Adversity makes way for diversity

Major banks in Asia, which are dismantling the glass ceiling for women, find that a diversity programme also helps retain valuable talent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 2:59am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 2:59am

Maggie Ng Yeung Yuk-yu will join a group of female Citibank bankers worldwide for an internal leadership training programme in New York in two weeks.

The managing director of cards and unsecured lending at Citibank, one of Hong Kong's top five credit card issuers, and her fellow director-level women bankers will undergo three days of intensive female-only training in new leadership skills in collaboration with the UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

It is part of Citi's initiative to help female staffers climb the corporate ladder at a time when many companies are moving and are more sensitive about a diverse workforce.

Removing the glass ceiling for women also helps retain valuable talent.

"When I joined the bank 16 years ago, all but one in the near 10-strong senior management team were men and largely Westerners," said Ng, who heads Citibank Hong Kong's diversity committee. "Now, the ratio is about half-half, a stark contrast to what it was."

Hong Kong's banking sector, not to mention scores of corporate boardrooms, has been traditionally dominated by men.

HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver said in November last year the bank was accelerating its programme to develop more talented female bankers. He said the number of women in the bank's senior management was too small and "too pale and male for our own good".

HSBC, which has five women sitting on the 18-strong board of directors, is in the top quarter of FTSE 100 companies which runs a diversity committee globally and locally.

In Hong Kong, where Citibank is one of the biggest employers with about 5,000 people from 30 nationalities on its payroll, the bank set up a diversity committee last year to promote equal employment opportunities. This is on top of the existing women's network, an internal unit to help women analyse their personalities and be aware of differences between men and women, and how to work and excel in a male-dominated environment.

Training programmes ranging from three days to 18 months are designed for various levels of women, coaching them on leadership skills.

Many Citibank female executives are working mothers who work flexible hours and have maternity leave of 14 weeks against the Hong Kong norm of 10 weeks. A nursing room was set up in the Quarry Bay office in January.

"We legitimise flexible workhours for female staff in need so that they can avoid peer pressure," said Ng, also a mother of three. "One of our senior bankers has to breastfeed her baby between 5pm and 8pm every day, so she takes a break [then] and returns to work at home at 8pm through remote access."

Technology helps working mothers enjoy family and work.

Female executive career ambitions are just as high as their male peers
Nicole Lui, Randstad

Randstad, the world's second-largest recruitment firm, said the findings of a recent poll of 14,000 employers and professionals across Asia-Pacific found that nearly half of female human resource managers in Hong Kong say more women in leadership roles will be a critical success factor for organisations.

Workplace flexibility in a company is an appealing factor for female employees, with one in every two polled welcoming this, saying that it would make them more satisfied in their workplace. Leadership training, career development and a competitive salary were rated by four out of every five surveyed as the three most important benefits.

"Female respondents report that their career ambitions are just as high as their male peers," Randstad Hong Kong associate director Nicole Lui said.

However, she pointed out that female workforce participation had remained at about 50 per cent in recent years, due in part to a lack of subsidised maternity leave and childcare, limiting workforce growth across Asia.

Lui said this should provide strong potential for growth in Hong Kong, which has lagged slightly behind Singapore in terms of female labour participation rates since 2012.

To coincide with International Woman's Day on Saturday, Citibank will offer personal development workshops and sessions where they can share experiences with Hong Kong's first female master of wine, Debra Meiburg.

Hong Kong-based Meiburg, who is one of Asia's three recognised masters of wine, has thrived in the male-dominated wine industry during the past 20 years. There are about 300 masters of wine worldwide.

"I was a speaker recently at a wine dinner in Hong Kong Club [in Central], at which I was the only woman in the room out of nearly 50 guests, mostly bankers or from financial services," she said. "I don't feel prejudiced in the industry, but still it needs some breakthrough to have more women."

Meiburg said gender was not an issue in the wine industry, which was "just like playing the piano, if you practise more, you will play well".

Meiburg grew up in a family-owned vineyard in the Sonoma wine area of California right next to the famed Napa Valley in the US, but was trained as an accountant. She remains in the minority in wine families in Sonoma, where men are supposed to handle the production and growth of prized vines, and women are left to market the vintage.