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Women in Finance aims for gender balance in male-dominated sector
Last year a group of senior finance executives got together with a firm mission – to do something about the lack of gender diversity in the country’s financial sector. They set themselves three goals: to promote gender balance at all levels of the sector, to force major financial players around the table to learn from each other’s approaches and to raise awareness about the importance of diversity and inclusion.
Monday marked the association’s first major feat when two dozen major players, representing more than 85% of the country’s financial industry, signed the Gender Diversity in Finance Charter.
“I’m truly convinced that through the initiative of Women in Finance in combination with all the other existing initiatives, progress can and will be made to move our sector into a more balanced and inclusive direction,” said Christine Van Rijsseghem, chief risk assessment officer at KBC bank and president of Women in Finance.
Now, the real work begins. By signing the charter, the 25 companies commit to measuring their gender data, to developing an action plan with concrete and realistic goals aimed at improving gender balance and to communicating their progress.
Finally, the companies also committed to appointing a diversity and inclusion manager. For its part, Women in Finance will communicate on the global results achieved by the sector.
Figures from Belgium’s financial industry federation Febelfin show that women currently account for 50% of general staff in the sector, but that the figures start to dwindle at middle and senior management levels, where they represent just 44% and 27% of staff respectively.
This is indefensible, various speakers stressed, because the financial industry needs all the talent it can get – particularly at the top. The financial industry has never before faced so many challenges – from stringent new regulations implemented in the wake of the banking crisis, to rapid digitalisation requiring new business approaches.
“Any board of directors that is diverse is more creative, and creativity is needed for innovation,” says Dirk Van Gerven, a managing partner at the NautaDutilh law firm’s Brussels office. Innovation, he says, is crucial to succeed in today’s world. “So the answer is very simple: Make sure your board and your management are diverse.”
But even when women make it to the very top of an organisation, their voices aren’t always heard, notes Marcia De Wachter (pictured above). The director of the National Bank of Belgium – host of the Women in Finance event – until last year, she remained on its board until recently.
She was the only woman on the six-member board, and when it was announced that the vacancy she left would be filled by former finance minister Steven Vanackere, there was a public outcry.
The National Bank subsequently appointed both a diversity manager and an employee working group to quantify the institution’s gender diversity problem and to propose solutions, along with a host of other measures.
Throwing in the towel
Outgoing finance minister Alexander De Croo swiftly announced reforms to the central bank’s governance structures, while lawmaker Griet Smaers drafted a proposal that would introduce a legal gender quota of 33%. That would apply at not just the central bank’s management bodies but also at the Court of Audit and the financial industry regulator FMSA.
Noting that she fought for almost 20 years for gender equality in the financial sector, De Wachter said that she, paradoxically, finally forced a change by throwing in the towel. It was not her seat at the table but her leaving it that opened a national conversation about the lack of gender diversity at the National Bank and the industry at large.
“Sometimes when you are completely different from the rest of the group,” she says, “you need to leave the group to make a difference.”
Photo: Marcia De Wachter was with the National Bank of Belgium for 30 years ©Dirk Waem/BELGA