The Challenges of Being a Woman in the Finance Industry
Finance Monthly had the privilege to speak with Karen Penney, Vice President of UK Payments Products at Western Union, to hear about what it’s like to be a senior woman in the finance industry. As a keen advocate for women in the workplace, Karen tells us about her own experiences and hurdles and offers advice on how women can make it to the top in the finance sector.
As a woman with a career in the finance industry spanning over two decades, what would you say are the key challenges that you’ve been faced with?
A lot of people talk about the fact that the financial services industry is very male-dominated, but in my case, this hasn’t been the main challenge that I’ve been faced with. I have found that as long as you’re good at your job, you’re approachable and you work well in a team, then you can work well with both men and women.
The main thing that I’ve found challenging, however, has been the ability to put myself forward. Women, in general, tend to strive to achieve perfection a little bit more than men do, which results in insecurities and fear that we don’t know enough yet because we don’t feel like we’ve fully perfected our current role. In reality, having the right drive, determination to succeed and the confidence to put yourself forward is what matters more. When we, as women, look at a job description, we tend to focus on the things that we’re not too sure whether we can do, rather than the things that we feel qualified enough for and are confident in. One of the main hurdles for me has been the fact that I’ve been too scared to say “Yes, I can do that” when there’s been a specific question about a part of the role which I thought a man would be more suited for.
All in all, I think the challenges that I have faced in my career have been self-inflicted challenges and not challenges that have arisen from working in a male-dominated service industry.
Have there been any particular challenges connected to promotions and climbing up the corporate ladder?
I believe that technically, as long as you make it clear that you want a promotion and you work hard for one, then your gender shouldn’t matter. However, from my experience, I’ve noticed that we, as women, don’t plan well in advance what role we want to take on next. Men, in contrast, tend to have a very specific vision for the progression of their careers. This unclarity or indecisiveness is something that can hold us back sometimes.
We should plan in advance what we want our next step in this organisation to be and we should also make it obvious to everyone in the company that this is the role we’re striving for. Once this is achieved and we’re clear about our goals, we can be very successful no matter what.
One of the main hurdles for me has been the fact that I’ve been too scared to say “Yes, I can do that” when there’s been a specific question about a part of the role which I thought a man would be more suited for.
From your experience, what triggers gender discrimination and inequality in the finance industry?
When I started working within the financial services industry, which was a very long time ago now, most of the people at the top were male and I think this has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Now that we have many more female role models, there’s much less gender discrimination and inequality in the industry.
Western Union is a very good example of that, as the organisation has a focus on ensuring that there are women at the top – our Executive team comprises of 40% women and we have three female board members. Moreover, 50% of Western Union’s employees on a global scale are women and we also have an all-female senior advisory group called Women@WU which has a big focus on driving an action plan to promote women’s success throughout the company.
Nowadays, promoting gender balance in the workplace is something that many organisations are working towards – both through evaluating the current state of the workplace and through discussing ways to keep their organisation competitive. It has been proven that companies whose leadership team is gender-balanced have a higher return on equity when compared to organisations whose senior management team consists of men only. I think that having that balance is not just good from a commercial point of view, but also because it contributes to a much more interesting workplace where different views, experiences and ideas could be exchanged on a day-to-day basis.
Can you tell us a bit about Western Union’s Women@WU initiative you’ve just mentioned?
Western Union as an organisation sees diversity as a massive asset and does a lot to ensure that the company is gender-balanced. The Women@WU initiative started out in 2015 and since then there’s been a lot of benchmarking work going on against other FTSE100 and Fortune 500 companies looking at gender balance and understanding the opportunities that come with it.
And while I think that WU is fairly balanced from a gender perspective, there’s always more the organisation can do to support women throughout their careers. One of the things that I’ve been focused on since my arrival in June 2018 has been chairing a Women@WU group that consists of a number of women getting together once a month to discuss subjects like the unwritten rules in the industry in regards to the way you look, how you network or how you perform altogether. Being a part of the group is helpful to other women in the organisation because it creates a friendly peer network that women can use on an ongoing basis, where they can hear a senior woman such as myself lead the discussion and share the experiences I’ve had throughout my career.
It has been proven that companies whose leadership team is gender-balanced have a higher return on equity when compared to organisations whose senior management team consists of men only.
I was part of a similar group years ago and I found that the peer network that came out of it was extremely helpful. There’s something so encouraging about being able to share some of the issues that you’re struggling with with a group of people that you trust who are there to support you, come up with a solution or help you overcome the specific problem. Making friends that you can trust can sometimes be quite hard, especially when you’re a very busy individual, but being part of such a group and being given the time to create these relationships is a very positive thing and I’m happy that Western Union’s environment allows for such initiatives.
What can other organisations take from Western Union’s company culture and gender diversity initiatives?
I think first and foremost, what other organisations can take from us is the very fact that we have this initiative and that we take it very seriously – at Western Union, we aim to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions in the company by 10% by 2020. Calling that out and talking about diversity in the workplace openly is something that other companies could and should take from us.
Western Union has made a massive effort in the field and has had success in bringing senior women into the organisation who have really helped to drive the aforementioned initiatives. The fact that our board includes three women currently is a very positive thing and it was certainly something that I paid attention to before joining the organisation. It is a representation of women in leadership roles and the fact that we can actually quote it and benchmark ourselves against other organisations means that caring about the women who work for you and with you is a thing that other companies need to be doing too.
In what ways is digital transformation in finance impacting the industry’s diversity?
The industry is changing much faster than ever before – everything is now online and it’s much easier to be nimble. I think this is opening up opportunities for women to take on different kind of roles, to have different learnings and to really put ourselves forward in a slightly different way. I attended the Women of the Square Mile conference in London in May and the one thing that came out really well from the discussions we had was that women are very good at being flexible. We tend to naturally be good at juggling multiple tasks, picking things up and running with them and as a result of that, there are a lot of new roles that can be very applicable to women and the kind of skills that we offer.
Obviously, there are a lot of women out there who have very relevant experience in the non-digital world but these abilities and skills related to flexibility and multitasking can help them become a translator between the old ways and the online ways of doing business, as well as the ways of bringing these two together.
For me, generally, digital brings a whole new world of exciting opportunities – both for men and women.
At Western Union, we aim to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions in the company by 10% by 2020.
What does the finance industry as a whole need to do to reduce gender discrimination in the workplace?
Tremendous effort has been made to move forward in recent years, and I think the main thing that the industry needs to work on is helping women to put themselves forward and find sponsors within the organisation who can help them prepare for their next roles. I think it is our duty, as senior women, to show junior women that we’re giving them the opportunity to apply for roles and to show our organisations exactly what they’re capable of. Sponsorship within an organisation is very important and I believe that it will help reduce gender discrimination in the sector as it will help women overcome the reluctance of putting themselves forward.
What is your piece of advice for women aiming for the top?
Be clear about what your career plan is, know what success looks like for you and make sure that you’re articulating it correctly. Women should also build their own brand and be visible – with LinkedIn being one good example of the perfect platform where you can exhibit yourself and your achievements.
Another thing is to find yourself a sponsor – make sure they support you and if they end up moving to a different position, make sure they introduce you to someone else from their network who can guide you in the future. For me personally, having a sponsor made a massive difference to my career. During my time at American Express, there was a specific role that I really wanted to get – I was very clear that that’s what I wanted and I worked with my sponsor towards this goal so that he can put my name forward for it and in the end, I got the promotion. If I hadn’t been clear and if I hadn’t had that sponsor, I’m not sure if I would have managed to succeed.
Last but not least, I think it’s important to build your network. A lot of men tend to go for drinks after work, which is not necessarily the case for women. I think it’s important to find your way of networking – be it at events and conferences or peer-mentoring groups. If other people are networking and you’re not, then that’s going to have an impact on your application for any future role.
About Karen Penney:
Karen has spent over 25 years in blue chip customer-facing service businesses, working in the UK and internationally. She is currently the Vice President of Payment Products for Western Union Business Solutions in the UK, where she leads a team focused on international payments, supporting companies across various industries including NGO, Education, Pensions and Payroll. Since taking up this position in the middle of 2018 Karen has established herself as a respected leader with a commercial and customer-centric approach and a desire to develop her people.
Karen was General Manager for the American Express UK Corporate business from 2012 to 2018 and was responsible for driving significant growth from a mature business through a focus on small businesses, international payments and working capital optimisation. Leading a team of 300, her key responsibilities covered all customer-facing activity including direct sales, engaging existing customers and developing new value propositions & revenue streams, alongside managing the P&L. She also sat on the European Risk committee and was a director of the American Express insurance subsidiary.
Karen previously held a number of increasingly senior roles within American Express including successfully growing and retaining the relationships with the top 150 clients globally; creating new integrated teams to drive an improved customer experience while ensuring full regulatory compliance; transforming mid-market account management from a servicing and retention culture to a successful sales culture; launching an offshore management information team to drive increased customer engagement and loyalty in a cost-effective way; and converting customers to a digital servicing experience.
Prior to joining American Express, Karen spent five years with AIR MILES, a subsidiary of British Airways in a variety of commercial roles, following a five-year stint with Citibank Diners Club in sales and account management positions in the UK. Karen began her career on the NatWest graduate training programme and honed her analytical skills at Bankers Trust.
Karen is very interested in the subject of mental health and well being at work and is a keen advocate for women in the workplace.