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Tackling unconscious bias in banking

Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In made me question how inclusive banking really is. I started by taking a close look at my own company, and used the data to make organisational change.

If I simply looked at our senior management group on the client side of the business, I might have been tempted to conclude that we are an inclusive organisation where female leaders flourish. Of the three global client segment heads at Standard Chartered, I am in the minority as the only male. 

However, this small sample was not enough to determine if the male to female ratio ‘trickled down’ to professionals in frontline sales roles. I wondered if we were seeing a relative imbalance here. Were we doing everything we could to tap into every potential pool of great professionals? Intent on finding out, my team investigated. What we found was fascinating.   

The distribution of new recruits had been around 50/50 men to women in the past several years, a ratio consistent with assertions in Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In that women had made great strides in excelling at colleges and universities. 

However, as our sales professionals rose up the ranks, the data told a different story. The number of men joining the bank at a more senior level was much higher than women. This meant my sales team saw a trend towards men as we looked to appoint senior salespeople from within the bank: our internal recruiting pool had more males than females. 

While broadly the bank had a strong track record for promoting women to senior positions, women in sales seemed to stall in their career progression, prior to achieving managing director status.  

To get the story behind the numbers, I took a trip to meet women across almost 20 of our markets, from Uganda and Ghana to Singapore and Hong Kong, asking why we have not been able to maintain the initial rate of female participation in our sales teams. 

The discussions prompted changes, particularly when we discussed the promotion of senior women. 

We have invested to support women during their pregnancy, but the thing we didn't get right was training our managers to help women during some crucial years of parenthood.

Our 'bias' of focusing on our pregnant professionals drove us to focus on the employee, and we neglected paying attention to the manager. This is something that we vowed to address.

As an international bank that prides itself on having a senior leadership team with broad experience in products and geographies, many of our country coverage heads – a senior position in the bank – have worked in several countries. Women told me that they could not easily match the overseas experience their peers accrue during their children’s early years.

This international experience – which we find is instrumental in building a talented and experienced sales force – was probably adversely affecting the ability of women to get promoted. Eager to tap into every potential pool of great professionals, this past year we used this observation to find women who had successful credentials for senior positions, but did not have the geographical experience. 

Unsurprisingly, the number of women MDs rose and the new senior women are succeeding. I am hopeful that more female promotions will drive a growing population of other successful women.  

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was provocative enough that I gave my entire top management team copies. It drove a discussion around where our biases might lie and her ideas opened our eyes.

I agree that we face cultural challenges that make it difficult to fix or even identify gender biases quickly or easily. The fact that we were spending all of our efforts on pregnant employees and not their managers was clearly an unintended consequence of a bias for women.

However, reaching across all aisles and accessing a diverse set of professionals is a competitive opportunity that no business can ignore.

Sean Wallace is group head, corporate and institutional clients at Standard Chartered Bank