Females in fintech: Overcoming patriarchal structures

“I feel like I am frantically dog paddling just to keep my head above water every day and I don’t think I have ever looked polished and professional in my life.”

Perhaps not words you’d expect to hear from a leader in the fintech world but they do reflect some of the daily struggles women in our sector face. The quote is actually from Liz Lumley, whom many of you will already know for the work she does with FinTech Talents.

I spoke to Liz and Andrea Dunlop, Chairwoman of the EPA (amongst other senior roles), and Angela Yore, Co-founder of fintech communications specialists SkyParlour, for the second instalment in a series of Marqeta blogs on gender diversity.

During our conversations we touched on a range of topics, including their respective journeys to success, the pernicious effect of self-doubt, and what young women entering the industry can do to progress.

For Liz, the word success is tricky to define, as she sees her career as more a tale of survival than triumph, which provides a frustrating insight into the imposter syndrome that many women experience in their careers.

“We’re all supposed to exude positivity and strategy goal planning as if life is one great metaphorical Peloton workout,” she said. “But I find this push to eliminate all barriers to your success-type of assertions harmful and counterproductive. If you find yourself not feeling 100% every day or groaning at the start of your alarm on a Monday morning, these aren’t barriers to your success. They make you human.”

Anyone who’s watched Liz host a FinTech Talents event will know that she does, in fact, look polished and professional whether she’s interviewing a fintech rockstar like Anne Boden of Starling Bank or keeping the conversation going between speaker slots. Liz isn’t alone in experiencing feelings of self-doubt. Andrea tells a similar story and admits to suffering from imposter syndrome and anxiety at different times in her career. She said “Does it hold me back, though? No. I push myself forward no matter what I am feeling personally. But there’s no escaping the fact that it is harder if you are not in a supportive environment, whether that’s at work, home, or other areas of life.

“The things that have really stood in my way have been labels: These have definitely had an impact. And it’s interesting, you never hear the labels ‘strong,’ ‘courageous,’ and ‘assertive’ used for aspiring or senior female leaders. The ones you are more likely to hear are, ‘bitch,’ ‘emotional,’ ‘mad,’ or ‘bossy,’” she said.

Angela reinforces Andrea’s point about the importance of a supportive environment, having experienced family members who, in her words, wanted to keep her within a certain pecking order. “The expectations of me were low at home from the get-go and there were no role models to be inspired by,” she explained. This has meant she often stands in her own way.

Fortunately, though, one of her early employers, Xerox, was very progressive when it came to supporting women who sought leadership positions. “My first female line manager ended up going on to become the MD for Xerox Ireland. And while I was there, both the CEO and the second-in-command were women. This sent a message that the possibilities were endless.

“But it was only when I started to run a business that I realised how important it was to step up to the plate and lead others. I’ve found that true leadership is more about partnering with people to get the best from everyone. Everyone is responsible for leading and taking responsibility in a supportive ecosystem. It’s much more collaborative than the stereotypical image of a dominant spin doctor that likes to hear his or her own voice first,” Angela said.

On the topic of supporting other women to both join and make progress in the financial sector, Andrea and Angela felt strongly that more needs to be done to get more women into STEM subjects. Liz’s advice for young girls was simple yet powerful: “Your ambitions are valid.”

“Don’t let anyone or any cultural structure stop you from achieving what you want to achieve — no matter what that is. Painting a picture, starting a company, coding an application, or raising a family. You are the agent of your own destiny.”

These thoughts were echoed by Angela. She said “My advice is to chart your own path and follow your passion whether that’s in the world of STEM or the arts.”

That said, success isn’t achieved in isolation, and Andrea made the case for the importance of representation. “You can’t be what you can’t see.” She said, “I honestly think much more needs to be done from an earlier age so that young girls see earlier in their lives what is possible.”

What has become pretty obvious to me during my conversations with Liz, Andrea, and Angela is that there’s no one individual or group to blame for the struggles faced by women in the fintech sector. It seems that the challenges are about culture and structures — invisible, intangible constructs that create a psychological cage around our aspirations and outlooks. It begs the question, how do we go about prying open these bars to realise genuine gender diversity?

Liz nails the problem. “Patriarchy is a structure that both men and women uphold. I’ve done it in the past and it has been done to me. You start to see the structure for what it is and your role in it when, as a woman, you are placed in a position of power.

“Being a woman in a male-dominated industry does not mean you are fighting men — it means you are fighting a structure that automatically places men in positions of trust, authority, and leadership. A woman in that position is not awarded that trust automatically. Many of us are trained to seek validation from authority figures. To be told that we have done a good job, to support us solving problems or promote us along our career paths. Having a man in that position feels more natural and safer — because we all uphold a patriarchal structure.

“I often get asked ‘what can I do to support young women in this industry?’ I would like to ask for something, instead. If you find yourself in a position where your boss or team leader is a woman, give her the same trust you would a man — and be honest with yourself about that.”

“If you hear another woman say ‘I feel more comfortable working with men,’ question that. For example, what does that say about them, about you? Similarly, when you hear someone comment, ‘Well, I heard she is difficult to work with,’ ask for specifics. Would the same behavior coming from a man be categorised as difficult to work with?”

I think Liz is right. Combatting sexism in the workplace requires us to question assumptions and call out gender-based stereotypes when we hear them. Everyone — not just women — in fintech can benefit from the range of experiences women bring to leadership roles.

Andrea says,“There are many groups and networks, not just within our companies but across the industry that are always in need of more support. These groups do help support you on your personal and career journey. If you don’t have this in your company, look to create a group that is inclusive for all. Help to create that environment where your colleagues can be themselves and feel safe and free to express themselves. And from a career perspective: Be bold, take some risks, and fortune will very much favour you.”

* In my third l blog post on gender diversity in the fintech world, I take a look at what Marqeta is doing to support women through their careers.

Read part one of the blog series here.