Around 1990 I was appointed to a subsidiary board of the Norwich Union Group (now Aviva) and was one of the first women to become a director there. That much was obvious because, in the hallowed Marble Hall that provided the board room and senior executive offices, there were no facilities for women. And, at my first board meeting, the chairman assumed that I was there to take notes.
That sort of mistake has been made more than once in my career. One of my male colleagues remembers with a shudder a meeting he accompanied me to when we were both at RBS. It was in Greenock, outside Glasgow, and the main man there also assumed that I was there in the role of not-so-glamorous assistant.
In fairness, that has not been the normal response in my career and, at 6’2” and with a potentially good right hook, such instances have been few and far between.
But as my career became more and more focused on the City it became equally clear that there were very few women in senior roles in some major companies. In 2008, for example, Virgin Money looked to buy Northern Rock. We met literally hundreds of bankers, accountants and lawyers as part of that process, but I can’t recall a single woman whom I met at that time.
Nevertheless, I had assumed that the playing field had been levelled since my early days when I was asked by HM Treasury to lead a review into why few women still seem to reach senior roles in UK financial services.
I was dubious about leading the review, not wanting to be seen as a proponent of the feminist agenda when I believe in diversity in all its colourful variety.
But when I took a look, what I found shocked me.
Women made up only 14 per cent of senior positions in our financial services sector and, when we delved into the reason why, the response was overwhelming. Culture.
I was horrified to find that, so many years after the financial crisis, culture is still an issue in financial services and that it is holding back half of the potential workforce and reducing productivity and returns as a consequence.
So the Women in Finance Charter aims to address this issue by putting the onus on companies to heal themselves. To take responsibility at the Exco table for having a clear strategy to achieve gender equality and to publish that strategy and its underlying targets. And, in the end, for the Exco to be rewarded based on their success in meeting those self-set targets.
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It has made a huge difference at Virgin Money. We don’t get everything right, but by focusing on this issue at the top table we are making a difference and driving positive change.
And so are the 122 companies, employing over half a million people in the UK, who have signed up to the Charter so far. My experience is that their management are passionate about the issue and are right on top of their objectives. They are making a difference and they are rightly proud of it.
So what of those companies who have not signed up to the Charter?
My view is that, by now, many have made a conscious decision not to sign. I can’t understand why. Some say they don’t like targets. But they are their own. They don’t have to be onerous. Some say they don’t like the focus on gender and that we should consider broader groups. But we have to start somewhere. Some say that not all of their jobs are suitable for women. But which ones can they be at a time when women are joining the infantry?
These are excuses and we should not allow them to wash.
My view is that if equality is important to you – male or female – then make sure your company has signed the Women in Finance Charter. If they haven’t then find out why. And if their reasons don’t make sense to you then it’s time to leave.
Culture is important. And each of us has the power to change it. Now is the time to celebrate the culture of your organisation or, if you don’t like it, to change it.
Jayne-Anne Gadhia's new book, The Virgin Banker, was published by Virgin Books yesterday at £20. Royalties from the sale of The Virgin Banker will be donated to Heads Together, the Virgin Money London Marathon Charity of the Year 2017, to support its work to help people find the mental health support they need, when they need it.
Gadhia will be on the City A.M. podcast next week.