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Women Gaining Share in Senior Financial Leadership, But Obstacles Remain

Placing more women in senior roles has been a priority in many countries for the past decade. Targets have been set and initiatives launched in financial services, yet progress remains slow.

It’s not that the financial services industry doesn’t recognize the benefits of diversity. The executives we interviewed, women and men, acknowledge that gender balance is an important aspect of diversity. It provides access to the full talent pool, better decision-making by bringing together different perspectives, better service to customers by better representing them and a stronger economy.

What then is slowing the progress of gender balance in financial services? Partly, it is that well-intentioned organizations have not found the right combination of ingredients, such as flexible working arrangements, sponsorship and cultural change. In addition, gender diversity is too often seen as part of corporate social responsibility or fairness in the workplace, rather than a commercial imperative.

Our analysis of 381 financial services institutions in 32 countries revealed two troubling patterns: First, female representation on executive committees (ExCos) is growing much slower than on boards. Second, the growth is uneven across countries. In many places, there is little to no growth, or even negative growth, in female ExCo representation.

Women on Executive Committees Lag Behind Board Representation

Globally, women occupied 20 percent of board level positions at the beginning of 2016, up from 18 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, 16 percent of ExCo members are women, up from 14 percent in 2013. Women on ExCos are not likely to reach 30 percent globally until 2048.


The growth of board representation has been driven by the introduction of board quotas in 13 of the countries in the sample and by nonbinding targets in some others; however, quotas for ExCos are rare. It’s not that board positions are unimportant. Appointing women to boards sends a signal internally and externally about an organization’s intent on gender balance. The data suggests that increasing female board representation has a positive effect on female representation on ExCos. Despite such positive effects, getting women onto ExCos is more difficult. It requires organizations to build a strong female talent pipeline below senior executive levels. Anyone appointed to an ExCo position must have demonstrated her ability to perform the role. By contrast, board members are often recruited from other industries. Even if the promotion pipeline includes women, there is often a perception of risk associated with appointing them to the ExCo.

Many Countries are ‘Stuck in the Mud’; Others are Getting There

Research suggests that when a minority’s membership of a group reaches 30 percent, they come to be heard in their own right. While some countries have crossed the 30 percent tipping point, none of them are pushing on with material positive growth rates for female representation. This phenomenon is observable not only for ExCos, but also for boards as well.

  • Stuck in the mud. This group of countries has made no material progress since 2013. Some are even going backwards.
  • Getting there. The countries in this group show signs of positive growth. If the number of females on ExCos grows at the current rate, these countries will reach the 30 percent benchmark in the coming decades.


The Mid-Career Conflict

While women in senior leadership positions are gaining share, structural obstacles clearly remain. To investigate further, we drew on Internal Labor Market (ILM) data for financial services from When Women Thrive, a study conducted by Mercer (a sister company of Oliver Wyman). We found:

  • Women are significantly better represented at support staff and professional levels than at senior manager or executive levels.
  • The proportion of women decreases as we move up the hierarchy.
  • Women are exiting at higher rates than men at all levels above support staff.

Why are women in financial services more likely than men to either exit or experience a slowdown in their career? To find out why, we conducted a survey of 850 financial services professionals in 12 countries that included asking about their levels of ambition and willingness to make sacrifices in their private lives. Our survey results expose a career conflict that women face at mid-career level. Between the ages of 30 and 50, their willingness to make sacrifices in their private lives drops significantly below that of men; between 40 and 50, their ambition level is also lower than that of men.

How can financial services firms change the cost-benefit trade-off for women and create work environments and career paths that support women to reach the top? Out of the many ways employers can make a difference, three stand out.

Flexible work programs: While most organizations offer flexible work options such as part-time work, job sharing or working from home, on closer examination, cultural and practical barriers to working in a flexible way remain.

Effective family support and returnship programs: Although many organizations have introduced a variety of parent and family support programs, these efforts have fallen short of expectations. It’s not enough for employers to allow paternal leave; they should positively encourage or even require it. Returnship programs from extended childcare leave must be made effective.

Promotion processes and equal pay: Promotion in many financial services organizations is not based on clear, objective and transparent criteria. Unconscious biases create disadvantages for female employees.

The Role of Leadership

Achieving gender balance is partly a matter of the firm’s culture, but it can also be advanced by concrete measures and structural solutions.

First, put an ExCo talent pipeline strategy in place: Meaningful change requires greater female presence on ExCos. Be prepared to expend political capital to shift in this direction. Put forward a more thoughtful approach to flexible working and family support initiatives: Getting this right is vital for helping women overcome the mid-career conflict and retaining them. Put forth a vision and an ambition and communicate it throughout the organization. Address the gap with flexible work (especially for mid-level or senior roles) and remove the stigma around using flexible work options. Get men and women to make equal use of parental leave. Find solutions to the returnship challenge and avoid a different view of women post-maternity.

The role of leadership is to look beyond the concrete steps and to assess the current state of their organizations. Start with the following: develop an Internal Labor Market map to understand how many women and men are being recruited and promoted and how many are exiting; perform a pay and progression gap analysis; benchmark your organization against the industry; seek honest feedback and assess culture to identify where unconscious bias exists.

In our previous report, we lamented “the pace of change is not fast enough.” That is still the case. The effort to improve gender balance in financial services needs to find a second wind, and it can.

In this report, we have identified the critical point in many women’s careers: the mid-career conflict, where the costs and benefits of a career in financial services seem to be out of balance for many. There are plenty of concrete actions that firms can take to improve the cost-benefit for women in financial services. The deep cultural transformations required have only just begun.

Astrid Jäkel

Partner and Office Leader at Oliver Wyman

Dr. Astrid Jäkel is a partner and office leader at Oliver Wyman in Zurich. She mainly advises insurance companies in the areas of risk and capital management. Her special topics include Solvency II, risk and capital indicators, balance sheet and capital optimization, risk strategy, risk management, ALM and investment management, performance metrics, and construction of the risk organization.

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