Shoppers walk past a branch of Nationwide building society in the centre of York.
Nationwide is just one of a handful in Europe with a female CEO © Charlie Bibby/FT

In 1884, according to Nationwide’s telling of its history, “a group of men” gathered together with the hope of changing the world. Known then as the Southern Co-operative Permanent Building Society, the lender that they formed would go on to become the UK’s largest building society and third largest mortgage provider.

Though its history stretches back into an era long before diversity and inclusion was a consideration, Nationwide has moved with the times. It ranks fourth in the latest FT-Statista Diversity Leaders list of 850 European companies, putting it at the top for banking and financial services companies.

“We invest in diversity and inclusion because it creates strong and vibrant workplaces where everyone thrives,” says chief executive Debbie Crosbie, who headed TSB from 2019 until joining Nationwide in June last year. “That’s great for our colleagues, and good for business, too.”

Crosbie is one of just a handful of female bank chief executives in Europe — and the only major player in the UK. Analysis by DBRS Morningstar of 43 European and UK banks found that Nationwide was one of only five with female chief executives in 2021. A more recent DBRS report found that there were only four in 2022. “Generally, commercial banks are making some progress though, if you look at business as a whole, the number of women chief executives is still absurdly low,” says Tara Cemlyn-Jones, chief executive of non-profit association 25x25, which aims to improve female representation in senior executive roles.

Alison Rose, who received her damehood at the start of the year and was noted as a leading driver for female entrepreneurship, departed as NatWest chief executive in July, amid controversy over the closure of former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage’s accounts at Coutts bank, part of NatWest group.

Data from professional services company EY released in July shows that almost 30 per cent of European financial boards had less than 40 per cent female representation. The European Commission has directed that large listed companies in the EU will have to reach that 40 per cent level among non-executive directors, or 33 per cent across all directors, by July 2026.

“Major shifts to gender diversity do not happen overnight and require a closely managed talent pipeline at all levels,” says Anna Anthony, an EY managing partner. “But research shows that steady progress is being tracked at board level for UK banks, and that it remains a focus for new board appointments.”

Bar chart of Gender split (%) showing Gender parity in UK banking boards is slowly improving

In the UK, the Financial Conduct Authority has, since last April, required listed companies to provide information about how they are performing against targets that include having 40 per cent female board representation. In September, it released a consultation paper, alongside the Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority, outlining proposals to boost diversity, which included reporting diversity numbers annually.

“There’s lots of talk of positive discrimination — statistically, we can see that this is not the case,” says Cemlyn-Jones. “There might be a 50/50 split in terms of the work force but gender imparity is at senior roles rather than across the organisation.

“You’ve got to look at feeder roles, which position people to be the chief executive within banking,” Cemlyn-Jones adds. “The number of women coming through is very low — disproportionately so, when compared to other areas such as engineering.”

Nationwide’s diversity focus is not solely on executive leadership. It has introduced the posts of “inclusion partners” to maintain its D&I strategy across the company. It also partners with Ivy House, which has career development support programmes for women and people of varied ethnic backgrounds.

The lender has nine employee D&I networks, including disability network Enable, ethnicity network Race Together and, among others, networks for gender equality, LGBTQ+, working families, and mental health. These “benefit from the lived experience of colleagues and improve understanding and collaboration”, says Crosbie.

Diversity, overall, in UK financial services remains subject to scrutiny. Campaign group Reboot says the industry “needs to reflect the diversity of the people it serves”. Quoting its 2022 report on the industry, Reboot says “we found seven out of ten ethnic minorities had experienced bias at work in the last year and 82 per cent suffered unwelcome comments based on their background.”

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