Investment banking’s elite is 96% men, but Malaysia is a big outlier

No other big country has such a high proportion of female investment bank chiefs

By Elffie Chew / BLOOMBERG

In THE male-dominated world of investment banking (IB), women are increasingly rising to the top in a place you might not think to look.

Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country better known for its recent political turbulence than its gender diversity, now has female bosses at three of its 11 homegrown investment banks.

Women also hold the top jobs at the Malaysian units of Credit Suisse Group AG, Rothschild and Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. And a woman will soon take over the global operations of Maybank Kim Eng, the securities arm of Malaysia’s largest lender.

No other big country tracked by Coalition, a financial industry research provider, has such a high proportion of female investment bank chiefs. At the 257 firms Coalition monitors worldwide, about 96% of the senior leaders are men.

Why is Malaysia bucking the trend? We sat down with three of the nation’s top female investment bankers to find out. A twohour conversation in Kuala Lumpur produced answers ranging from the practical (easy access to domestic help) to the policy-driven (a government campaign to attract more female leaders to the workforce).

On one point, the women all agreed: 24 years after MIMB Investment Bank Bhd’s Yang Shu- Yin became the first female to reach the top of an investment bank in Malaysia, the environment has rarely been better for more women to follow in her footsteps.

In one sign of how the broader workforce gender balance may shift over the long haul, women now account for 62% of the country’s public university students, even though they make up 48% of the population.

“We don’t want young women to see a glass ceiling,” said Kong Sooi Lin, the CEO of CIMB Investment Bank Bhd. “They should see a flight of stairs and walk up with pride.” “In their heels!” added Maimoonah Hussain, the group MD of Affin Hwang Capital.

Maimoonah Hussain

Age: 59.
Firm: Affin Hwang Capital.
First IB job: Morgan Grenfell (Asia) Ltd in 1980.
Family life: Married with three kids.
On joining the industry: I interviewed with a merchant bank and they told me they only took people with three years of experience. I told them I’ll prove to you I’m just as good. They showed me to the door and said: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” But a month or two later, they had a new vacancy and said: ”Why don’t we try this girl who was so damn pushy.” I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into, but I have never once regretted my choice.
Family support: We all grow up in cultures where women have some kind of expectation to play a dual role. And that can be an advantage. We have an innate ability to multi-task. But I think that’s common across the whole world. What we have as an added benefit in Malaysia is easy family support. I wouldn’t have survived without family support and a maid in tow. You know your kids have someone to be there for them. In the West, the availability of domestic help may be a little bit less.
Pushing for diversity: In my organisation, we are almost 50-50. But when I drill down, in risk management, there is one male boss and 10 ladies under him. In my information technology (IT) department, there are many men, but just one or two ladies. Wouldn’t it be great to have more women in IT and more men in risk? Isn’t your team bored going out to drinks with copies of themselves? Diversity adds colour and a different dimension to how you look at things.

Lee Jim Leng

Age: 55.
Firm: Hong Leong Investment Bank Bhd.
First IB job: Schroders Malaysia in 1993.
Family life: Married with three kids.
On patience: Girls tend to be patient about getting things done. My own husband was an investment banker too, but he didn’t last. He got tired waiting for clients, for meetings. One day he came home and said: “I waited four hours for this chief to meet me. That’s it!” And right after the meeting, he called it quits. But me, Sooi Lin (Kong) and Moon (Maimoonah), we’ll wait there patiently. We have that perseverance.
Mentoring: Women can be their own glass ceiling. I do a lot of encouragement. I went through some of the struggles myself. I wasn’t sure whether I was cut out for IB. You have to take that big leap of faith and you realise that you can do it. Women have to overcome themselves.
Conquering guilt: For women, the biggest problem is the guilt. Not spending enough time with parents, with kids. All of us go through that. You have to ask yourself what is a good mother. The question is not about the amount of time, but the quality of time and what you do for your kids.

Kong Sooi Lin

Age: 57.
Firm: CIMB Investment Bank.
First IB job: Bumiputra Merchant Bankers Bhd in 1989.
Family life: Married with three kids.
On government support: They have been rooting for women to come into the workforce, targeting 30% representation on corporate boards. So, we are lucky in a sense that we are in Malaysia. When your country has this view on gender, your bosses also support women. And we’ve come up with policies that encourage women to stay in the workforce. For our new building, we made sure every floor had a nursing room. We also have a nursery downstairs for young children. We allow women to take up to six months of maternity leave with no loss of seniority.
Perceptions of women leaders: The first time I walked into a meeting in Korea, they were so surprised that I was the boss and that all my subordinates were men. I could immediately see their faces change. I had to convince them that I knew my stuff. These guys were not easy to deal with, but eventually we completed many deals. As a lady, being persistent helps.
Networking: We used to fight, and we’re all competitors. But over time, we’ve become friends as well. You need one another in this industry. Some deals you can’t take all by yourself. You want to spread risk. The friendship we’ve built over the years is very good because it helps us support one another through the ups and downs. If the boys can have their boys’ club, why can’t the women have a women’s club?