A level playing field – women in banking

9 July 2014

The days of James Brown’s man’s world are long gone, but the hangover is still being felt in some parts of the business world. Ali Paterson speaks to Cheryl Newton about the work Lloyds Banking Group is doing to encourage talented women to find their voice and realise their aspirations.

The past half century has seen significant change, socially and culturally. In the UK and other developed countries, what started with the swinging '60s has dramatically shaped the world we inhabit today. That decade wasn't just a period of love and peace - far from it.

For many, it signalled the start of something big; a time of change that couldn't be halted or even turned around. Women became more confident; more at ease with their sexuality. They began to realise they had a voice and, more importantly, had something of value they could bring to what was then a male-dominated world. Sure, this had echoes of what had been before it, but this time it was different. It was a movement that was here to stay.

A decade later, a political world already with its share of strong females became dominated by Margaret Thatcher. She remains arguably the most powerful woman of her era, whilst at the same time, becoming a major milestone for women in the modern world.

"The better my work/life balance the more productive I am and focussed... You can have both but you’ve got to be disciplined, sensible and organised." - Karen Walker, director of service at First Direct

As I stand looking at an impressive central London skyline, I'm reminded of the substantial contribution women are making to today's world. Cheryl Newton began her working life in banking in the early '80s - a time of major change for the UK. Thatcher was globally and domestically making the headlines, for better or worse. Her impact was being felt, and the role of women in society was a topic of discussion. Newton, who today occupies a powerful seat in technology within UK banking, was embarking on her career. Now she is group operations CIO, Group IT at Lloyds Banking Group. In May 2013, she was recognised for her work; receiving the Women in Banking and Finance Award for Achievement - adding it to the European Banking Technology Awards: Outstanding Contribution by a Female in Financial Technology; and CIR Business Continuity Award: Business Continuity Manager of the Year she already had bestowed on her during her successful career.

But, as Newton acknowledges, her success is in part because of the support she received in her early career.

"I have a little story of how I moved from branch banking into technology," says Newton. "I worked in retail banking and my boss at that time became aware that I was very interested in moving into IT. I happened to be on holiday when the internal job circular came round, advertising a role in a new part of the organisation in London. While I was away, the advert was due to close so my boss, on my behalf, called the department and told them they should wait to get an application from me. He photocopied the application form, sent it to my home address and, when I got back, I was told when I come in on Monday morning I needed to have it filled in and ready to send off. That's what I did. I was interviewed for the role, and the rest is history."

Newton's story is perhaps not unremarkable. It could be argued that there are countless women across the banking sector that have a colleague or friend that might have done the same. But, we don't hear enough of it. Newspaper-column inches are almost routinely devoted to how a female worker lost her job because of her sex; a high-flyer was pushed out of her position because she was undermined and undervalued; or a talented woman has been held back because she just wasn't right for the male-dominated team.

The commitments

António Horta-Osório, group chief executive, Lloyds Banking Group recently launched the Helping Britain Prosper Plan. The initiative means success will be measured in economic and social terms, a first in UK banking. The plan details Lloyds Banking Group's seven commitments that are focused on the areas where the group feels it can make the biggest difference, and where it has the power to influence the most change for the benefit of customers and communities across the UK. There are over 20 measurable metrics; here is a small sample:

  • £1 million additional funding provided to support credit unions each year
  • An increased amount of net lending to SMEs of £1 billion on an annual basis (over £31 billion total cumulative by 2017)
  • 5,000 new Lloyds Banking Group apprenticeship positions created with permanent employment by 2017 (cumulative)
  • 40% of senior roles to be held by women by 2020.

"For me, it's significant that our commitment starts at the very top of the organisation. It's the right thing to do," says Newton. "With our millions of personal and business customers in the UK, we've got a pretty diverse customer base, and we want to deliver a service that meets their diverse needs. We recognise that companies with diverse teams are more successful and perform better. Being innovative and creative requires a mix of talent.

"It makes me proud to be a part of the first FTSE 100 organisation to make such a commitment," continues Newton. "I am the Group IT board director sponsoring the women's agenda. Our programme reflects the group's approach. I am pleased to note that the group has publicly declared that 40% of senior roles will be held by women by 2020. As a large technology organisation, being able to attract, develop, fully utilise and retain top female talent is incredibly important to us."

In order to deliver this target the Group's IT teams have made a specific series of secondary commitments:

  • to increase the proportion of women on its IT apprentice and graduate intake to 25% in 2014 and 35% in 2015
  • to support the Skills & Enterprise Digital Trailblazer initiative, with plans to co-approve seven new technology apprenticeships in 2014
  • to have female representation on IT graduate/apprenticeship interview assessment panels.

However, this isn't the beginning of the group's efforts. It has been doing a lot of work to raise the profile of women within the organisation for some time. Since 2012, Lloyds Banking Group has been listed in The Times Top 50 employers for women - a good acknowledgement for its efforts. The Davies Review, published at the beginning of 2011, warned it would take 70 years to secure a gender balance in the boardroom on current trends.

"We know that some of our talented colleagues fail to progress past a certain point, and we continue to work hard to remove the barriers that exist," says Newton. "IT has historically been a more male-oriented environment, so female representation at a senior level has a longer journey ahead of it, and it will take time."

Among those barriers, Newton believes women can often lack the support and advocacy they need; they don't have the time or opportunity to expand their roles or see what else might be available to them; they lack the confidence to engage fully in their environment; and they don't have the self belief to pursue their own career development.

All for one

The Women's Network for the Group IT programme was established as a part of the groups initiative to help combat these issues specifically within the technology division. It has a variety of plans to put into place with what Newton says are "the right building blocks that will enable us to build our diverse talent pipeline". The programme is intended to build internal talent and skills.

"Rather than sitting back and saying you don’t want to be there because you don’t like the way it is done, if you’ve got the ability and ambition, put yourself there – because then you can change things." - Angela Seymour Jackson of AEGON

The first step was to increase awareness of the opportunity and the programme, which was open to all employees, male and female, as well as the launch of unconscious bias awareness as mandatory training (see Removing the barriers). The second was to remove those barriers through a number of initiatives. The third was to embed the programme across the organisation, and to help employees understand how to maximise their impact. They were asked a series of questions such as have you ever considered what your stance and vocal tone says about you? Do you know what a confident leader looks like? How long do you spend on the message you're going to deliver vs how you're going to deliver that message?

"Particularly, in a technology environment, we deal a lot with very detailed information," says Newton. "Often, you can get lost in that information, particularly with a senior audience. We hope to prepare people for that."

Lloyds provides a three-and-half-day course, offering instantly usable tools to help individuals control and amplify the impact they have. The final day is a month later, giving time to complete homework - a series of tasks and commitments - and to practice.

"On the last day, your progress is assessed, and there's the chance for further coaching and direction if that's necessary," explains Newton. "When we talk about thinking strategically, which is definitely required the more senior you become, being able to connect the strategy of your organisation and understanding how everything you do, every day, actually supports that strategy is incredibly powerful."

Participants are asked a series of questions such as how you think strategically? What does a great strategy look like? How do you align your role and your division to the group strategy? How do you think laterally, evolve a working strategy, and how do you know you've been successful?

"In the final session, we bring candidates back and invite them to present a strategic idea to a senior audience where they are provided with immediate feedback," says Newton. "It's a bit scary, and it's definitely outside of people's comfort zone. But, it has really been embraced as an ideal opportunity to stretch your thinking and leadership abilities in a safe and fun environment."

Newton says the exercise has received some good feedback and she's already started to notice the positive benefits.

"A really interesting and real example was a comment that came back that said 'the course has been a revelation. Something so simple that could have such a profound effect on my personal impact and presence, especially with senior stakeholders,' which is exactly what we're trying to achieve," she comments.

Role models

The group also introduced a role-modelling exercise called Footprints in the Snow, where senior women leaders engage with groups of colleagues and share their career journey to the top in order to 'pass it on' and 'open up' opportunities for others.

"It's really important that people understand everyone has challenges all the way through their career, and they have to make choices. It makes it real for the individuals who are considering moving up to the next level," says Newton.

This is in addition to the Lloyds Banking Group cross company mentoring programme, which gives a richness to development and opportunity.

"It's important to invest time, and I still do, in cultivating a wide network - networks are crucial and deserve to be worked on continuously, not merely when you need something from them. Most successful people have a significant other," says Newton.

The final piece is ensuring the group's initiatives and good practices are embedded within Group IT.

"In the boardroom, we’ll often see a woman facilitating conversation, encouraging input but not necessarily fighting her corner. That’s not necessarily appreciated by everyone." - Anne Boden, former COO, AIB

"We are adapting a more creative mindset to flexible working for everyone, not just those returning from maternity leave, in order to achieve a sustainable and motivated work force. For example, job shares, working from different locations, condensed hours, remote and part time working, all need rigorous exploration. There are clearly some roles in the technology world that are not flexible, but more of a can-do approach is needed with regard to how roles can be performed, so that it benefits our colleagues as well as our organisation," says Newton.

"Something as simple as changing the wording to job advertisements can also have an impact. What's really interesting is if we advertise a role as a software designer rather than engineer, we get far more women applicants."

While there is a huge amount an organisation can do to support its employees, particularly those inspirational women struggling to feel engaged, there is a lot the individual can do too. Newton says she approached her career plan as if it were a project.

"In IT, we're used to projects and deliverables. I have my development plan as if it's a project in its own right, and I thought about what would 'good' look like and what would be the desired outcome for my next 12 months; how I might position myself for the future," Newton explains.

She says she made sure people knew of her aims; did a job she enjoyed; and became known for saying yes.

"I took jobs that I didn't know I could do, but they have enabled me to develop in a whole host of ways. I've sought to extend my boundaries and get a real breadth of experience. There is a key difference that has been recognised, and it is that if a woman sees a role requires ten key competences, if she can do eight of them, she is unlikely to apply. But, if a man can do four, he will," says Newton.

Women, Newton says, need to be confident and have to be prepared to take risks. "Sometimes, you will fail or sometimes you'll make a bad decision, but this is how we learn. Also, remember that it's actually legitimate to sell your strengths. There's nothing wrong with telling people what you're good at. It's not arrogance, but you need to practise the skill," she says. "As an organisation, we have to support people to do that.

By doing some of the mentoring things we're doing at the moment, we're ensuring people feel supported as they're going into a stretched role, and that they have the confidence to really bring 'themselves' to work."

It's very much on trend for corporates today to be talking about women and, in particular, their women, in their workplace. The likes of Sheryl Sandberg, her book and the wider Lean In movement have drawn attention to the need for women to engage and be engaged in the workplace, and the need for them to have greater representation in today's boardroom. But, as Newton acknowledges, it's as much about the individual making their choices as it is about the numbers.

"If people don't know where you want to be and what you want to do, then opportunities won't present themselves," she concludes.

Cheryl Newton, group operations CIO, Group IT, at Lloyds Banking Group, has a strong track record of leading high-performance teams to exceptional delivery in operational and risk-related roles, and working with end users in investment, commercial and retail banking.
Karen Walker, director of service at First Direct.
Angela Seymour Jackson of AEGON.
Anne Boden, former COO, AIB.
Being assertive about core skills is key for women looking to proceed up the corporate ladder.