Talking about a revolution

By Rebekah Commane

Aug 11, 2018

Although much progress has been made, the battle for gender equality in financial services goes on. Leading female lights of the sector join Rebekah Commane to discuss what more can be done.

Attendees (left to right above): Maria Harris, director of retail mortgages, Atom Bank; Marie Catch, head of broker sales, Legal & General Home Finance; Esther Dijkstra, director of strategic partnerships, Lloyds Banking Group; Clare Jupp, director of people development, Brightstar; Sally Laker, managing director, Mortgage Intelligence; Toni Smith, chief operating officer, LSL financial services; Hayley O’Reilly, learning and development manager, Coreco

This year we celebrate 100 years since women put their lives on the line as part of the suffrage movement to ensure generations of females would have a say in their own future, with the right to vote.

We’ve come a long way since 1918; a lot has changed, even in the financial services sector. But there is still a long way to go. In case you hadn’t heard, as of March this year there were still more men named ‘Dave’ (eight) than women of any name (six) heading up FTSE 100 companies.

It’s not a dilemma with an easy out, though.

Equality and diversity for all are proven to impact positively, not only on individuals, but on business outcomes.

To discuss this, some of the industry’s best and brightest females were gathered at Mortgage Strategy’s offices to relay their experiences as women in finance: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Mortgage Intelligence managing director Sally Laker, who started with the firm 22 years ago, has seen the number of women in the sector grow over the years and never felt that her gender held her back.

“I went to a Council of Mortgage Lenders lunch in 1996 and there were about seven to 10 women in the room; it was about 95 per cent men,” says Laker.

Sally Laker

“It didn’t bother me. I was aware of being the only woman on the table but to be honest nobody treated me any differently, and I didn’t feel different. Industry events are more balanced now and lots more women are in higher positions.”

She believes that confidence is key to success, regardless of gender. “I’m quite a confident person and I think that helps but what I have seen is the difference now. When we started our business we were 95 per cent female staff. There were far more male advisers than female in the industry but that’s beginning to change.”


Coreco learning and development manager Hayley O’Reilly is newer to the industry and found it challenging to begin with.

“I’ve been at Mortgage Advice Bureau for about five years; I was at a smaller AR in Buckinghamshire and I really struggled there,” she says. “Because it was such an established business they were used to being just men, and we [women] really struggled to get ourselves heard.”

Hayley O’Reilly

O’Reilly says she was one of just three female advisers on a team of 35, although all the admin staff were women. However, she learned a lot in her time there.

“I’m glad that happened because I had to be ballsy and make the move into Coreco, and MAB has been really supportive in helping me step up.

“I have no issues being a woman at Coreco. When I first joined there were six male directors and no women; now there are five women in management, so it’s completely changed in the two years I’ve been there. We talk weekly about gender equality and how to achieve it.”

The issue of specific roles based on gender is one that many firms in the industry are attempting to tackle, particularly that of women in senior roles. Legal & General Home Finance head of broker sales Marie Catch says her employer is looking at ways to address this.

Marie Catch

“Since I came into the mortgage sector I’ve found the percentages of men versus women very skewed compared to other industries I’ve worked in. You can tell by the lack of a queue for the toilets!” she says.

“When I was a BDM, most of my advisers were men. But L&G are trying to get to the right level of gender equality by 2020 because they recognise that there’s a lack of senior women in the job. They want to promote women in the company and they’ve looked at mentoring with other senior women in the industry to help that happen.”

"We need to help females gain the confidence to escalate to senior positions"

As a female working at one of the UK’s biggest banks, Lloyds Banking Group director of strategic partnerships Esther Dijkstra says there are still perceived gender-specific roles in the industry.

“From a bank perspective, you walk into a branch and all of the cashiers are still females and that’s where the perception starts,” she says.

“We had a session once where we had young people come in and they basically told us ‘We’re bitterly disappointed in you guys’, because we were the generation of females that had the qualifications but statistically speaking not much had changed.

“It’s 2018 and we’re not even close to closing the [gender] gap with advisers and FTSE companies.”

Clare Jupp

Brightstar director of people development Clare Jupp says her company considers equality to be an issue for everyone, not just females. “We’re looking at more flexible working patterns for all, whatever their situation,” she says.

“We want to ensure everyone has access to the same opportunities and the same roles. This week we’ve been interviewing for administrators and we’ve had both men and women apply. None of our jobs have been gender-specific.”


Throughout the discussion, a theme that emerged was a perceived lack of confidence among some women, which may be holding them back from entering or progressing in the sector, as well as the need for support from both genders.

“There’s research to say a woman will only apply for a job if she feels she meets at least 95 per cent of the criteria,” says Jupp. “What I learned from my time in education is boys will always over-inflate where they are. They’ll say they’re doing brilliantly, whereas girls will talk themselves down.”

Toni Smith

LSL financial services chief operating officer Toni Smith has risen through the ranks to her current role and seen huge changes, but acknowledges the distance still to go in gender diversity in the sector.

“I started in Allied Dunbar in Swindon in 1987 so I’ve seen a lot of change. From my perspective, on the executive team at LSL we have four female directors and five males, so we’re well balanced.

“I’ve just appointed three directors and they’re all female — because they were the right people for the job. It’s about finding the right people for the right jobs.

“We need to help females gain the confidence to escalate to senior positions. We run an event called Leading Ladies to bring female advisers together. In general, females aren’t very comfortable sharing their success; that’s why we’ve created this environment.”


In 2017, the #metoo movement took hold after Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual abuse and harassment of numerous women. It saw women across the world come forward to say they too had been victims of such abuse by men.

In the finance sector the subject is rarely discussed publicly, but more private conversations reveal that most females in the industry have experienced some level of inappropriate behaviour or sexual harassment at work. Nevertheless, things here are improving.

With a group of senior women gathered together, it seemed a good time to discuss the subject. Atom Bank director of retail mortgages Maria Harris feels that the finance sector is particularly guilty of inappropriate behaviour, compared to others.

Maria Harris

“I’ve been in FS for 12 years. Previously I was at British Airways in contact centres and then moved into utilities, both of which are strongly diverse and well represented by women in senior roles. So it was a real culture shock coming into financial services,” says Harris.

“I went to my first industry event when I’d been promoted at Bank of Scotland. I remember being horrified at the lack of women in the room and the number of very inappropriate comments I had from a large number of people.

“It’s sad because, for people who come into the industry now, that’s often their first experience of an event and they’ll go home and tell their friends and the perception grows that it’s a totally sexist industry.”

“I do agree that it’s become less socially acceptable to behave in that way, but it still happens. There’s definitely been a sea change in what people are willing to tolerate overhearing.”

It’s a cultural change that’s needed

Catch says women in the sector feel they have to “grow a thick skin”. However, more men are speaking up now when they find others acting out of line, which she says is promising for the next generation.

“I think as a woman you have to grow a thick skin but some of my male friends are protective and say I shouldn’t take some of the comments that are made. But the younger generation coming through will learn that it’s not right,” says Catch.

“Marie is right that you need to have a thick skin but that really upsets me too; why should I have to have one?” says Dijkstra. “Since #metoo, I do call it out more. People should get the feedback because they have been getting away with it and haven’t understood the impact of it.”

Jupp suggests that management teams in firms could look out for such inappropriate behaviour and make the message clear that it is not acceptable.

Moving forward

To attract more females to the industry and give them confidence to pursue senior roles, more support is needed from both genders.

“I still go to events where I’m the only woman there,” says Harris. “I’ve spoken at a huge number of events since Atom launched 18 months ago and I’m often the only woman, so I think it’s still a huge problem. There aren’t enough business role models for the next generation coming through.

“The people who were senior in the industry when I joined in 2006 are pretty much still the same people and they have such strong bonds and networks that they know each others’ strengths. They advocate for each other in a way that women maybe don’t as much. We need more men and women championing us across the industry.”

Esther Dijkstra

Dijkstra adds: “Time and again, I’ve brought it up with event organisers that we need more women on stage. But the more we have the conversations, the more things should change.”

The Women in Finance charter to date has secured 272 signatories who have committed to working to drive more women into senior roles in the industry.

“There are women who do amazing jobs but don’t talk about it a great deal — but they should,” says Jupp.

“There’s not enough activity to expedite change. It’s a cultural change that’s needed; we need people to sign the charter but it’s easier said than done. It’s about supporting people through the ranks.”

While there are undoubtedly challenges for women in the industry — as there are for men — the group is agreed that it is a great sector to work in and we are moving in the right direction on equality for all.

Mortgage Strategy

Mortgage Strategy is the leading source of news, analysis and insight for mortgage brokers and intermediaries within the UK. In print and online Mortgage Strategy delivers the complete picture on key issues affecting mortgage specialists, from identifying key lenders in the adverse credit sector to analysing the impact of a potential recession on the housing market, through detailed interviews with lenders, independent commentators and other mortgage specialists. Independent studies show that Mortgage Strategy is by far the leading and most valued brand in the market, with 75% of brokers naming Mortgage Strategy as their preferred magazine to keep them up to date on developments within the industry.

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