Four weeks of writing about women in fintech has given me the opportunity to speak to many talented businesswomen across the globe, many of whom are leading the way in a sector traditionally dominated by men. Breaking the glass ceiling, to coin a phrase.
But it left me wondering, are the challenges women face in fintech the same everywhere? After all, women’s place in society varies from country to country, culture to culture. So I asked some and received some interesting, and varied, responses.
Rhona Parry, CEO of UK debt management company Indesser, said: “In my experience – and this is a generalisation – but the US is much better for fostering diversity, including gender balance. From what I’ve seen, in the US, women are encouraged and facilitated in financial services. I haven’t experienced an ‘old boys club’ there.”
But she followed this up with a caveat. “The US has a broader workforce ‘inclusion’ challenge compared to the UK – the long working hours culture, limited vacation etc – this isn’t conducive to (some) women thriving. Maybe the two things cancel each other out?”
Indeed, male-focused workplace culture is a subject that often comes up when discussing gender inequality in the fintech industry and its big brother, the financial services sector. Antisocial hours and lack of flexibility when it comes to childcare has long been seen as working to the detriment of women in business in Europe and North America.
Nilixa Devlukia, CEO and founder of Norfolk-based regulatory consultancy Payments Solved, echoed this sentiment while telling how she was able to rise above it. “I personally have been fortunate enough to have a lot of flexibility in the roles I’ve had, to the extent I got to the stage that if I didn’t have flexibility I wasn’t prepared to take the job. But I had enough seniority to make that decision.”
Azerbaijan-born Lana Tahirly Abdullayeva, a London-based global strategic adviser on digital strategy and innovation, strongly believes that gender inequality – particularly in the UK – can be traced back beyond the boardroom and into the classroom.
Her career journey began by graduating from Baku State University with a tech degree having received an education where there was “an equal celebration” of females and males. By comparison, many top girls’ schools in the UK today do not sufficiently focus on maths and especially science, she says; computer science is not qualified as science at all and a combined science approach does not help to attract interest and build strong foundations. This means there are still fewer women in the tech talent pool to recruit from, despite initiatives to address the imbalance.
Similarly, Mabel Chacko – COO and co-founder of Bangalore-based neo banking platform Open – also feels that progressing into financial services and fintech was a natural continuation of her particular background and upbringing.
She says that while there is a lot of gender inequality in India, that’s not reflected in fintech. “I would say the reason goes back to banking jobs as a natural segment for many working women in India,” she adds, pointing out both her parents were bankers.
Earlier this year Chacko attended the Paris Fintech Forum and was surprised to see the way the women in fintech went globally. “I realised immediately that I was at an advantage being in India, because I’d never had to go through the judgmental looks or any form of partiality the way women in other parts of the world were facing,” she says. “It was really shocking for me to hear it first hand for many of them.”
Devlukia, who’s also Indian, earlier told me of a similar revelation while speaking at a financial services conference in Malaysia several years ago. “If I go to events in the UK, the audience is still pretty much white male,” she says. “So that was a revelation to me, to speak to an audience that looked more like me.”
Meanwhile India-born Shanthini Raja, chairperson and CEO of software development company Rsquare Technologies, believes moving to Bahrain gave her opportunities she may not have had elsewhere. “I feel greater being a woman in this region,” she says. “I feel there is a greater opportunity for women if they’re going to start their business or career here.”
Raja has lived and worked in Bahrain for over 20 years, including as a social worker. She believes the government is very supportive and respectful of women entrepreneurs with skills who are ready to contribute to the country, whether they are nationals or not. “They give more opportunities for us to take up a bigger project, because as we know, we’re multitaskers,” she says. “This is an advantage which Bahrain has already captured and is making use of.”
Looking to the Global South, Nadine Ebelle Kotto, founder of pan-African fintech and money transfer company MQash, feels the challenges faced by women in fintech in her region were more due to structural reasons than gender inequality.
“As a woman fintech player in West & Central Africa, I am not particularly seeing challenges specifically linked to gender. Challenges are more global; for instance, but not limited to, a lack of a clear regulatory system around fintech which does not allow fintech to play a key role around innovation and does not ease partnerships with other players of the financial system.”
Instead the top two challenges they face, she says, are 1) lack of data availability – “most African countries lack efficient data that can help for product development and innovation as well as for competitive intelligence” – and 2) infrastructure that can ease the roll-out and penetration of services and products.
However, while their individual experiences may differ, most stressed more needs to be done to address inequalities in fintech. More than one floated the idea that the world now working from home after the pandemic struck could help drive change in terms of a workplace culture – a change which women in particular stand to benefit from.
But perhaps the best hope for widening opportunities for women in the sector lies in the very nature of the sector itself. For Fintech is still a relatively nascent industry and with women involved in building it from the ground up, they have the potential to change the world.