferable skills. What we may have not been up to date with on the markets, regulation or policy side, we could learn quickly. The majority of the women in the programme had been managing families, homes, businesses, elderly parents and learning patience and negotiating skills at a whole new level, as anyone with children can confirm. You also don’t have the angst that people starting out fresh have…we’ve seen it, been there, got the T-shirts.

Of course the salary is less than I was on before. Not only had I been out for many years, but it is also a very different world than it was 20 years ago. Everyone took a cut, even people who continued to work.

One of my first mentors said to me, ‘I thought you girls were going to be input level, kind of back office. I had no idea that you could all take my job.’ It’s all a matter of perception. The people coming back through returnships are smashing those.

Anonymous

Fortune 100 bank

USA

I have been a female financial advisor for three Fortune 100 companies over 35 years. I sued two of them. I could fill volumes with not only my own stories but of so many other women and minorities over the decades.

Like so many Wall Street firms, my company talks a good game about diversity, but at the branch level there is rampant discrimination and retaliation. Company leaders make a lot of noise about diversity, but then retaliate and create a hostile work environment if we actually try to do something about it.

Nepotism and cronyism are also rampant. I was forced to hire a supremely unqualified assistant over a very qualified African American woman. The unqualified hire passed around questionable photos of herself and a senior executive drinking and hugging on a beach several years ago. I reported it to HR and showed them the photos. The executive got promoted, and I got retaliation that continues unabated. The unqualified hire passed Xanax around like candy, had an emotional breakdown, and the company struck a deal with her to leave the firm.

Sophie Warrick

Managing director, equities, JPMorgan

London, UK

I interned in 2003 in the city at another investment bank and started (full time) in 2004. I don’t remember having specific women events when I was hired as a grad, and I definitely don’t remember having an awful lot in place for mentorship. Now we see much more of that across the City.

There are more applications from male candidates, definitely, but the skew is nowhere near as big as it was even year-on-year. We put in a lot of effort to address a number of diversity issues. One of them was looking at how to broaden the range of subjects we recruit from. A lot of people don’t realise how specific subjects at university can have a gender bias.

Since I had a child, a lot of graduates ask me really specific things about childcare and maternity leave. These are 23 and 24 year old women planning for a life event that is most likely 5 or 10 years away. What people are more interested in is the reality of how these policies play out in terms of your career.

I was promoted to run my team at 35 weeks pregnant…There are all sorts of reasons why people might choose not to come back (from maternity leave), but as an employer you want to present to them the most interesting and rewarding opportunity possible to come back to. Any employer that isn’t doing that is missing a trick.

Lesley Martin

Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Leading investment organisation

London, UK

Inclusion is part of our culture and business principles, and we are looking at target-setting for ethnic diversity. I am driven by a desire to widen our talent pool and improve decision making and creativity.

My company allows me the flexibility I want between work and home life. However, I am aware that not everyone has the same experience across our organisation, and part of our challenge is getting consistency in how managers view and respond to requests for balance and flexibility.

Our budget for [diversity& inclusion] isn’t huge – there is a lot you can do to raise awareness and educate people without spending a lot of money. However changing the dial on gender and other areas of diversity takes relentless focus – ultimately if businesses want to make real progress they will need to reflect that in the financial investment in D&I budgets and the time that leaders are willing to commit to it.

Sara Murray OBE

Serial tech entrepreneur and CEO, Buddi

London, UK

Nobody will lay on their deathbed and say, ‘I wish I hadn’t had so many children.’ Equally, no one will lay on their deathbed and say, ‘I wish I’d made more widgets.’

You don’t have to be a genius to work out if a guy is prepared to work non-stop 24/7 and a woman wants to work 4 days and be flexible, who’s going to make it? To be successful, you have to work harder than the next man.

To make it to the board, you have to be the one that pulls all the extra stops out [and] do all the extra hours. So if your child’s got a Christmas fete and they want you there, you’re the one who can’t make it because you’ve got that big customer pitch that day. So you can have a successful job and career, but you’re just not going to beat the guy who’s there day in and day out

Vanessa Holtz

Head of foreign exchange trading for EMEA and global head of G10 FX options, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

London, UK

When you offer a job to a man and [his skills] tick five boxes out of 10, he says, ‘I’m capable of doing that job.’ A woman says, ‘If I don’t fill nine boxes, i’m not able to do that job.’ We need to believe in ourselves, to know we don’t need to fill the 10 boxes to do the job.

I think women don’t really know how to promote themselves in a great way. What you don’t ask for, you don’t get, and it tends to be extremely difficult for women to ask. So we have to change that. Women feel that they’ll be recognised for their work without making sure that the managers are fully aware of what they’re doing. They take it as a given. This is not a given.

Sometimes graduates are almost surprised that I’m asking so many questions about women and the way they evolve in the firm. They feel comfortable with the way they are treated, they feel comfortable with the way they might evolve, but they still see few females at the top. That’s the question: the discrepancy. I tell them we inherited [the leadership] from the past, that we have to progress it and it takes time. It’s not a miracle where you’re going to wake up in the morning and suddenly there’ll be 50 per cent MDs… but it’s already improving and it can improve exponentially very quickly.

Sabine Keller Busse

Head of HR, UBS

Zurich, Switzerland

Tone from the top is important, but not enough. It needs to be translated into real processes, and measurable outcomes. We have three levers: hiring more, promoting more and losing less. If we really want to be serious and develop more females, we need very targeted works on these three levers but on all levels, not just on the seniors.

Where we honestly struggle most is retaining talented females when their family situation evolves [and they become] a family manager. It’s relevant for both men and women. I’m constantly telling the business that we need to do even more in remote and flexible working.

If you cannot do a certain role in the investment bank but you’re a talented female we don’t want to lose and you need to do part-time, as part of our internal mobility, it’s now a lot easier to move around. It’s definitely not a return ticket - you need to do the part time role right and keep your network going. We want people going from front office into back office and getting back to front office.

When we recruit, headhunters agree in their contract that they provide qualified females on the candidate slate - but the decision is always made on quality.

Pauline Timmers

Director, Citi

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I used to work at London Industrials, which meant travelling 3-4 days a week. I wanted to see my girls during the week. Citi was looking for someone local in the Netherlands which meant less travel for me, and family close by for support. It worked out for the best for all.

Two days a week I plan to leave the office on time, pick [my twins] up from nursery, have dinner and spend time with them. Once the children are in bed, I can take calls, respond to emails and get work done. Weekends are as much as possible quality family time, although I am sure that with my job, I will have to juggle sometimes.

I think it is important to have clear communication concerning the times that you are not available to pick up the phone, as that is your time with your children. Another tip I was given was to be very focused on what is important to you and make your decisions accordingly. If something is important, I make time for it. If it is not, now I will say no, whereas before I had kids I would do it.

Luckily for me, my employer has been nothing but very flexible, which has given me lots of confidence.

Karen Frank

Head of international private banking, Barclays

London, UK

We need to get people to understand that your career is a marathon and not a sprint, so you can - and should - take time out if you want to. I have three children, so there were years when I chose to step away as well but I always knew I would come back.

Institutions need to be much more focused in supporting women through what can be decades of service as their careers progress. This develops loyalty and also leads to increased talent retention. We need women to understand that while they may see some people in their peer group move ahead or fall behind, they will be supported. Keeping and developing talent is the thing that we are most focused on, not wondering if you made MD in X number of years.

An institution’s ability to help provide affordable childcare for employees is very important, especially in the VP (vice president) and D (director) years, when you’ve got one or two kids or you’re trying to buy a house. Particularly in our industry, the fact that an employer would do that for you, the fact that an employer says, ‘Take your maternity leave, come back when you’re ready, we’re going to provide flexible working hours for you so that you can do a day or two from home,’ that builds in significantly more loyalty than getting some money for a childcare voucher.

I was on conference calls in the hospital on the day (I gave birth) and maybe I look back now and feel that was stupid. I would probably never do that again, but that was my choice to make at the time and I’m glad my manager supported me. It was a couple of very large transactions and I had worked closely with the client and felt it was important to me.

Fran Cashman

Co-head of US sales, Legg Mason

USA

Legg has always supported life balance – regardless of whether you are male or female. If your work is done, you can leave and see your kid’s ball game and make it up elsewhere.

I have always found the opportunity to innovate and to lead. In all aspects of my career, I felt like I was always recognised as an individual and not as a female contributor to Legg Mason. Approaching things differently was always well received. I never felt limited – that is a really great way to feel.

[On the lack of women in senior positions], we want to be better. It is a business imperative. Some of our most seasoned wholesalers [in sales] are female. They would tell you it is a terrific job for women because you have flexibility. I don’t know that we as an industry have done a good job in relaying that message to women. Changing the perception of what the job is is something that we are working on.

Clare Woodman

COO of institutional securities, Morgan Stanley

London, UK

I genuinely believe that most financial services firms are grappling with this and have a desire for their organizations to be representative of the clients and communities they serve. Most companies’ CEOs recognize that gender equality makes business sense. Our own research last year clearly identified that gender diversity is a competitive advantage - higher [returns on equity] and lower volatility for companies with higher gender diversity. However, I think many firms struggle with how to increase gender representation.
Firms should continue to focus on embedding inclusive leadership into management training as a business priority. Strengthening the pipeline of women - recruitment, retention and advancement is absolutely key. This has to be relentless and persistent if it is going to deliver sustainable change.

Women need to continue to invest in building their networks and alliances to support their development and the development of others. That has to be internally within their organizations and externally. From that women can learn from a broad range of people and sources, as well be strategic in scanning the environment for risks, challenges and opportunities.

I strongly believe in equal pay for equal work and I think organizations need to continually review compensation so that they proactively monitor and address any gender pay differences. Women also need to be more vocal when it comes to advocating for themselves on pay and promotion - again the benefit of having broad alliances and networks is that you can learn different negotiating strategies from others.

Bev Shah

Managing director, Hive

London, UK

I started in investment banking. I’ve always thought asset management is the softer side of financial services. However, I don’t think anyone knows about our industry. [The TV show] Billions is the reputation of the people managing our money.

Getting talent is the biggest problem. Women don’t even know about this industry. You would only know about this world if you went to a boy’s private school and were exposed to it by parents who had stockbrokers. We are part of the vilified Square Mile – there are other industries that are far more attractive and appear to do more social good than banking.

Athalie Williams

Chief people officer, BHP Billiton

Melbourne, Australia

A couple of macro things have been very important to making sustainable progress. First is strong commitment from the top. [CEO] Andrew Mackenzie has been clear that [achieving gender balance] is not just the right thing to do, but also makes commercial sense. We don’t have a large diversity team, partly because the agenda needs to be seen as business-led.

We’ve thought about our behaviour, our relationship with suppliers, our brand and how we attract talent. A continued and sole focus on [diversity training] was not getting the traction we need.

Job-sharing [has changed]: Nine train drivers are now sharing four positions in Port Hedland, Pilbara. Another example is iron ore railcar maintenance, traditionally a male-dominated job, given the ‘sheer brute strength’ required to do it. BHP Billiton has recently opened a new railcar maintenance shop in Pilbara which uses robots to move more of the heavy equipment around, and which means women now ‘don’t need to wield massive sledgehammers’.

Anonymous

Multinational bank

London, UK

We have around 15 diversity groups in London, and it is a global effort. It is very much a top down approach: the global management team are vocal about the need for diversity and are involved in many of the events that are organised throughout the year.

I was hired when I was 10 weeks pregnant with what turned out to be twins. I have received support and respect from my managers throughout the 14 years I have worked for the bank. I have started speaking at my daughters’ schools (we have 4 daughters) about my career, and that we all have a choice. This takes place during school days and my male boss is super supportive.

I would note that it is difficult to engage with the majority group. At times they feel excluded. Moreover, you cannot effect change unless we engage with each other. I have been shocked at stories of managers’ reactions to pregnancies – we still have a long way to go. I have been equally shocked at some millennial females’ view of the world which actually is in favour of keeping the status quo.

Anna Marrs

Regional CEO, ASEAN and South Asia and CEO for commercial and private banking, Standard Chartered

Singapore

For me, gender diversity didn’t feature as a big thing until I had kids, and then I was not in banking; I was at McKinsey. They were very proactive in trying to identify and promote women. I was actually promoted on both maternity leaves - I was at home with a two-year-old and five-month-old when I got the call about making partner.

Flexible working is very important: When I’m not travelling I get home to put the kids to bed. Between 7pm and 8.30pm we have a window. We have a flexible working policy across all levels. You need to do it that way and have a performance management framework which is deliverable and is objective. It’s not about facetime, it’s about outcome.

The research around risk management and diversity has been very helpful for the banking system. It shows that diversity helps you to make better risk management decisions. That diversity obviously maps gender, different backgrounds and different nationalities. For us, having set ourselves a target of 30 per cent of female representation in senior ranks focuses us.

Sinead Greehan

Apprentice, KPMG

Manchester, UK

KPMG have a network that organises events for women. I think it’s important. It highlights that some people might be going through issues with gender diversity. I’ve never actually thought about the gender pay gap as an issue because I’ve never seen it. If I’m doing the same job as someone else, I would definitely expect to be paid the same amount.

I know of people who have gone off to have children and when they come back they work different hours to suit pickup and drop off times. There’s the option to work from home. KPMG are one of the top 50 employers for women. Working mothers are definitely something they are supportive of and encourage.

Marnie Millard

Non-executive director, Finsbury Food Group

Manchester, UK

When I started to look into a non-executive director role, a number of headhunters called me, and they were really quite overt about it: their objective was to recruit a woman to the board rather than the skills I would bring.

Practically, within a business you’ve got to create the values and atmosphere so that working parents really feel they can work and look after the family at the same time…as a mum I think it’s inherently ingrained in you that you feel guilty that you’re not doing well enough.

Carol Kane

Co-CEO, boohoo.com

Manchester, UK

I would love to have had a female role model, and I’ve been outspoken about that. I’ve only ever worked for men. But it would have been great to have somebody to look up to.

I’ve had this amazing opportunity to go from a designer to a business leader and be part of a team that has managed to market this business and get it to float. It was truly exhausting and did take over my life, but I think it has opened up a lot of doors for me personally.

I chose not to have children quite a few years ago. So I think, indirectly, is that a sacrifice? I don’t have any regrets. It’s a choice I made, I wasn’t particularly maternal [and] I didn’t have this yearning to have a family.

Sabry

Financial Services

London, UK

Our company is very serious about gender diversity (among all forms of diversity), and associates it more or less as a percentage target. However, I think like many firms, it’s not bold enough to tackle the very reasons women are missing from senior management roles. The males who champion this are most often worried about talking openly on it for the fear of getting their script wrong.

Join FT commentators in London on April 19 for a conversation about women in the corporate world. Tickets available here.