League of Leading Ladies Conference CS Network Partner

League of Leading Ladies Conference: "Female Talent, Female Clients: Disruptive Forces in Emerging Markets"

Whether as entrepreneurs, employees, or clients, women are increasingly becoming the driving forces that are actively demanding and implementing change. Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women's World Banking, and Laura Hemrika, Head of Corporate Citizenship & Foundations at Credit Suisse, agree on this. At this year's League of Leading Ladies conference on March 30 and 31, 2017, in Interlaken, they discussed the challenges and solutions associated with this topic.

Mary Ellen Iskenderian firmly believes that in emerging countries, technology has the potential, if done right, to be women’s best friend when it comes to increasing financial inclusion. However, in developed markets, the reality is that more and more jobs are becoming dependent on, or at least involve increasing dependence on technology. If not enough women are interested in, and educated in, these fields, they risk being shut out from the job market in the long term, states Laura Hemrika. 

Why did you take part in this panel?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian (M.E.I.): For over 35 years now, Women’s World Banking has worked with financial institutions in emerging markets to demonstrate the benefits of investing in women, not just as clients, but also as leaders of businesses. This conference is a fantastic opportunity to further contribute to the discussion, and compare approaches between emerging and developed markets.
Laura Hemrika (L.H.): Credit Suisse and Women’s World Banking have been partners since 2011. Our shared goals include the development of female leaders and talent within financial institutions, as well as of (financial) products and services for women, whether at the base or the top of the economic pyramid. I am thrilled to be able to discuss how we can all enable more women to disrupt the status quo.

Why is this topic particularly exciting?

M.E.I.: Any chance for a lively discussion about how to further promote women in business is great – but the notion of women being a “disruptive force” for good in emerging markets is a very exciting and real trend, and we are seeing it in all of the countries that we work in.
L.H.: Reports show that more and more talented, powerful women in emerging markets are taking leadership positions in business and society - it is the perfect time to discuss how this “disruption” will positively change the way we run companies and opportunities for women generally, whether in emerging or developed markets.

“Female Talent, Female Clients: Disruptive Forces in Emerging Markets” – what was the main aim of this discussion?

M.E.I.: We wanted to show how technology has transformed the ability to reach the low-income women’s segment thus driving the "disruption" of new financial product solutions required by the women’s market. However, for those solutions to truly meet women’s needs, Women’s World Banking has found that you need a gender-diverse team to make it happen - and that’s where we see both female talent and female clients at the center of disruptive forces in emerging markets.

Is there a difference between emerging markets and developed markets in terms of gender diversity?

L.H.: Unfortunately, it’s no secret that most developed nations have a lot of room for improvement here. Some emerging countries are actually outperforming countries like the US and Switzerland in gender parity studies concerning women in the workforce or female representation in senior leadership positions. So there is not one simple solution. The support of governmental policies can have an effect here. However, policies alone will not create change, there are many other factors, including cultural norms, access to education and training, appropriate corporate programs, overcoming unconscious biases in recruiting and management, to name only a few.

Is technology a foe or a friend for women’s financial inclusion? Has the rise of disruptive technology increased or decreased the advance of gender equality in business and society?

M.E.I.: If done right, technology has the potential to be women’s best friend when it comes to increasing financial inclusion. Many women in emerging countries who previously could not access finance now have numerous startups seeking their business, offering unsecured micro-loans and using alternative methods to replace traditional credit ratings. Of course, technology isn’t a silver bullet which can help everyone and their problems – many women cannot access these technologies in the first place, due to a lack of technological literacy, or social norms where some women are restricted in their mobility outside of the home and with whom they can talk and seek advice. These are major concerns which need to be addressed in order to achieve progress in terms of financial inclusion for women.
L.H.: In developed markets, the reality is that more and more jobs are becoming dependent on, or at least involve increasing dependence on technology. If not enough women are interested in, and educated in, these fields, they will be shut out from the job market. Numbers are increasing, but there is still a long way to go and there is still a lack of role models for young women to identify with.

Will increasing female participation in science and technology careers improve the design and implementation of technological solutions tailored to a female audience?

L.H.: Increased female participation in science and technology careers will certainly help – the way having a more diverse employee body informing decision-making generally leads to better decisions. What is also important to remember is the need to keep the client or customer at the center, understanding his or her specific needs and designing products accordingly. This applies to both men and women! It’s easy to assume, but if you are seeking to reach new customers or develop new products, that’s a big risk.

Are there similarities between organizations which serve female clients particularly well?

M.E.I.: In the Women’s World Banking network, we’ve seen that financial institutions that have at least 35% women at the management and governance level serve a higher percentage of women clients and have a higher return on assets. We award an "Excellence in Leadership Award" to institutions that build innovative programs offering women and men equal opportunities to perform, excel, and lead. Our past winners from markets as diverse as the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Lebanon, Kenya, and Bangladesh do have one thing in common – they recognize the necessity to build gender diversity at all levels in order to better serve their clients.

What should women do to harness our disruptive times to ensure that business and society meet their needs better?
Are there any good examples you would cite of individuals or companies who do this well?

M.E.I.: First and foremost, we need to become a bigger part of that process. And that means having a seat at the table. If we aren’t tackling the conscious and unconscious gender biases that exist, we’re not going to be able to build gender-diverse teams that can thrive in these disruptive times. And it can be done – our partner in Jordan, Microfund for Women, employs 73% women in a market where only 14% women work in the formal sector. Microfund for Women designed a shortened work week, provided full benefits to its employees and even invites family members to accompany women candidates to branches for interviews. Not only does Microfund for Women create an inclusive environment, it also designs some of the most innovative financial solutions for women in the region.
L.H.: I also encourage more women to become a part of the problem-solving process, as then we create the ideal solutions. Women often hesitate to have their voices heard. We should also learn from emerging markets which often leapfrog over the "established" way of doing things. This is often where true innovation happens – when you dare to question the status-quo.