Katie Kelly speaking at the ICMA Women's Network event at NIB. Image: ICMA

16 Jun 2023

Gender equality: yesterday, today and tomorrow

By Katie Kelly, Senior Director, International Capital Market Association and founding member of the ICMA Women’s Network

For over 50 years, the International Capital Market Association (ICMA) has been pioneering the rules, principles and recommendations for the international capital and securities markets. Yet, the association is not only focusing on sustainable capital market development. ICMA is also committed to creating a diverse and inclusive environment within the industry.

In 2015, my colleagues and I were mandated to put together a lunchtime event for ICMA members on a technical issue of our choice. We were given a steer: Capital Markets Union. The Juncker Plan. Financial Services Regulation. Unexpectedly, the ICMA Women’s Network (IWN) grew out of it.

At first, there were five of us. Fast forward to 2023, the IWN now counts over 4,000 members – 16% of whom are men – across 300 ICMA member firms.

Back in its founding days, a brainstorming session with colleagues on our ‘technical issue’ somehow morphed into a discussion on the experiences – some lived, some vicarious – of women in financial services.

Case one: a junior woman whose career was so demanding, inflexible, and unsustainable that she was not able to commit to 5 AM rowing sessions, or any work/life balance at all. Case two: a mild-mannered mid-level woman who, despite glowing appraisals, was passed over for promotion three times, spoken over, mansplained to, and repeatedly undermined in her male-dominated environment. Case three: a round of global financial crisis-induced redundancies, where the axe fell on a senior woman over others due to her employer’s concerns that she would prioritise her two young babies over her job.

While it is not unusual that many women will fall off the career ladder at a certain point and for many reasons, it should not be an expectation. So, we asked: why should women make the concessions, just because their circumstances and aspirations don’t fit the (largely male) mould? Shouldn’t the (largely male) workplace change to be more accommodating of women, and, in fact, everyone? What can companies do to keep women from falling off the career ladder?

Hence the IWN became a cross-jurisdictional, cross-function, impartial and open forum with the aim of providing a safe space for discussions and equipping women with the right tools to help themselves. This included workshops on resilience, confidence, unconscious bias, imposter syndrome, branding, and effective networking.

Some of this original remit now feels slightly stale, as the majority of the financial services industry acknowledges the well-documented business and social imperative of gender balance[1]. Also driven by ESG requirements, this priority has filtered into the broader corporate responsibility remit and finds itself at the heart of many diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies. Regulatory attention has turned to gender equality, evidenced by Women in Finance Charters for instance in the UK, Norway and Ireland. UK-based firms now must report on the gender pay gap, with disability and ethnicity pay gap reporting inevitable in the future[2]. And while gender quotas, targets and the ‘multiplier effect’[3] are still divisive, many firms want to demonstrate gender equality through blind recruiting and other impartiality measures.

One could say that we have made some good strides since 2015. This acceleration of change in gender equality has also allowed the focus to fall elsewhere, such as equality of opportunity for those from different socio-economic backgrounds, those with a disability, those with mental health issues and those with neurodiversity issues, much of which is embedded in many firms’ DEI policies.

Yet, there is still a way to go with gender equality. While this may be becoming an outdated pretext, in heterosexual relationships women still disproportionately bear the lion’s share of domestic and family life, whether you like it or not.

Recently, Covid-19 resulted in another major setback for women in terms of jobs, incomes, and economic security. Accenture[4] interviewed 500 women in global financial services about how the pandemic impacted their career trajectories: specifically in capital markets, women were more negatively impacted than their banking and insurance counterparts, 64% of women lost opportunities to grow their careers during the pandemic, and 53% of women felt disconnected from or forgotten by their company.

And just as we started to emerge from the pandemic, the war in Ukraine added a new level of human tragedy and socio-economic costs, preventing many women and girls from realising their full potential. In Ukraine itself, the access to education is hampered. Exacerbated by depletion of health and basic financial services, it contributes to the further downward spiral for women in a country where austerity measures were already deepening gender inequalities even before the war.

So, what can we do to ensure that measures in furtherance of gender and other equalities are not regressive, when extraneous and societal influences might contrive to derail them?

Well, for one – it is the first time that we have five different generations coexisting in the workplace, and as a result, workforces are more culturally aware than ever. This is largely attributable to Generation Z[5], whose identity has been shaped by the digital age, climate anxiety and Covid-19, but who also have admirably high baseline expectations around equality.

It is therefore imperative that as well as continuing with individual efforts, we continue to educate Gen Z on how things were, lest they should underestimate how far we have come. We need to ensure that all workplace equality is and remains a common goal, and that an agile and inclusive culture in the workplace becomes the norm.

ICMA currently has over 620 members active in all segments of international debt capital markets in 66 jurisdictions globally. ICMA members are private and public sector issuers, banks and securities dealers, asset and fund managers, insurance companies, law firms, capital market infrastructure providers and central banks.

The ICMA Women’s Network provides a global, impartial and open forum to encourage, support and inspire women at all stages of their career and to further the aim of gender equality within the bond markets. As of June 2023, Angela Brusas, Director, Funding & Investor Relations at NIB, chairs the Steering Committee of Network.

[1] For instance, see How diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) matter | McKinsey

[2] Introduction and overview – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[3] A quantifiable increase of women added to senior leadership levels for each woman added to the C-suite.

[4] Women in Financial Services & COVID-19 Survey Results | LinkedIn

[5] Those born between 1996 and 2010