By Cleo Thompson (London), founder of The Gender Blog
Women’s networks – are they still relevant in 2010? This has been a question posed of late by a number of commentators, who suggest that encouraging women to group together, network and share ideas and experiences is counterproductive to 21st century business life, creating silos and serving as a space for women to complain about the status quo.
Last week in London saw the Credit Suisse sponsored thirtieth birthday party and annual awards lunch of one of the UK’s oldest and most established women’s networking groups, Women in Banking and Finance (WIBF). Created by five women in 1980, and sponsored by the then Deputy Chairman of NatWest Bank, WIBF now has a membership of over 800 individuals and provides a forum for woman (and at the lunch, quite a few men) to meet, learn new skills, share experiences and best practices, make useful contacts and to fulfil their individual potential. In addition to the annual awards lunch, WIBF (also part of wider global network the International Alliance for Women) runs a regular programme of training and networking events with a focus on personal and professional development.
The WIBF awards began in 1997 and celebrates three women each year for their outstanding personal and professional achievements in the traditionally male financial services sector. And last week, the Dorchester hotel in central London played host to a roomful of around 250 WIBF members, all doing anything BUT complaining – in fact, the amount of networking and generous sharing of ideas and contacts would have put the membership of the average golf club to shame.
“I want people to feel inspired and uplifted by the awards,” explained WIBF Chair, Christine Lawrence.
“We hope that they’ll have a fun and motivating day, and enjoy being part of our success story. Today is an antidote to the doom and gloom experienced by so many in financial services over the last few years. We’re already seeing an uplift in membership as 2010 progresses, which is our own way of monitoring the green shoots of recovery!”
WIBF members include companies such as HSBC, Nomura, Royal Bank of Canada, Credit Suisse, RBS, Morgan Stanley, members of the Barclays group on both the retail and investment banking sides as well as professional services firms such as Ernst & Young, last year’s event sponsor. I asked State Street Corporation, a relatively new member of WIBF, what they felt their staff got out of this kind of networking event, and EMEA Global Inclusion head Pauline Miller enthused about what a wonderful opportunity it was for their more junior women to learn from others, to meet their peers and to learn about how other woman – and organisations – handle workplace challenges.
“For us, it’s not about winning awards – but it is about giving our women a line of sight as to what’s possible, and a great way of providing them with access to really inspirational role models.”
At lunch, I sat next to Dorrett, one of HSBC’s senior service managers, who’s worked there since 1975 – the year the Equal Pay Act came into law in the UK, and five years before the birth of WIBF. She smiled a little ruefully as she remembered the way it used to be, but was happy to focus on the positive changes for women in the workplace that she’s seen in those 35 years – and we both nodded when, in Christine Lawrence’s speech from the Chair, she reminded us of the raft of positive legislation enacted in the UK since 1980 and told us that she believes that WIBF has value today because:
“ … networks help to underpin the framework of such legislation and their application and it also help with employee engagement. In our recent WIBF survey we received a resounding yes from our members and non members who stressed that networks do play an important part in their organisation – an astounding 70% felt their firm is an active promoter of diversity and 62% said larger firms are better placed to support gender diversity.”
“When the music stops – things will get complicated”
And on the role model front? The keynote speaker was HSBC economist (and former ballet dancer) Bronwyn Curtis OBE, Head of Global Research, where she manages their global research operations and portfolio including the Fixed Income, Foreign Exchange and Equity research. Australian by birth, she came to London to study at the London School of Economics after she’d hung up her ballet shoes and subsequently became the first female economist in the City. Her witty and inspirational talk danced us through her thoughts on what governments can do to improve gender balance in the workplace (equalise the tax regime and improve access to childcare) and, likewise, what companies can do (increase the amount of female leaders, given that we now KNOW, courtesy of studies from McKinsey and Catalyst, that organisations with more balanced leadership teams perform better financially).
Quoting Chuck Prince, ex-CEO of Citi’s prophetic words from 2007 that “when the music stops, things will get complicated”, she concluded that the banking crisis was “germinated in the seeds of the macho culture of the money markets”, and called upon the next generation of WIBF members to not allow it to happen again.
And the winners are…
The event closed with three amazing women being called to the stage to accept their awards.
Sarah Smith, Chief of Staff, Ultra High Net Worth Private Banking (EMEA) at Barclays Wealth became the WIBF Young Professional of the year, and the 2010 WIBF Champion for Women is Heather Melville, Regional Director, SME London, Cash and International Trade at Royal Bank of Scotland.
The WIBF Award for Achievement was presented to Lesley Lynn, Managing Director, EMEA Head of Institutional Recovery Management, Citibank, in recognition of excellence in her professional career and beyond – the “beyond” in this case was ably illustrated by Lesley running up to the stage barefoot, before donning her heels to accept her award. As she said in her speech, she would have done well to take the advice of her colleague Carol Anne Menache, who was once on a panel where she was asked for her top tip for juggling a career in banking with family life:
“Never, ever, buy a pair of shoes in which you cannot run.”
Evolved networking for the twenty first century? Most definitely.