Not many senior leaders at financial institutions studied radical feminist theory as part of their degree – but Alice Hu Wagner isn’t a typical senior leader. The British Business Bank’s managing director of strategy, economics and business development, who also analysed the Bible as literature and took a module in engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, is “good at numbers, but that’s not the thing I’m best at – I always thought that I was capable of being a leader”, she says.

Hu Wagner, who describes herself as an “ABC” (American-born Chinese), grew up in Houston, Texas, where her father worked on an oil rig; this served as an early introduction to “being in male-dominated industries throughout my life”. After joining McKinsey and Company, she moved to Europe when her desire to work in Asia was thwarted by the financial crisis. She has now spent more than 20 years in the UK, playing a key part in the expansion of the Bank since it was founded in 2014.

Previous articles in BOOST&Co’s Women in Finance series, which addresses gender inequality in the sector, have outlined ongoing problems at the most senior levels. Hu Wagner is a strong advocate for redressing the balance, and on her watch, the Bank’s 2018 UK VC and Female Founders report identified the obstacles faced by female-led firms, which receive less than 1p in every pound of venture-capital investment. She also sat on the board of the Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, which last year proposed eight steps for improving women’s access to funding.

Hu Wagner speaks highly of the support offered to female entrepreneurs by ELITE, the London Stock Exchange’s business support programme; she also backs the government’s Investing in Women Code and Women in Finance Charter, although she notes that these are “little steps – they reflect the zeitgeist, they don’t lead it”. So what will persuade those who are reluctant to change? “Fomo,” she says. “Businesses should work on diversity because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the profitable thing to do – but I also happen to think that it is the profitable thing to do.”

In addition to shaping the Bank’s response to issues of representation, Hu Wagner believes in supporting the women around her by offering practical advice. Here, we take a look at some of the tips she has developed throughout her career.

Alice Hu Wagner’s advice

Hu Wagner was headhunted when the Bank had just 30 employees, compared with more than 350 today. Although women are considered to be more risk-averse than men, “a lot of my male colleagues said: ‘No one knows what this thing is; it doesn’t even exist. You’re taking a huge risk.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, but my CV is pretty blue-chip; I can always go back,’” she says. Her decision to accept the job was backed by female friends in corporate finance, and the risk reaped rewards: today, her role continues to expand.

“There are still rigid versions of success that are male,” Hu Wagner observes, telling a horror story about hiring a woman who felt she could no longer continue to work as a trader (“you’ve got a position open and you can’t go to the toilet until it’s closed, but you can’t close it until the markets move in the right way. Guys bring bottles and pee at their desk. Girls can’t do that,” she says).

The structural inequality that results in these lucrative roles being filled disproportionately by men is clearly unfair, but women should be honest about whether these versions of success appeal to them, Hu Wagner says. “I look at other senior women and think, ‘no, I don’t want a car that drives me to my kid’s rugby match so I can work on the way there’. Is that something to aspire to? And isn’t it OK to be a woman and say, ‘I don’t really want that’?”

She mentions an award-winning finance professional in commercial real estate – a strongly male-dominated sector – who accepted a lower salary in exchange for 13 weeks of annual leave, so that she could spend school holidays with her son. “It would never have occurred to me to ask for that,” Hu Wagner says, “but that’s what success looks like – getting to a place on your own terms.”

Given the impact on one’s career of starting a family, Hu Wagner encourages both men and women to consider it carefully. “I give everyone ‘the talk’, boys and girls,” she says. “The worst thing is not to figure out if you want kids until it’s too late.” Her pragmatic approach includes addressing issues that frequently go undiscussed (“yes, there’s IVF, but we don’t talk about how expensive and painful that is”) and advising employees to ensure that they earn enough “to achieve what I call ‘escape velocity’, which includes being able to pay for childcare. Don’t sleepwalk into it, whatever you do.”

With the take-up of shared parental leave at just 1% in the UK, Hu Wagner is keen to offer practical help (such as encouraging working from home) to the young fathers in her male-dominated team – not only to give their partners the flexibility to continue their careers, but also to ensure that the next generation “grows up seeing it as normal that mom and dad share equally”.

She also considers it vital for men in senior roles to set a good example, praising the Bank’s chief executive, Keith Morgan, for his “totally open” outlook. Morgan puts his children’s sports days and prize-giving ceremonies in his diary, “and that tone from the top means it’s OK”, she says. “He leads by example and I find that inspiring. You shouldn’t let guys off the hook; they can be supportive too.”

Formal mentoring can be “a bit prescriptive and scary”, according to Hu Wagner, who learned the value of more informal relationships when a headhunter showed her how to find a nanny. “Now, I try to pay that forward by supporting my team in a practical way: ‘How do you find childcare? How do you carry yourself in a meeting? How do you dress for work?’ Sometimes, practical tips are better than any policy; this approach has been so much more useful to me in getting to where I am.”

Hu Wagner regularly invites women outside her team to attend her meetings (“sometimes you have to learn from somebody who looks a little bit more like you”), and one valuable tip relates to being heard. Men, she suggests, rarely have an internal conversation about if or when to speak, “whereas women often think: ‘If I don’t use a particular tone of voice, or if I go quiet, will I be heard?’”

She has noticed women making comments in meetings and being ignored, only for men to receive recognition and praise after repeating their female colleagues’ remarks. In this situation, her advice is for women to remain on high alert. “You may need to react to this; don’t just think it’s because you’re shy or you don’t want to speak up,” she warns. “There’s more going on.”

Women’s attire in the workplace is an increasingly contested area, with some employees rejecting the feminine clothing traditionally expected of them. Hu Wagner became aware of these expectations when she joined a consultancy, aged 21, and was invited by a female partner to a trunk show (where fashion designers show their collections). She observes that there remains a disjunction between her character and her appearance even today.

“My personality is traditionally male – I’m organised, rational and not emotional – so I don’t have to change to be able to succeed. But I dress in a more feminine way, because it softens me,” she admits. She notes, however, that the structural inequality that forces females into such behaviours reinforces homogeneity, even as these actions enable individual women to succeed. “Gender is a performance, so it’s not uncomfortable for me – it’s a form of drag – but there’s a disproportionate number of successful women who do this, and that’s not diversity either,” she says.

Where do women go from here?

Given the slow pace of change, the outlook for the future can seem bleak. Hu Wagner is pleased that the FTSE 350 has achieved its target of appointing women to 30% of positions on boards, but the number of female chief executives in the FTSE 100 has fallen to five (“we’ve gone backwards; people say, ‘Yeah, we’ve had our female CEO’”) and the British establishment’s power structures still seem most likely to admit a certain type of person, often male. But “the important thing is to keep trying”, Hu Wagner insists.

Does she believe that the situation of women in finance will improve? Tellingly, she concludes not by referring to finance – or, indeed, to women – but to those who will inherit a patriarchal system and decide whether or not to maintain it. “My 13-year-old son is at a boys’ school where saying that someone is sexist or homophobic is a genuine insult. That’s the hearts and minds of the next generation changing,” she says. “It’s all about winning hearts and minds.”

• Women in Finance #1: How to stop women in finance from getting a raw deal
• Women in Finance #2: Wanted: more female role models in finance

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