‘Sure, there were hurdles…So I had to jump higher’

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Hannah Duncan Investment Content

In our latest Women in Finance Interview, Tony Sanchez speaks to Hannah Duncan, who left her senior management life in financial services to become a liberated freelance writer.

Hannah first began her financial career in the lofty investment banks of Zurich, before taking up leadership roles in London. From the lowest lows to the highest highs, she reveals her experience of being a woman in finance today.

What brought you into financial services?

A serious wake-up call!

Back in 2014, I was a bit clueless really. Working for a glamourous Duty Free retailer in Switzerland, my existence was mostly filled with Lindt chocolate, icy thin vogue cigarettes and staff-discounted high-end perfume.

It came to an abrupt halt when my homelife in Wales unexpectedly shattered. Suddenly everything I thought was real felt fake. My family were left with no money, no home, and a lot of unanswered questions.

To make matters worse, my fancy Duty Free company was acquired by a competitor, sending swathes of us into unemployment.

Zurich is overflowing with banks and asset managers, and I guess I was feeling very serious. Time to step up. So, I eagerly applied to an assortment of financial services for communications roles, and sure enough I found myself in UBS.

It changed me forever. Now I care a lot about financial literacy and getting the answers to important questions. My mission in life is to expose financial truths and help people with better money management.

What do you think makes a successful leader? And in particular women leaders?

I’m sure everyone must have a different answer for this. Here are my top three qualities for a successful leader:

  1. Self-awareness: Just one disparaging look or disdaining comment can ruin someone’s day. So don’t do it. As a manager, you need to rise above petty things and treat everyone the way you would like to be treated. If in doubt, go for the kinder option. Don’t be a d***.
  2. Nurture diversity: You don’t want to have hundreds of mini-versions of yourself running around the company. That would lead to glaring weak spots. Plus, it’s pretty narcissistic, right? The same look, the same accent, the same university… not cool. Time and time again, research shows that the most successful companies have a strong mix of genders and ethnicities. So, do that. Recruit, nurture and promote as many different people as possible to create the best team.
  3. Trust people: Here’s the thing. Probably the person who does this job every day will have better ideas about it than you. Probably they will have better ideas on a huge range of topics. Once they’ve passed the interview and got the job, let go of the reins. Trust them to do their thing and be open to new ideas. That’s your job.

 

What are the biggest barriers you have faced in your career in financial services?

I had two bad experiences. The first was some classic sexism and the second was a case of an absolute nutter of a boss who wouldn’t stop micromanaging me.

But you know, these experiences didn’t really hold me back in the typical sense. Because I got angry – or in the second case I got therapy – and then I did something about it. That’s what makes you stronger.

Sure, there were hurdles…So I had to jump higher.

What do you think is key for finding a successful work-life balance?

No idea! I’m still trying to find it.

What do you think is holding women back?

Sexism is a real thing, and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably guilty of it themselves.

Like every woman, I have been on the sharp end of sexism, which obviously impacted my career. And while I had the double-whammy of being a foreigner too. Great.

There are big incidences, like a managing director asking you to be his mistress or a director publicly putting ice down your bra at a work event. And then there are the less visible things. The micro-aggressions. Inviting your male colleague to an event but not you, even though you participated equally. Glancing at your figure off and on throughout a meeting. Handing the admin over to you while, yet again, a man runs the project. When you know that you earn the least in the team but work the longest hours. That kind of stuff. Every day.

There are so many I can’t even remember them all. I saw it with other groups too. I remember overhearing inappropriate jokes about my colleague who’s gay. People seemed to glance at their watches or check their emails more when a person of colour spoke in a meeting. I think you only notice it if you’re one of the minorities yourself, and that makes it ten times harder to point it out.

If you could tell your younger self one thing you know about business now, what would it be? 

If a colleague puts ice down your bra, don’t laugh it off… kick him in the balls. Publicly.

Do you think there is still a glass ceiling?

Is the Pope Catholic? Of course, there’s a glass ceiling. And glass walls either side too.

All you can do is keep throwing rocks at it. Sometimes they bounce back and smack you in the face. But every so often you split the glass for a moment. That’s when the warm breeze of outside-ness feels so liberating it’s almost worth the pain.

Since I’ve worked for myself, I’ve been hacking away at my little glass box a lot, with mixed results.

Occasionally in my old offices people used to think I was a man called Duncan Hannah. That was lush. I never corrected them. It’s so much easier to get work done when you’re a man dealing with men.

How do we encourage more women into financial services? 

Little girls tend to be given barbie dolls, pretend kitchens and fluffy pink rabbits, right?

And little boys…? Well, they get build-your-own trucks, science kits and space models.

That trends seems to follow through, beyond teenagerhood, past university and then BAM suddenly, it’s like, “Why are there so few women in finance?”. To be honest, with the way that we were brought up, I think it’s a miracle that any of us went into the world of finance. Or technology. Or engineering. Or Astrophysics … Or anything that doesn’t involve looking good and holding a baby.

We were brought up to be mini Delia-Smiths with a Jane Fonda body. It’s amazing that so many of us slipped through the societal cracks.

So, my best advice would be to start at the beginning. Shove that plastic doll back on the shelf where it belongs and gift your niece a chemistry set. Don’t tell a young woman she’s so pretty she could model (that’s also quite creepy by the way). Tell her that she’s so smart she should be an investment banker.

Give little girls the same opportunities as little boys and watch them soar.

The gender pay gap is only second worst to the construction industry. What can organisations do to address this?

Well, I’ve done a little research. Studies indicate that for entry-level positions, men and women start out evenly. But the further up you go along the corporate hierarchy, it becomes male-dominated. Obviously, something happens in the middle. Women don’t get promoted to higher-paying leadership roles, right?

So surely, one of the lowest-hanging fruits that companies can take advantage of is helping with courses and qualifications. Support women when they want to study finance in the workplace. That should be obvious, right? They’re doing it because they want to become leaders. So, help them get there.

I’ve studied finance and sustainable investments quite a bit now, while working full-time. First the IMC, and then an MSc. It’s tough! And eye-wateringly expensive.

Both times I asked my respective organisation to support me, either financially or with a couple of study days. Both times it was a flat no. Like zero negotiation.

The first time I was discouraged from studying, because I “didn’t need that level of finance” to do my job. Well, no s***. It was an admin job that should have been automated years ago; I hardly needed a brain to do it. But the whole point was that I was trying to grow. I wanted to become a leader one day, I wanted to earn a leader’s salary.

That rejection was a shame, because if that bank had supported me, I would have stayed there forever. The second time round, I put down to jealousy. Some bosses feel threatened and try to hold you back. I don’t think that’s a gender thing.

So that’s my two cents! If your firm has a distinct lack of female leaders, you have a responsibility to fix it. Support women who want to become more qualified by paying for courses and giving them time off to study. Then obviously…  promote them!