A special panel discussion on gender equality on International Women’s Day explores the positive and negative impact of the pandemic on equality. Elsewhere, delegates discuss the importance of role models and how remote working is allowing treasury to increasingly hire from a global talent pool.
“Choosing to challenge is part of my DNA. As a woman of colour, I haven’t had the benefit of not choosing to challenge” said India Gary-Martin, Executive Coach and Advisor to Global CEO’s and Boards from Leadership for Execs, opening Treasury Today’s “International Women’s Day – virtual event” in partnership with treasury software provider Kyriba. For India, recent challenges have come in the form of leaving a corporate career to work for herself as a coach and motivational speaker. “Hitting barriers means you go in a different direction; it doesn’t mean you stop,” she told delegates, saying IWD2021 and its rallying call to ‘choose to challenge’ is a chance to take stock of the challenges and progress over the last year wrought by the pandemic.
Mentors and seminal moments
Panel speakers reflected on the seminal moments in their life that led them to strive for equality. Dory Malouf, Senior Principal Value Engineer at Kyriba, recalled the lasting impact that hearing Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony had on his student self. The way Hill was “treated by the media,” and how she was “asked questions by Senators trying to catch her out” following her accusation that US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, marked the beginning of his awareness. A few years later during an internship, his mentor left to have a baby due to “a lack of options to maintain her career”, leaving another imprint on the impact of inequality.
It led Dory to recount of his chance to act on this early learning. When a member of his team with a young baby said she wanted to leave, he was determined to support her to stay, offering part-time and working from home solutions. “I didn’t want her to be in the same position as my mentor; it’s hard to come back after taking time off.” She stayed, and the process opened the door to others in his team, he said.
Danette Le, Vice President and Assistant Treasurer, Corporate Finance, Host Hotels & Resorts, dates her passion for gender equality to witnessing “fewer women” in meetings and conferences as her career progressed. Her passion is also fuelled by double standards – like women showing emotions typically viewed as “weak” but men showing their emotions often seen as “positive.” She also recounted the early influence of a female boss in mentoring and building her confidence. “She allowed me to raise my hand for assignments and speak up about promotion,” she recalled.
Panellist Mary Wienclaw, Senior Manager of Foreign Exchange and Forecast Management, Baxter International Inc, noted the importance of so-called allies in fostering equality, particularly the growing number of men supporting equal opportunities for women. “A lot more men are now saying we need more women in leadership roles,” she said. “I didn’t see this early in my career.” Panellists also noted how women have grown better at supporting other women, and no longer see each other as competitors.
Next the conversation touched on the importance of leadership during the pandemic. For Karen James, Head of Treasury at Sightsavers, where she leads a team of six, it has required a new type of leadership. Many women have been spending recent months home schooling children alongside doing their jobs, requiring a new level of inclusivity, support and empowerment. “My role as head of treasury is to empower them to try things and not be afraid,” she said, adding that her own female boss leads by example, particularly around supporting mental health through lockdown and ensuring opportunities. Elsewhere the discussion touched on how working from home has been a leveller between mothers and fathers. “Men get interrupted on Zoom calls too,” she said. “We mustn’t lose sight of how much effort it takes to run a day in the life of a mum and dad also holding down a job,” she added.
Nevertheless, WFH also has a flip side for equality. Panellists raised concerns about how many women have left the workforce because of COVID-19, unable to both work from home and home-school. “Why have so many women been hit by this?” asked Dory, calling for more analysis into why women, rather than WFH men are leaving employment. “This is a step backwards rather than forwards, and it needs studying.”
What is professional?
Mary, a mother of four, said that combing childcare and working from home has led her to “re-define” her view of a professional role. Before, she frequently prioritised her job and career over her family, but now she has “no choice” but to put caring for her children on an equal footing. “I consider all these roles as part of who I am, and my authentic self means I am all these things at one time. If my daughter bursts in on a Zoom meeting, it is ok,” she said, calling on WFH women also caring for children to change how they perceive themselves.
It was a point that echoed with Danette, who said “re-defining” what is professional makes it much easier to balance home and work life and enables “feeling good” about being both a parent and a working professional. Karen added that one of the challenges was the lack of corporate recognition for being a “professional mum.”
Danette added that WFH with two young children had built a resilience in her, particularly given the last year has been one of the busiest and toughest for her industry which has furloughed 80% of its employees. “I have experienced some of busiest times in my career, but also spent more time with my family.”
Buffett and Obama
Next the conversation turned to the importance of role models. For Dory, Barak Obama has championed the cause of male allies. “He always talks about putting women and equality centre stage. From my viewpoint he is a leader here.” Dory also noted Warren Buffett’s leadership via Berkshire Hathaway’s celebrated investment in companies that have women on their boards. “To be successful, you have to have diversity; diversity brings a different perspective,” said Dory.
Michelle Obama is another role model. Mary noted how she “quoted her quite a bit”, particularly around the importance of using your voice when you have a seat at the table. Karen agreed on the “transformational” role of Obama, citing her as another strong woman “driving me to be better than I am.”
Challenges of returning
Next, Danette reflected on the dangers of women missing out if they choose to work remotely when office life begins again. “Could this benefit threaten gender equality?” she asked. “If more women are working from home, will they miss out on opportunities to connect, network and advance their careers? Companies need to ensure there is no favouritism to those that work from home.”
Indeed, panellists reflected that “quite a high proportion” of jobs will likely remain remote. “Some areas of treasury have suffered by being remote, like FX and banking where we have had to learn on the hoof, but the technology is amazing,” said Karen. Dory agreed, noting a trend amongst some companies seeking a global talent pool to hire treasury professionals in different geographies, far away from the corporate centre. “They want the most talented person period; it doesn’t matter where they are, they just have to work odd hours.”
Delegates also reflected on the importance of a proactive approach to gender equality. Danette recounted how she has set up a women’s initiative as part of the company’s diversity and inclusion strategy. For now, the initiative runs virtual events like book clubs and happy hours in an effort to support and connect until they can meet face to face. As for her role model, she said it was her own working mother. “She taught me you have to work hard and not worry what others think.”
Mary recounted how she has changed jobs through the pandemic. Her decision (that took some courage given the economic upheaval of the pandemic) was made easier with the support of a mentor. “It required a confidence in myself to make that jump,” she said.
Panellists also expressed their hopes for the future. Reflecting on the path ahead for her 22-year-old daughter, Karen said her role was to “teach her and encourage her” and “support her to be the woman she needs and wants to be.” She added that her daughter thinks “differently” about the world and is aiming as high as she can, in contrast to previous generations who have suffered discrimination. “Her destiny and future are in her hands. Each step she is taking will reinforce the fact that woman were born to be seen and included.”