Group 2

Women at the forefront of values-based banks speak up


7 March 2022

Updated 8 March 2023
“Unconscious biases undoubtedly stand in our way to become CEO”. Views from women managing values-based banks worldwide on International Women’s Day. 

Globally, women represent “two-thirds of financial support staff and half of the professionals”, but “their numbers decline as they move up the hierarchy to less than one-quarter of all executives”, according to the Financial Alliance for Women. The reality is that there is currently a 300 billion US dollar gender credit gap in the world.

For International Women’s Day, in 2022 we looked at 13 women managing member banks and supporting partners of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV) to ask how balancing gender representation in the financial industry could help build a fairer future for everyone. They shared their vision about the social and entrepreneurial value of equality.

For International Women’s Day 2023, we have updated the article and added more women to this list: Deborah Hazell, CEO of Unity Trust Bank in the UK; Aysel Osmanoglu and Christina Opitz, both CEO of GLS Bank in Germany; Verónica Gavilanes, Deputy CEO of BancoSol in Bolivia;  María Pía Palacios McBride, President of Caja Arequipa in Peru, and Kim Sponem, President and CEO of Summit Credit Union in the US. Mirela Pekmezi has replaced Mamie Kalonda as CEO of FINCA DRC.

A progressive bank shouldn’t ignore gender equality

How is the issue of gender equality relevant for running a values-based organisation? Cynthia Ikponmwosa Iranmwinran, CEO of LAPO Microfinance Bank in Nigeria, doesn’t understand the mission of this bank if it isn’t linked to improving the situation of women. “We are a pro-women organisation rooted in a vision seeking to improve the conditions of members of low-income households—especially women”, she says.72% of LAPO’s six million clients are female. “We have carefully researched and developed products that allow women to save and access scholarships for their children or wards, health insurance and earn interests on different milestones”.

“The commitment to overcome inequalities and injustices is a foundational value that Banca Etica tries to translate into daily practice,” explains Anna Fassano, President of Banca Etica Group in Italy and Spain. “We are convinced that the enhancement of diversity and the creation of equal opportunities between women and men respond to reasons of efficiency, while the increase in gender disparities compresses individual energies and collective development, limiting the vision of the future,” she continues.

According to Mirjam ‘t Lam, Managing Director at Oikocredit International, a GABV supporting partner: “When selecting and screening potential partners, Oikocredit reviews the organisation’s gender policy. What’s also important to us is to see how women are represented in the potential partner’s senior management and at the Board level.”

Yet, Priscilla Sims Brown, who presides over Amalgamated Bank, the largest union-owned bank in the United States, warns about the narrative of ‘supporting women’.

“Women bring a unique perspective, especially when it comes to problem solving, because they must think of alternative ways to rise above gender biases and find solutions for breaking oppressive stereotypes and patterns. We have mistaken the need for diversity and inclusion in the workforce and in our political bodies as a means of helping women, when in fact, diversifying our workforce and decision-making bodies is simply a stronger business strategy. To be very clear, women are helping us.”

Barriers women face when striving towards the executive level

Fortunately, most of the women CEOs we interviewed for this article did not feel like being a woman held them back in their careers, and they credit their teams for the support.

“Bias can exist, but while doing business and interacting with people they understand that it is not a gift but a deserved role”, says Mamie Kalonda, CEO of FINCA DRC from 2015 to 2022, the largest microfinance institution in the Democratic Republic of Congo and chair of the National Association of Microfinance Institutions.

Leonor Melo de Velasco, founder of Banco Mundo Mujer and President until 2022, relates a similar experience: “During the 37 years that I have been in this industry, I have faced different challenges; however, being a woman has not limited me to meet my objectives.”

However, they still were able to identify some deeply-rooted biases against female leadership and imbalances regarding female representation at the highest executive positions in the financial industry.

“The financial sector hasn’t made sure there are enough qualified women standing by to take on CEO positions”, says Charlotte Skovgaard, CEO at Merkur Cooperative Bank (Denmark). “There are many reasons for this, but unconscious biases undoubtedly stand in the way when boards and management in the financial sector discuss and plan succession.”

This lack of high-level female leadership has consequences for young women and girls who hope to enter the financial industry. “Being one of only six women in the Danish financial sector I – and other women – are missing out on female role models who we can see ourselves in and be inspired by”, Skovaarg notes.

While today’s women executives do not have the benefit of seeing people like themselves in positions of power, these innovative CEOs are already serving as inspiration for those who come after them. Such inspirational women include Tonita Webb, President and CEO of Verity Credit Union (USA), the first woman and black person in managing the bank, named 2021 Women of Influence; Rupali Kalita, the Managing Director & CEO of North East Small Finance Bank (India), under whose guidance the bank was awarded its current license on 31st March 2017; and Christine Bergeron, President and CEO of Vancity, Canada’s largest community credit union, and recognised as 2022 Influential Women in Business (IWIB) Awards.

A more gender-balance financial system

Rosanna Argall, CEO at G&C Mutual Bank, in Australia, spoke about “challenges related to being a minority amongst a very male-dominated cohort of executives”. At one point in her personal experience, “there was no real alignment in thinking or synergy of experience on a certain level, but this has recently shifted, and there is an excellent network of brilliant female CEOs with whom we can share experiences.”

But camaraderie in the field doesn’t solve everything. “Other challenges related to being a woman include the constant struggle of juggling work, family and caring responsibilities”, Argall explains. “You always have the feeling of never being around often enough for children and family due to the role’s demands. However, flexible work practices and changes in expectations have somewhat alleviated these pressures.”

Argall also notes that implementing flexible working arrangements to accommodate work/life balance and access to development and advancement opportunities for all employees “resulted in strong female representation at every level of the organisation and an almost 90% rate of return from maternity leave over the past ten years.”

“In our country, Norway, women are also underrepresented as CEOs in banks. But that may be due to individual choices and not a result of discrimination”, adds Jannike Østervold, CEO at Cultura Bank, in Norway.

Yet, we can also see a shift towards greater gender parity in some cases, which demonstrates that achieving this goal on a larger scale is certainly possible. Maria Flock Åhlander, CEO at Ekobanken explains that the board of this bank in Sweden is currently 50% women, 50 % men and the management team is also 50% women, 50% men. “Right now, we have a female CEO, a female deputy CEO (credit manager), a female CFO, a female Chair of the Board and a female Head of Customer department”, Åhlander continues.

Gender credit gap

Financial ideas to empower women (and everyone else)

How helpful is it to promote specific financial projects for women? Many values-based banks believe promoting female-specific projects is not only a good way to restore balance in the world, but that it also helps everyone in the long run.

This is the case of Banco Mundo Mujer, whose banking model creates a positive impact on women and their communities. Leonor Melo de Velasco:

“We promote female inclusion every time we approve microcredit to working-class women with low-income levels in Colombia. When they receive it, their self-esteem is reinforced, they are empowered, and they gain self-confidence and personal autonomy. Shaking hands with a woman means shaking hands with an entire community.”

The idea that women are, on average, more prosocial than men and give more back to their communities is also shared by Lidia Simonova, CEO of Center-Invest Bank. Simonova explains that women’s shares of “green deposits”, aimed at the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, twice exceed the shares of men. This bank has also been implementing a special program for women entrepreneurs (“Women’s Business Credit”), which consists of loans with a preferential rate, a personal mentor, and business consultants for women in business.

A similar approach can be found at Juste pour elle (Just for Her), an initiative from Finca DRC for women microentrepreneurs with special advantages. FINCA, which used to be a women only bank from 2003 to 2006, offers financial literacy, as well as special savings products and loans for low-income women.

The Supporting Women Entrepreneur loan of LAPO Microfinance Bank combines female financial inclusion and green energy. “Our alternative energy lending provides alternative sources of power for our women small business businesses and homes, thereby ensuring better revenue streams and a healthier environment”, explains Cynthia Ikponmwosa.

All in all, women leaders, values-based banking organisations and their committed customers are making a difference in the ongoing road to gender equality and progress for all.

Related content