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How we can support women to drive greater inclusion across the financial services industry

March is an important month of reflection for women. It marks both International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, both of which celebrate the social, political, economic and cultural achievements of women across the world.

This also creates an important moment for discussion about gender equality in the workplace. It’s a good opportunity to check in on the progress the financial services sector has made around this issue and explore ways we can further improve the experiences and the opportunities available to the women in its workforce.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was ‘embracing equity’. Financial services has made some good headway here in recent years. But to keep this good progress going, I believe business leaders must double down on their responsibilities to not just promote and encourage inclusive behaviours and diversity in their workplace, but to embed them deeply within the company culture. We must be courageous enough to call out and address areas where the business is falling short.

I’m extremely proud of the progress we’ve made in this area at American Express. In the UK almost 50% of senior management roles across our business are held by women and we are very focused on continuing to build an inclusive culture where everyone feels they belong and can be their best, authentic selves.

Drawing on my experience at American Express, I’d like to highlight three areas of learning that I believe have helped guide and support some of our work around diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. I believe these ‘three As’ can help nurture future positive change in our industry.

Authenticity

For me, the first and most fundamental piece is that you must have a genuine interest in making change. This can’t be just a tick box exercise; you have to look closely at the organisation and be able to build a clear view of where you are. There should be absolute honesty about the key areas that need improvement, a genuine interest in helping women colleagues achieve their goals and a realistic view about what it will take to make a difference in these areas. 

Candid open dialogue with colleagues at all levels of the organisation is a critical input for this and at American Express, we find that maintaining an open conversation with our colleague networks helps keep us honest. It enables us to have open dialogues around various issues that affect our colleagues’ lives, including hearing the experiences and challenges of our women colleagues and how we can support them. These feedback opportunities help us to keep our finger on the pulse of what matters most to our people. 

Accountability

Accountability, not just transparency, is imperative in driving women’s progress across every industry. To be able to meaningfully move the needle we need to not just have a realistic view of the issues but also set ambitious, measurable targets to drive change and collectively be prepared to be held to account for these. 

This can include setting diversity goals, backed up by investments in a breadth of initiatives to ensure you reach them. Our own $4 billion global investment in supporting diverse representation and equal opportunities for our colleagues, customers, and communities, will for instance, be delivered across a number of initiatives and each one of them will be rigorously measured.

Part of the process should include yearly check-ins to measure progress on diversity targets, and upfront transparency around missed goals. It is just as important to recognise shortcomings, where tactics need to change, or where new or more urgent issues emerge which must be responded to.

Accountability also includes celebrating progress where goals have been met, too, which helps with maintaining momentum from within the organisation.

Ambition 

If we’re to improve gender representation at the most senior levels in our industry, we need to change the idea that ambition is something to be embarrassed about. We need to make efforts to understand the ambitions of women and foster a culture in which people feel able to talk openly about their personal and professional goals.

For me personally, ambition is about striving to make the biggest impact I can on anything I’m involved in. At work that’s about being ambitious for our colleagues and the UK business, as well as for myself, in terms of what we can deliver on for our customers and the role we can play in driving international growth, whilst creating an environment where colleagues can develop and achieve their aspirations.

It’s easy to shy away from speaking up about what you want to achieve, but this is really the first step in gaining a clearer sense of the barriers to this and identifying the support you might need along the way, as well as the opportunities that exist to make it happen. Sometimes people’s reactions to our professional ambitions may be tough to hear but I firmly believe hearing that feedback is a crucial step in realising your goals because once you understand that you can start addressing it.

As part of our commitment to backing women in our organisation, we launched the American Express Ambition Project in 2020 to inspire women colleagues to confidently pursue their ambitions and pay it forward. It really helped us to create an environment where we can all feel comfortable being more candid about our ambitions, whatever they may be.

Representation is, of course, also very important in this area. I’m proud to be a woman working in finance in a leadership role, to not only show other ambitious women what is possible, but also to share my experiences in both company and wider industry discussions to inform and shape the ways we help women in our industry succeed.

We have made some fantastic progress in this area at American Express, but there is more to do. As an industry, we must continue to collectively uphold a culture where everyone feels they belong and can thrive. This is the only way to achieve true equity and help enable women to have rewarding careers in our sector.

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Hannah Lewis

Hannah Lewis

UK Country Manager and SVP UK Card Services

American Express

Member since

29 Mar 2023

Location

London

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2

This post is from a series of posts in the group:

Women in Finance

For all women working in the financial services industry that want to network and grow together.


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