SINGAPORE – Maria has been with the Saxo Bank Group for the most part of her career. Currently, she is the regional head of relationship management and sales trading of Asia Pacific region for Saxo Markets. In this role, she leads teams across five offices, focusing on providing quality service and support to high-value clients. In a career spanning two decades, she has worked across three very different and diverse markets – Denmark, India and Singapore. For the last six years, she has been stationed in Singapore. She shares with Women Icons Network her workplace experiences, challenges for leaders and bridging the gender divide in fintech.

Lessons in leadership

Working in countries that have very different work cultures and leadership styles can be challenging, admits Maria. However, it also helped her develop her own leadership style. She is appreciative of the exposure to diverse views and competencies that she says has helped her through many situations.

She believes that being vocal about the value of different opinions and perspectives can make a real difference in the workplace. It’s important for both leaders and employees to live and breathe the values of diversity and inclusion, by speaking up for others or for themselves, she feels. “This can be done by creating a forum to address topics related to diversity, biases, obstacles and opportunities on a more personal level, so it becomes actionable. Personally, I like to discuss such important topics in smaller groups or 1:1 where it becomes a dialogue rather than a presentation, or a mere formality,” she shares.

One of her key learnings over the years is to focus on skills-based assessment, where there is more awareness and clear understanding of competencies for each role. She has been promoting this idea after becoming aware of her own biases. With increased awareness comes the ability to better match the right people with the required competencies for roles irrespective of their gender, race or other attributes, she adds.

The balancing act

Maria talks about how female leaders field questions about how they balance work and personal life, with most of them coming from other women. She firmly believes that this juggling act conversation must not be restricted to women, and men must be encouraged to balance these two aspects of life as well.

Talking about her own experience, she credits her boss and company who understand the importance of family. In fact, she says that many of her colleagues have been offered flexibility that allows them to take care of both work and personal matters in a satisfactory manner.

She has been married for ten years, and is a mother of two. She took a one-year maternity leave while in Singapore with the support from company and is vocal about it to let other women with aspirations know such option exist In the spirit of walk the talk both for her family and colleagues she  leaves work early on Fridays to pick her younger child from preschool, and rarely works on the weekends. To ensure her work doesn’t suffer, she instead puts in some extra hours during start of the week.

Dealing with the mental load

Maria recalls a cartoon titled “You Should’ve Asked” by French author Emma that she was recently introduced to by a male colleague. It describes how the mental load for planning and coordinating the household, including assigning tasks to her partner, on top of executing the chores often falls on women.

“At workplaces, planning and coordination are paid full time jobs, but it is usually overlooked within households, it argues. The mental load of always having to remember and plan is taking up capacity that could be used for other things, including putting in some extra effort towards career progression. In practice the wife more often tends to look at the household as a whole while the husband may focus on doing his assigned chore. An example of what it looks like is my husband taking out the rubbish when asked and then get going with his own things, while I often find myself doing dishes or folding laundry or wiping the counter on my way to dispose of some rubbish. I think it’s important to be more aware of this mental load as this is also a barrier for some women to take on more challenging work since they are already working at maximum mental capacity ,” she informs.

She feels that the pandemic further increased this mental load on women around the world. On top of their usual tasks they had to deal with the planning around all the routine changes for their family including dealing with home based learning for children, changes to their own work setups and less time for themselves out of the house.

Women in fintech

Turning our attention back to the workplace, we ask Maria about the steps that the fintech industry can take to include more women and ensure gender equity. Research shows that the finance industry in Singapore evenly employs men and women, but the management positions are still predominantly held by men. According to her, the challenge lies in ensuring that women have access to equal opportunities to advance to leadership roles.

She acknowledges that Saxo also has more men in senior leadership and top management roles. However, they are all conscious of the need to bridge the gender divide within the company, and understand the commercial and cultural value of having a diverse leadership group. This has led them to devise policies to eliminate discrimination in the hiring process including biases against pregnant candidates, ensuring that women on maternity leave are treated fairly in appraisal and a mechanism to evaluate compensation on the same scale across the company.

Commitment to gender diversity

Maria thinks that companies need a clear framework intending to have a gender diverse company. More importantly, it must provide specific and practical ways for every person to understand what this looks like in practice so they can behave accordingly. “To fully have a commitment, it’s important to walk the talk on an ongoing basis and there must be a clear mandate for the leader or HR department to act if guidelines are not followed,” she asserts.

Leaders, she believes, must set an example by consistently embrace the valueof  different perspectives that comes from diversity and inclusion and allows us to think of more solutions. However, if their reason for hiring more women is just to hit a certain ratio, it undermines the purpose as well as the calibre and integrity of the new hires.

Promoting fairness by being transparent about competencies required for different roles and tasks will give everyone a chance for visibility at work, opines Maria. “Transparency about compensation and basing it on the responsibilities will be beneficial to address the gender pay gap. A structured hiring approach based on competencies means you ask all the candidates the same questions, weigh them on the same scale, free of bias and preconceived assumptions,” she explains.

Women in leadership roles

Employers can encourage more women to pursue leadership roles by having both female and male leadership role models and make it visible that a leadership career path is natural for both men and women within the organization.

Allowing flexibility, in a mutually reasonable and respectful way, for employees to balance their obligations at work and at home, also helps encourage more household coordinatiors to pursue leadership feels Maria.

“I also encourage companies to provide a space and time for all to network in casual settings which is where tips of the trade are exchanged and new friendships are formed. Expand networking from after-work beers to other networking opportunities at other timings as well, such as a Tuesday breakfast club or Friday power walks,” she suggests.

Even with all the efforts of industry leaders, it will take many years to achieve the diversity targets such as 100 Women in Finance’s Vision 30/40 target, she rues. However, this makes it even more necessary to start today by building a pipeline of future leaders from a diverse pool of people through support, encouragement, and reduction of barriers, she adds.

Role of current leadership

Maria asserts that with more men holding leadership positions, they also have huge decision-making power on who our next leaders will be. She believes it is important to understand that we all have a certain bias for the familiar, which means leaders often end up hiring or promoting people who have something in common with them like gender, nationality or background. Leaders must be aware of such unconscious biases, and be mindful to create opportunities to develop competencies and achieve visibility for any staff member who aspires towards career progression.

“When it comes to spotting and speaking up against biased practices or decisions, we all have a role to play. At a more macro level, men should also seek time and flexibility for family responsibilities,” she insists. She asserts that it is futile to attempt making workplaces diverse by offering more flexibility for women whereby we reinforce the notion that women have a greater responsibility at home even if they have a successful career.

According to her, a more equitable solution would be to encourage, and not ridicule, men to seek flexibility for family responsibility. This, she says, will help in expanding the bandwidth of their wives to rise in their careers. By providing such avenues to men, an organisation automatically assumes a consequential stake in building a fairer society, she explains.

Gender equality in 2030

Habits, insists Maria, are the biggest barriers to gender equality. “Change is hard. It requires a lot of mental energy. Everyone already has their calendars full with strategy, execution and leadership tasks. Many leaders are already exhausted and just want to cross some tasks off their list,” she informs.

No wonder then that they stick to doing things the way they have always been done. Hiring people who are similar requires less mental energy, and they are more likely to do things the way you are used to, she points out. In contrast, she adds, becoming aware of biases, and keeping a check on them requires concentrated efforts.

In order to achieve the gender equality by 2030 goal, she feels companies and even nations must band together for a national pledge for the private sector to aim for and work towards. This will help create a stronger voice and make it easier to get commitment from companies of the specific behavioural changes to ensure true gender equality at the workplace.