War for Asia Talent Pushes Banks to Boost Plans to Retain Women

Wall Street firms are feeling the pressure to recruit and retain women as they grapple with a lack of diversity in their upper echelons and calls by politicians to detail pay gaps


Yes, there’s still plenty of long hours, hard work and heavy travel. But global investment banks in Asia that want to retain and promote women have been offering more incentives for them to return to work and stay in senior jobs — and bumping up the numbers of women in their management ranks as a result.

Women account for 13% of MD roles and above at investment banks in Asia, up from 10% in 2013, according to a survey of the world’s dozen biggest banks by business intelligence provider Coalition.

While Asia’s percentage is still lower than the Americas, the pace of growth is faster: Women in senior roles in the Americas remained at 14% from 2014 to 2016, before rising to 15% last year, the data show.

“There is a war for talent,” said Richard Yacenda, Asia-Pacific COO at Bank of America Corp (BofA), where women make up 40% of the management team globally. The bank declined to give a breakdown for Asia.

“Investment banking has always been a competitive and demanding sector, and we recognise that these are tough challenges for working mothers, so we’ve tried to build a culture that supports women throughout their careers.”

Wall Street firms are feeling the pressure to recruit and retain women as they grapple with a lack of diversity in their upper echelons and calls by politicians to detail pay gaps. Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Citigroup Inc have announced plans to achieve parity between men and women in some or all of their businesses.

More and more global banks are offering return-to-work programmes for professionals to rejoin the industry after taking a career break, typically women who leave while children are young.

Banks work with recruiters to source candidates looking to come back to the workforce, who are given training and support after they join.

At Morgan Stanley, a programme started in 2014 has recruited over 200 participants globally, with half of them currently taking on full-time roles.

Some firms are providing extended maternity leave and flexible working practices to retain new mothers. BofA offers 16 weeks of maternity leave in Hong Kong, longer than the city’s statutory 10 weeks.

HSBC Holdings plc provides coaching and support for new parents and their managers to ease the transition.

Working mothers in regional hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore are helped by the ease of hiring live-in domestic helpers. The minimum monthly wage for such workers in Hong Kong is just HK$4,410 (RM2,205).

It remains harder in places like Japan, where many women opt not to return to full-time work after having children due to public daycare centres’ long waiting lists and the prohibitive cost of full-time help.

“The return-to-work programmes are definitely showing some promise,” John Mullally, a director handling financial services recruitment at Robert Walters plc in Hong Kong.

“I have heard from new mothers who work in banking that it has extended their careers.”

First Head

Cara Li (main picture), who has an eight-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, was promoted to MD in 2013, while coping with two toddlers and a client-facing job.

She now leads a team of 15 as the first female regional head of real estate investment banking at Morgan Stanley.

Li advised a Chinese investor group last year on its takeover of warehouse operator Global Logistic Properties Ltd, which ranks as Asia’s biggest-ever buyout.

Li seeks support from her team and supervisors, as well as her spouse, to coordinate her weekly business travel to avoid clashes with family duties.

“Family and work always compete for your time,” said Li, whose job demands as much as 80 hours a week.

“I wanted to continue to breastfeed back then, but once the travelling started, it just became incredibly challenging to carry on.”

Catherine Wang

At times it felt overwhelming to be an investment banker and a mother of 2, Wang says (Pic: Bloomberg)

Shane Zhang recommended hiring Li from Linklaters in 2004 and is now her mentor. Zhang, the co-head of Asia-Pacific investment banking at Morgan Stanley, said the bank is open-minded about redesigning roles that work for employees and the company.

He encouraged Li to take a talent-development programme to hone her leadership skills while working as a mid-level banker, a move that resulted in her promotion.

“We help our female bankers understand there’s strong support within the firm,” Zhang said. “We’re very focused on making sure female bankers succeed.”

Catherine Wang, BofA’s vice chairman of Asia investment banking, remembers when she decided in 2005 to take a two-year break from dealmaking.

Wang, who now has a 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, was a junior investment banker in the US at the time. She switched to a less demanding role at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc after her second child was born.

“At times it felt overwhelming to be an investment banker and a mother of two,” Wang said. “The detour helped me avoid a possible burnout, and if I hadn’t taken it, I may have quit investment banking altogether.”

Return Programme

Wang went back to her same job at Lehman in 2007 as part of a return programme and later moved to Hong Kong for JPMorgan Chase & Co. She joined BofA in 2015.

“You can always come back and come back even stronger,” Wang said. “Don’t be afraid to take a sideways move to get ahead in the long run.”

Apart from relying on company programmes, women also need to be confident and raise their hands for opportunities they really want, Wang said.

Deborah Leerhsen

Few female bankers use their connections as effectively to advance their own careers, according to Leerhsen (Pic: Bloomberg)

The Shanghai native, who studied mechanical engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University among mostly male students, worked as a missile and rocket researcher before switching to investment banking after completing an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

She also thinks mentors and sponsor relationships are crucial for young female bankers.

“Don’t underestimate the importance of seeking senior people you respect who can empower you with inspiration and help you propel your career advancement,” Wang said.

Dealmakers in Asia know how guanxi — or relationships — help bring clients.

But few female bankers use their connections as effectively to advance their own careers, according to Deborah Leerhsen, co-head of Hong Kong global banking at HSBC, who also advises on the bank’s programme to recruit new graduates.

“There are tactical barriers for women to get to the most senior levels because of the current gender makeup of the senior management of many organisations,” Leerhsen said.

“One of the ways to overcome these obstacles is by finding a sponsor who can help to navigate the organisation and advance your career.” — Bloomberg