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Minority report: Are women closer to achieving equality in the industry?

Mortgage Strategy asks if females in the
industry are any closer to achieving equality

Minority report

Mortgage Strategy asks if females in the industry are any closer to achieving equality

Many senior appointments in the mortgage industry have traditionally been negotiated on the golf course before the dotting of ‘i’s and crossing of ‘t’s in the boardroom. However, as the political spotlight shines on the gender pay gap and the need for management diversity across all sectors, such practices are beginning to look outdated because they have the potential to exclude a large section of the population, namely women.

That is not to say golf is an exclusively male sport but some argue that this and other forms of corporate entertainment are symptomatic of an ‘old boys’ network’, which can make it difficult for women to get a look-in for the top jobs.

It is impossible to calculate how many female brokers work in the mortgage industry. Indeed, Mortgage Strategy submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Financial Conduct Authority to ascertain the proportion of female mortgage advisers, but it was declined because the regulator said it did not hold a gender breakdown.

Anecdotally, however, women in the industry attest that they normally find themselves in the minority at black-tie dinners and other events. They say that although adviser numbers are more evenly split between the genders, the number of women in senior management positions is very small and those individuals are memorable precisely because of their scarcity.

At the helm of certain banks are Ana Botín, chair of Santander, Jayne-Anne Ghadia, chief executive of Virgin Money, and Tracy Garrad, chief executive of First Direct. Female building society bosses number just two: Darina Armstrong, chief executive of Progressive Building Society, based in Northern Ireland, and Susan Whiting, chief executive of Stafford Railway Building Society.

In the FTSE 100 the situation is improving with a target set by Lord Davies in 2011 – for 25 per cent of board members to be female – recently met. There are no longer any all-male boards among those top 100 companies.

But there is still a lot of work to be done before genuine equality has been established because under 10 per cent of executive director­ships on those boards are held by women, according to figures from the Women on Boards organisation and the Professional Boards Forum.

In FTSE 250 companies the situation is worse with only 19 per cent of directors being female and just over 5 per cent of executive directors.

Soon it will be not only stock exchange-listed companies that have to answer for their lack of diversity: in 2016 the Government will introduce a requirement for all companies with 250 or more employees to publish the average salaries of their male and female staff.

Across all sectors, the current gender pay gap for all employees is 19.1 per cent, meaning that, on average, for every £1 earned by a man, a woman earns around 80 pence. It is telling that several female mortgage professionals who shared their experiences with Mortgage Strategy chose to do so on condition of anonymity because they were concerned that speaking out might damage their career. Their accounts date from the pre-credit crunch era.

One woman says: “Some industry social events felt more like a stag party than anything else.

“Early in my career in around 2007, I was taken to a strip club with a number of male colleagues by one of the lenders. They ordered expensive champagne, of course, and they were all acting like extras in a 50 Cent video.”

“Looking back, I felt I was complicit in it by tagging along but I was just trying to fit in and be ‘one of the lads’. I was afraid of being seen as prudish or a kill-joy.”

Another female mortgage employee had even more sinister experiences around that time. She says: “Evening events were my least favourite part of the job. Day to day, I didn’t feel like I was taken less seriously because I was a woman, probably because many of my more experienced colleagues were women too. At evening do’s, however, when alcohol was involved, it could be pretty unpleasant.

“I remember one event where a senior figure at a lender had been trying to touch me up under the table all through dinner – and then cornered me in a lift and tried to put his hand up my skirt.

“During the day we may all have been on equal pegging but, when alcohol was thrown into the mix, it was clear the girls were there to be ogled and conversations were littered with cringeworthy sexual innuendos.”

After the financial crisis hit, austere times followed and for a while it felt as if the mortgage industry had woken up with a terrible hangover and a hazy memory of its drunken misdemeanours. Many firms went out of business.

The once boundless corporate entertainment budgets became slim to non-existent and tougher regulation was a wake-up call to the market to smarten up its act. It may also have put an end to the worst excesses of chauvinism in the industry’s culture.

Today the arguments are more subtle. A heated debate recently arose between financial services professionals on social network LinkedIn about what could be done to prevent women being sent inappropriate messages by male users. A male solicitor suggested that women could lower the risk of “creepy” approaches by changing their profile picture to their company logo.

The solicitor himself had opted to use his own photograph for his profile picture rather than an impersonal company graphic. Other LinkedIn users were quick to point out that women should not have to make themselves invisible in order to prevent unwanted male attention.

Senior women in the mortgage industry can struggle to explain why there are so few others in their position. Mortgage Intelligence managing director Sally Laker says: “I think it has changed and there are more women now. It isn’t really gender specific but you do need to be somebody who is passionate and driven.”

However, Laker concedes that she is one of only a handful of women at her level of seniority in the industry.

“I don’t know why that is. I guess there is always an element of luck and opportunity that enables you to get any position. I think that probably experience in the industry is also incredibly useful. I haven’t ever felt that it would have made a difference if I was a guy.”

Bower Retirement Services chair Andrea Rozario says: “It’s always been a male-dominated industry. The higher you go in seniority, the fewer women there are. We are a long way off equality. Women are still paid less than men and there are fewer women on the boards of companies.”

She adds: “I agree it has been a macho culture and that seems to be reinforced through the social events. If you go to an event, the chances are 80 per cent of attendees will be male. It is reinforced because their experiences, attitude and upbringing are all being validated by each other because they are in the majority and women are in the minority.”

Rozario acknowledges that some of the extremes of machoism have been toned down since the credit crisis.

“There is a big difference today. Prior to the credit crunch, it felt somewhat hedonistic.”

Another suggested explanation for the relative lack of women in senior jobs is that they tend to be pushed towards administrative roles.

TenetLime managing director Gemma Harle says: “I read a comment in a magazine about the lack of women in mortgages. Some industry figure said: ‘Well, we are trying. We’re creating administration and paraplanning roles.’ I mean, hello! That is the worst thing to say. They’re saying: ‘Oh that’s good, they can make the tea and this will be a little step up for them.”

SPF Private Clients mortgage consultant Elena Todorova says: “Even if women have the ability to become successful mortgage brokers, they often end up in the back office because they’re so efficient that the management encourages them to take an administrative position.”

In some quarters there seems to be both complacency about the level to which women have progressed in the industry and a lack of motivation for further change.

Valunation managing director Alison Beech says: “We were having a roundtable discussion about the lack of females in the industry and a guy was a touch perplexed. He said: ‘We’ve got loads of females who do really well – they become branch managers.’ So I said: ‘And what’s next? Where’s the next career move for them?’ They had no female executives on their board so how’s that flow being interrupted somehow? None of us had an answer for that.

“I think it’s the age profile of somebody who has reached branch manager in their 30s and who might then be taking a career break to have a family. How do you later transition them back into a career path in order to progress?”

It seems perceptions of male and female roles and of the expected hierarchy remain ingrained. Beech continues: “When I became chief executive at Guardian Mortgage Services [now Capita], my finance director was male. Quite often we would arrive at a meeting and the immediate assumption was made that it was the other way around: he was the boss and I was the number two. That happened on a number of occasions and it used to make us laugh – but it wasn’t funny.”

Whenever the issue of improving board diversity is raised, a discussion about the merits of quota systems is normally quick to follow. But many believe quotas undermine the achievements of women in the industry.

Laker says: “I’m passionate about people being appointed at board level because they’re the right person. I’m against appointing someone because a company feels it needs to have a woman on the board; it’s not picking that person because they have the skills, they will add value and they’ve got the experience it needs. If I was chosen because someone wanted a token woman on the board to meet their quota, I wouldn’t want that position.”

Women on Boards managing director Fiona Hathorn believes targets and quotas are unrelated and the former are simply normal benchmarks used in every aspect of business planning.

She says: “Quotas are a legislative tool. They are something that mean, if you do not comply with them, there will be punitive action. For example, you will be delisted from the market; you will lack access to finance; you will not be able to win a government contract. That’s entirely different from setting a target.

“Setting targets is simply good business practice. You set a target for your revenues, for your costs, for your profits.”

Hathorn says that, with the Government’s upcoming requirement for businesses to publish data on average male and female salaries, even independent and unlisted companies will come under the spotlight if they fail to improve equality.

“Now, if they’re not listed, it can’t be the Financial Reporting Council that gets them in their annual report but it might be the gender pay gap,” she says.

Hathorn stresses that the main imperative for change should be a commercial one.

The mortgage industry should look to improve its diversity to better meet the needs of its customers, rather than through fear of a regulatory crackdown, she argues.

“If we’re going to ensure that we understand our consumers and produce the best and most flexible products that are structured in the most competitive way, the companies that do well and that survive will have a good management team.

“There’s a lot of research to show that diverse teams perform better. They’re not diverse because they’re ticking boxes to do the right thing; they’re diverse because they’re made up of people not like them, and that’s crucial.

“Once you have people who are not like you, they think from a different perspective, hear different things and see different things,” she says.

Is the industry family friendly?

Coreco partner Jennifer Nursiah says: “I’m in my eleventh year at the company and I was actually the first woman to join Coreco.

“In terms of our salesforce, the weighting of brokers is predominantly male. We’ve got three women who are fully fledged brokers and two who have grown through the credit crunch. You had to have a lot of personality to be able to survive and come through that time.

“Coreco has been excellent because it has an apprenticeship programme and graduate scheme. It’s trying to recruit fresh blood into the industry, including women.

“Our job is very demanding in time and energy. I started when I was 24. As a female, you need to make a decision on whether to focus on your career or build up a career and then start a family. This job can side-track you from that a bit. Maybe some women come out of the industry because of other priorities.”

Bower Retirement Services chair Andrea Rozario points out that improving equality in the mortgage industry is not just about allowing women more flexibility to work around their family commitments.

She says: “If we consider maternity leave, we also have to consider paternity leave; we’re talking about equality Why should it necessarily fall to one parent to take time off?

“I understand the physical challenges of having a baby, having had one myself. That doesn’t necessarily mean some women don’t want to get back to work straight away. It doesn’t mean that the men don’t want to stay off longer.

“What we need to do is facilitate parents, be it male or female, to enable them to parent their child in the way they choose.”

TenetLime managing director Gemma Harle thinks mortgage broking suits many working parents because, if they are self-employed, they can fit their paperwork around childcare commitments.

She says: “You have to put the hours in but you’ve got that flexibility, so you can manage your childcare. You may work a full day or from 12pm till 8pm because you’ve got appointments in the evening. You’re putting in the same hours but you’ve got flexibility around when you do them.”

Is it time to ditch the golf days?

While many women in the mortgage industry enjoy sporting events, there seems to be a general consensus that companies could make their entertainment more inclusive.

TenetLime managing director Gemma Harle says: “We know the majority of jobs don’t get advertised and people tend to recruit from their personal network, which tends to mean more men. It’s quite hard to break into that. You can pick up on some of the recruitments that have gone on recently and some of the same people seem to pick up most of the jobs, which is very much through networking.

“There are a few events where it’s golfing beforehand so the men get together early and you turn up for the evening event – and it’s like you’ve come late to the party. They are already established and have done their bonding and you feel like you are coming in a bit cold.

“It’s very rare to get women-only events. I’m not saying it should be women only but, when an event happens that is going to attract more women than men, you sometimes get a few derogatory remarks around it. You don’t get that about the golf days, football or rugby.”

Valunation managing director Alison Beech says: “It is a challenge to hold events that are truly accessible to all. We still have the golf games but there are also spa days. I’ve been to a chef’s table and that was mixed.

“But I love going to football and rugby so I don’t want people to think I don’t want to go to those things.”

However, Beech believes sometimes she is not invited to a sporting event because there is an assumption that it will not interest her.

SPF Private Clients mortgage consultant Elena Todorova says: “It is a very male-dominated industry because, as with any other area of financial services, a lot of the networking happens on the golf course or at the football game. Sometimes, to be honest, we don’t get invited to many rugby and football matches. Luckily, I’m a fan of Chelsea so I have managed to get a few tickets for that.”

She adds: “It is a tough job to be in because you have to sacrifice some of your family time to go to networking events. Many women with a family feel duty-bound to go home after work. For men it’s slightly different because they can go for drinks after work. They can go to events.

“You see very few women at these events. If you go to the various mortgage dinners, there are maybe only one or two women at most tables. I have been in places where I’m the only woman there and, although it doesn’t bother me any more, it shouldn’t be like that.”


Lynda Blackwell FCA

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