What's Happening?

Overcoming the ‘shecession’ in the financial services sector



It’s been proven time and again: diversified businesses do better. McKinsey’s 2020 diversity report shows there is a robust relationship between diversity at an executive level and the likelihood of financial outperformance. There is no doubt that women make an outstanding contribution to the financial services sector. However, global trends indicate the industry’s transformation is slow. There remains too few women within top management, and signs of a worrying gender pay-gap are evident. While research may be slim in South Africa, I believe it is safe to speculate that we are aligned with world-wide trends.

Currently, there are conflicting reports on how women are faring in the workplace at large. PwC’s Women in Work report suggests a ‘shecession’, with progress for women in work predicted to reflect 2017 levels by the end of 2021 – proposing an evident regression in the opportunities for women within the corporate world. This may be attributed to the unequal burden of care that women are carrying during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Nonetheless, a 2021 Grant Thornton Women in Business Report paints a more hopeful picture. For the first time ever – in 2021 – a third of all senior management positions worldwide are likely to be held by women, and 9 in 10 businesses globally have at least one woman within their senior management teams. We are making progress to parity, but there remains much more to be done.

We require individual businesses to take ownership, recognise the benefits of diversity and inclusion to the balance-book and governance KPIs, and drive meaningful transformation that is beyond a tick-box exercise.

I am certain that women embody countless innate abilities that are pivotal in fostering good leadership – creativity, managing multiple competing priorities, resilience, and perseverance, to name a few. In our industry particularly, it is essential that we iteratively innovate to pre-empt our clients’ needs and wants. This requires a combined approach of empathy, strategic agility, and data immersion. It requires the ability to dream, to predict different scenarios and to constantly be building the foundations of an equitable and empowered future for the women of South Africa.  I have seen first-hand how women can lead in this, through the example of Santam’s own CEO, and my manager, Lizé Lambrechts.

The challenges women face in the financial services sector

Women are currently facing an array of challenges. The financial services sector has always been a tough environment with demanding customers – and rightly so, as money is often accompanied by justified demands. The pandemic has accelerated new ways of working which introduces a plethora of additional challenges and opportunities. Greater acceptance of remote working may mean more contractual opportunities for women who thrive on flexibility in order to flourish.

While the above remains true, successive lockdowns have undoubtedly introduced an additional strain on our women. Women are now carrying a greater burden of care. With some schools only physically operational intermittently, many mothers are juggling kids at home as well as full-time jobs. Additionally, many households also have their parents and extended families to care for, as the full financial implications of the pandemic continue to unfold. As a mother to two wonderful children, I can testify that my journey over the last year has not been easy.

Levelling the playing field for women

A starting point in attaining empowerment for women within the financial services industry would be to introduce global initiatives that ensure men and women in the same role, with equal years of experience – earn the same salary. Thereafter, we need to move to an output-not-hours based performance system, where we measure our people based on productivity and their quality of work, and not the consecutive hours that they put in. Flexibility is essential! The ideal would be to continue to offer our employees flexibility around remote working, even when it is safe to return to offices. Additionally, we need to ensure adequate paternity leave, in order to allow for a balance in duty of care. A crucial part of building this new world of work, is a collective emphasis on holistic wellness and mental wellbeing. It goes without saying – businesses need a balance – but if we want to retain top talent, we must create cultures that people want to be part of.

At Santam, these are some of the things we prioritise as part of our Employee Value Proposition (EVP). We are equally focused on ensuring that each employee has a growth path mapped out, and that mentorship and career coaching opportunities are readily available. For me, it is also about recognising that people perform better when they are able to adequately balance their personal and professional lives.

In addition to my role as Executive Head of HR at Santam, I manage two businesses, and serve on the boards for MiWay and Brolink. Above all – I am a mother, and I truly value the flexibility that Santam allows me in performing each of these roles to the best of my ability.  

I am a firm believer that people create opportunities for themselves, but I also recognise the importance of community, and our responsibility to lift others as we rise. I am the product of amazing people throughout my career, and I have been fortunate to work with individuals who recognised my hard work and took a risk on me.

I particularly admire women who create space for other women to succeed, be it through mentoring or coaching. Creating a strong network of support and receiving help and advice from individuals whom we admire, is often critical to equipping us with the confidence required in striving for our goals. To create a diverse succession pipeline, leaders at the top need to invest in junior to mid-level managers. This cannot be once-off, it must be ongoing. We also need to find ways to support women who are ‘go-getters’ – who start their own financial services ventures, be it through peer support and/or access to capital. SMEs are so important to this country. We need to do everything we can to support our entrepreneurs.

As women, we also need to learn to compartmentalise – a skill our male counterparts seem to have mastered. When we are doing something, we need to try to be fully present, this is the only way to stay on top of things. We need to set boundaries. We need time for serenity and self. I always try and ensure that my mornings include a run, time with the kids and a good cup of tea. These moments are priceless. 

A final word

It is critical that we make financial services inclusive to all women, by reaching people in the right ways at the right time – with affordable and relevant products. We must help women protect and grow their capital. At Santam, we are proud that our insurance offerings help to safeguard people’s assets and livelihoods. We help individuals to rebuild when curveballs come along – which, sadly, they inevitably do. We need to bridge the insurance gap and help more women to protect what they’re building – from their businesses to their homes.

Ultimately, women hold an enormous amount of economic power and potential. The financial services sector can play a pivotal part in unleashing this – to the benefit of our country and all its stakeholders.  By employing more women in the financial services sector across all levels of seniority, we can reach more women clients, and the virtuous circle starts to perpetuate.

Santam is an authorised financial services provider (licence number 3416)