Choose to Challenge: how we can achieve gender parity in the next 10 years

Standard Chartered’s Simon Cooper outlines the Bank’s vision to help bring about gender parity.

We have less than a decade to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of gender parity by 2030. Despite significant advances in law, education and health, major gaps remain to be closed.

The pandemic has thrown us back even further, by reinforcing traditional gender roles in care and disproportionately affecting women economically.

Equality in employment, pay, education and access to finance are all obvious areas for improvement, but women also suffer from the consequences of unconscious bias – the kind that happens unintentionally and often goes unnoticed because it is so ingrained.

Simon Cooper, Chief Executive Officer of Standard Chartered’s Corporate, Commercial & Institutional Banking division and Group Chair for Diversity & Inclusion, is passionate about creating a level playing field both within Standard Chartered and through the Bank’s investments.

Here, he speaks about why we need to get serious about challenging the status quo.

What progress has the Bank made in terms of addressing aspects such as the gender pay gap and promoting more women into senior roles?

Some years back, I was on a panel in charge of promoting senior leaders into managing director roles. When I first got the list of potential promotees, I was struck by the vast dominance of men. It was way out of proportion with the universe of talent eligible for promotion. I sent the list back until it was more balanced.

By no means did that lead to bumping less deserving candidates up the list because of their gender. It was a case of making sure that people were being given a fair chance to be considered.

We have since put in place a series of checks to make sure that our pipeline mirrors the talent pool. At each step of the process, we check that there are no obvious anomalies, for instance where your workforce has a 50/50 gender split, but your promotion pipeline is 99 per cent male.

While we still have a lot to do, Standard Chartered has made good progress in terms of boosting the share of women in our team and among our leadership.

Our female representation at senior level has risen from 25 per cent in 2016 to around 30 per cent by the end of last year, and we are aiming to reach 35 per cent by 2025.

Could you give an example of how the gender balance has changed at Standard Chartered?

Our new digital channel, and data analytics team, for example, is 50 per cent female – and 40 per cent of the leaders are women. This is particularly unusual in an area which is generally seen as male-dominated. The head of this department is passionate about equality and has set a company-wide example for what is possible.

It’s simple, really: if half the world’s population is female, and you’re not hiring that way, then you must be missing a big share of the talent that’s out there.

We’ve also seen that having a diverse group of people in a room boosts energy,  dynamism and ideation, resulting in much better output. That’s because you’re bringing different perspectives into the room, and that’s how you learn and grow.

You have been offering unconscious gender bias training for several years. Why is that so important?

The challenge with unconscious bias is that it is unintentional and can be subtle.

A senior banker friend recently pointed out that when she worked in a large merchant bank in the City of London, she felt she had to join in the Monday morning banter about football and rugby in order to be accepted as ‘one of the boys’.

It’s not necessarily a case of excluding someone from a conversation on purpose, but doing so without even being aware of it.

Where it can become an issue is when biases are left unidentified and unchecked, which could lead us to make decisions that lessen our ability to compete in the marketplace. At Standard Chartered, we have done a lot of work to make everyone aware of biases, stereotypes and behaviour that isn’t inclusive. For example, we rolled out unconscious bias training for 16,000 people leaders across our footprint.

It’s critical for us to recognise bias in ourselves and others − and stop it in its tracks.

How has Standard Chartered helped your women employees during the pandemic and what more can be done?

The pandemic has thrown gender parity a curveball because women have borne the brunt of its impact.

McKinsey1 found that women’s jobs are nearly twice as vulnerable to the crisis than men’s. One reason is the share of women is higher in industries such as tourism and hospitality, which have been severely affected by the pandemic.

Another is that women generally carry the burden of unpaid care, which has increased significantly during the pandemic. They are often taking sole responsibility for their kids’ home-schooling and care, for example, even when it isn’t a single parent household.

On the positive side, the wholesale shift to remote working and the realisation that it can actually improve productivity levels has raised the acceptance of flexible working.

At Standard Chartered we went from a relatively low level of remote working before the pandemic to 85 per cent of our workforce operating from home within a few weeks. Many of our colleagues have told us that remote working enables them to better manage personal and work demands, without reducing productivity.

We are now acting on these insights by looking at how work can be redesigned in future to balance the needs of the business and those of employees. I hope that, in time, this will open a gateway for more women to come into the workspace.

What about women in emerging markets? Can sustainable finance help them overcome the effects of COVID-19?

The fallout of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to push 47 million more women into poverty, reversing decades of progress to eradicate extreme poverty, according to a UN study.2

The banking community has an important role to play in stepping up and helping these communities ‘build back better’.

One example is our Women’s Livelihood Bond series, an initiative to mobilise private capital to invest in a portfolio of high-impact enterprises that empower women through sustainable livelihoods. It was the first multi-country listed gender bond in Asia-Pacific, benefitting underserved women across Asia.

To date, we have provided funds to women-focused enterprises or microfinance institutions in Cambodia, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, enabling hundreds of thousands of women to move out of subsistence.

Then there are initiatives such as Goal, a programme aimed at helping women in emerging economies to be more resilient and independent. Goal mixes sports training and life skills education to give adolescent girls the tools to transform their lives − including greater confidence. A number of graduates of the programme have now set up their own businesses.

We also have our global Futuremakers programme, launched in 2019, which promotes economic inclusion by supporting young people who are disadvantaged in our key markets, especially girls and people with visual impairments. This initiative helps them to learn new skills and improve their chances of getting a job or starting a business.

Other programmes that we launched to help tackle the fallout from the pandemic include a commitment to USD1 billion of not-profit-financing for companies that provide goods and serves to help the fight against COVID-19; and a USD50 million COVID-19 Global Charitable Fund to help those affected by the pandemic, to provide short-term relief and longer-term assistance.

Given all these challenges, can we realistically expect to hit the 2030 UN target?

Looking at how far we’ve already come, I think there is no reason why not, provided everybody takes it seriously. And I do see gender equality being taken very seriously in politics, society and in business. Everyone’s seeing the positive impact that diversity has on economic growth.

We’ve made good progress. But we still have a long way to go.

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