Islamic banking is no longer just popular among Islamic investors (Source: Getty)
Stylishly dressed, confident in manner and authoritative in tone, it's hard to imagine Stella Cox ever had difficulty convincing her colleagues to employ her abilities in the work place.
But difficulty she faced, and unlike most women who entered finance in the mid 1980s, her problems stemmed not just from the male-dominated nature of the sector - she was also dealing with clients who were not culturally adapted to working with women.
Cox, now managing director of the Islamic finance investment firm DDGI, was drawn to Islamic banking as soon as she came into contact with it 30 years ago.
“At the time, I was working for a British merchant bank in the Japan corporate banking team,” she told City A.M. in an interview. “The Middle East desk was next to me, and I thought it seemed more exciting so I asked to join that instead.
"The thing that really appealed to me was the level of activity – it was a vibrant desk and I could see the team was involved in new structuring and new innovation. It was opening doors and allowing us to talk to clients who hadn't looked at us before.”
But on account of being a woman, Cox found it difficult to infiltrate the male-only team.
“When I asked to move onto their desk, they told me they didn't think it was a good idea. They actually said they thought I would struggle because I am female and the clients were very conservative. They said they might not be so accepting of a woman on the desk.”
After much persuasion, the team let her join under a six-month trial period, so long as she accepted the risk. Initially she was lumped with a lot of middle-office work, but gradually she started to take on a more client-facing role.
At the time, however, dealing with a woman was unusual for clients in the region, since most places in the Middle East did not have women in the workplace - least of all in the financial services.
“It became apparent that any reluctance to talk to me was really rooted in a cultural reticence rather than any particular problem with me as an individual,” she explained.
As a result, it took time for Cox to build up relationships and trust, but she was able to do it and 15 years later was appointed head of DDGI.
It seems as though it was a smart move for Cox all those years ago – the Islamic banking sector in the UK has been growing ever since its inception, and more so now than ever: in June last year, Britain issued the western world's first ever Islamic bond, which attracted £2bn in orders – over 10 times the amount it was looking to sell.
It was part of chancellor George Osborne
's plan to make the UK a centre for Islamic finance. He said he hoped the deal would spur more corporate issuance of Islamic bonds.
Just three months later, US bank Goldman Sachs
announced it was planning to issue its first Islamic bond
, suggesting the desire to incorporate Islamic banking had spread beyond the UK. As Islamic finance becomes an increasingly important part of Middle Eastern and Asian economies, the demand for Islamic bonds is growing.
For young women considering following in her footsteps, Cox believes the Islamic banking industry is as exciting as ever, but also much easier for women to become a part of.
“Nowadays I don't feel that the clients I meet are any less willing to engage with me than with men,” she said. “There is not a single place I now visit that doesn't have local women in the workforce, and that has been a real change – there are Muslim and non-Muslim women working in financial services in all the core markets for Islamic finance.”
Additionally, opportunities for women are no longer limited to the Middle East itself, as more and more conventional investors choose to invest in the sector. In fact, around 50 per cent of Islamic bond investments now come from conventional investors because they like the way they are structured.
“If you're an Islamic investor you can only invest in Islamic structures, but there's nothing to stop conventional investors investing Islamically, provided they're happy with the return, the risk profile,” said Cox. "It really is infiltrating normal banking”.
However, she said women still need to be aware of cultural differences when dealing with more conservative Islamic clients: “I think the most important thing is to understand is that when dealing with faith-based financial services, it can take us into certain markets where there are local customs that have an impact.”