Why aren’t there more females in senior financial roles by now? Women account for fewer than 2% of financial institutions’ chief executive officers worldwide and fewer than one in seven partners at hedge funds and private-equity firms, even though businesses with the greatest gender diversity among their executive teams can expect to triumph over less enlightened rivals in the profitability stakes.

Tracy Sambrook is one of those all-too-few role models for girls and young women who hope to excel in this field. The chief financial officer of Blighter Surveillance Systems, a specialist provider of radars, counter-drone solutions and integration software, and formerly the chief financial officer of the digital wealth manager Nutmeg, Sambrook is friendly but forthright, brimming with innovative ideas about everything from a more equitable division of childcare to financial education in schools. The only problem? The sector doesn’t have enough women like her. 

So, what role has gender played in Sambrook’s progression to her position at Blighter? (The Saffron Walden-based business counts the UK and US governments among its prestigious clients, and recently secured funding from BOOST&Co to expand its commercial client base.)

Perhaps surprisingly, Sambrook “doesn’t really” think of herself as a “numbers person”, but after studying at the University of Birmingham, she entered Deloitte’s graduate scheme (“I realised that French literature wasn’t very useful in the real world”, she wryly observes). Having already noticed the effects of gender stereotyping – her undergraduate cohort reflected the assumption that Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are “male” and languages “female” – she saw that Deloitte’s gender-balanced intake was not mirrored at a senior level.

Women left holding the baby

Sambrook points to the City’s antisocial working hours (after we speak, the London Stock Exchange announces that it may adopt new hours of 9am to 4pm, partly with the aim of attracting more women). “I haven’t faced gender discrimination, but I think that’s because I don’t have children,” she says. “I don’t have to make the choices that parents have to make, although I’m not sure parents make them – I think mothers tend to make them.”

The “atrocious” take-up of shared parental leave – just 1% in 2018 – also contributes to an “unfair platform”, where part-time work is generally done by women, Sambrook believes. “Parenting should be considered a joint role,” she says. “In the defence industry, the ‘pale, male, stale’ issue is still apparent, but sectors like tech are better because the age demographic tends to be under 45. If the younger generation takes a shared approach, things will change.” 

A 2016 government review by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, now the chief executive of Salesforce UK and Ireland, identifies “a ‘permafrost’ in the mid-tier that is not just about childcare… women are leaving because the culture isn’t right”. Sambrook has worked in historically male-dominated environments such as construction services, where “you’re coming from a negative position, having to prove that you’ve earned your place. I felt as though I had to work a lot harder, because I was trying to tell them to ignore the fact that I was female and stop treating me as ‘other’”. 

The 30% target – “not good enough”

When inequality pervades company culture, tackling female underrepresentation is tough. The 30% Club was founded in 2010 by the hedge-fund manager Helena Morrissey, to promote gender balance at all levels, and the FTSE 100 is said to be on track to meet its target of having women in 30% of board positions by 2020. But given that women comprise more than half the UK’s population, why isn’t the target 50%? “As with any business, if you set an overly ambitious target, people discount it,” Sambrook says. “I think 30% is pragmatic – it’s a very British thing – but it’s not good enough.”

She cites the example of Alison Rose, Royal Bank of Scotland’s chief executive, who pledged to make the bank more inclusive when, in September, she became the first female boss of one of the UK’s “big four” lenders. “RBS is a retail bank and women have traditionally done well in the retail environment, so it makes no sense that it’s taken this long. We should have smashed the 30% target by now,” Sambrook says. 

New initiatives that aim to address such problems include the Missing Millions campaign; launched on 8 November, when the 30% Club opened the London market in partnership with the London Stock Exchange’s Women Inspired Network (WIN), this encourages businesses to build gender diversity and inclusion into everything they do. In September, Rose opened the market on the same day that ELITE, the London Stock Exchange’s business support programme, signed the government’s Investing in Women code, committing to support female entrepreneurs through access to funding and other resources.

Shortlisting women when recruiting can also help to redress the balance. As chief financial officer of Nutmeg, Sambrook signed up the company to the government’s Women in Finance Charter, which permits signatories to select their own metrics for measuring progress on gender equality.

After discussions with Anne Francke, the chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute – “a big champion of women in the workplace, who tries to spark more conversations about diversity at a managerial level” – Sambrook decided that all interview panels should include a woman. “I’ve seen a lot of male candidates massively overpromise,” she says. “Having a woman on the panel gives you a different perspective; men judge candidates the way they would judge themselves.”

How to help female colleagues

When discussing the ways in which women can help female colleagues, Sambrook emphasises the importance of a meritocratic approach that makes women feel valued, rather than patronised. As divisional finance director of Auto Trader, she worked with a “brilliant” female chief financial officer, “a real champion of women who did it in a balanced way; first and foremost, you had to be good”.

These types of role models are key, she believes. At Nutmeg, a female employee told Sambrook that her presence on the executive team was inspiring, but in too many companies, the problem remains “the absence at the top. If there’s a woman above you, you learn from her. You can get that from a man, but the reality is that you can’t see yourself in him,” she says.

Sambrook regularly uses one-to-one coaching and mentoring to raise awareness of the potentially adverse effects of stereotypically female traits, such as apologising and “feeling the need to explain things more – which I occasionally still do myself”, she says. “It’s not about trying to be more male in what we do, but most women have moments in which they don’t back themselves enough.”

Another powerful tool available to a chief financial officer is the ability to influence employees’ pay. Sambrook, who supports Blighter’s female vice-president (finance) in working 80% of regular hours, says that her position enabled her, in previous roles, to ask: “Why are we rating one person as ‘outstanding’ and another as ‘very good’? Is this because the person we’re rating ‘very good’ doesn’t shout about it because she’s female?”

Bridging the gender pay gap

Structural inequalities, however, require systemic change. The UK’s gender pay gap was 11.9% in April 2019, and research from the Office for National Statistics shows that women receive, on average, 59% of men’s lifetime earnings. But although Sambrook supports the principle of larger companies reporting their gender pay gaps, she is unconvinced by a recent call from Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, for firms with 30-plus employees to reveal their numbers (“people who are asking for that have no idea about the SME market”, she says).

Likewise, she reserves some criticism for the #MeTooPay movement, co-founded by the former Royal Mail chief executive Moya Greene and Minouche Shafik, the director of the London School of Economics. Launched in October, it follows the recent high-profile battles for equal pay of the BBC’s former China editor, Carrie Gracie, and the ex-BNP Paribas banker Stacey Macken.

“I agree with high-profile women standing up and saying ‘this is not right’, but linking it to #MeToo is too close to the bone. Equal pay is important, but not the same as dealing with sexual violence in the entertainment industry,” Sambrook says. “In terms of calling it out, though, it does make easier those moments where you have to say, ‘Are we paying her less because she’s female?’”

Why finance should be taught in schools

Perhaps the key to progress lies in education, in which Sambrook believes businesses should play an active role. “Companies getting involved with the Stem movement, to give girls an insight into what they can do, can only be a good thing,” she says. The Domestic Abuse Bill 2019 will make economic abuse a crime; should this be on the national curriculum? “If we taught basic economics, we could explain that money can be powerful in an emotional, as well as in a practical, way,” she says.

“What’s really needed, though, is a cultural effort around not telling girls to ‘stop being bossy’, to allow them to be assertive. And everyone needs more financial education. Some politicians talk about nationalisation, which can sound very appealing, but a lot of people don’t understand the impact it would have on their personal finances and pensions, so they have no idea what they’re voting for.”

Meanwhile, one final tip from Sambrook draws on a Financial Times article listing six things working women should pretend they can’t do – “never pour tea, don’t take the minutes, don’t clear up. If people fall into stereotypical gender roles, it’s more pervasive than their actions: it’s the perception as well. With anything that women have been conditioned into doing, just be crap at it and you’ll be fine.”

• This article was originally published in the November 2019 edition of ELITE‘s newsletter, published by the London Stock Exchange Group

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