Ireland finds a female antidote to banking groupthink
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Ireland’s foremost claim to fame in global finance is a banking crisis that resulted in a 2010 government bailout and a decade of austerity. Now, though, the country is attracting attention in the same circles for a very different reason: the outsize representation of women in its international finance sector.
Globally, studies show women typically make up less than a fifth of senior finance executives. But, in Ireland, if you sought out the chief executive of an international bank in recent years, you are more likely to have met a woman than a man.
“It’s an area that we’ve focused on,” says Sharon Donnery, Ireland’s financial regulator and a deputy governor of its central bank. After the crash, “one of the key criticisms of both the industry and the central bank was groupthink”.
She finds diversity can be a “very important mitigant” to this damaging phenomenon in which an industry’s leaders all think the same way. “We see it as an important part of our expectations on how [financial firms] are managing risk and how they are making sure that things like groupthink aren’t happening in the future.”
Ireland’s international financial sector seems to have got the memo.
Citigroup’s 2,500-strong Dublin operation is led by an Irish woman, as was JPMorgan Chase’s Dublin campus until recently. Wells Fargo’s Irish business is female-led, as is HSBC’s, along with those of several smaller banks. Credit Suisse had a female Irish country head until last month.
Then there are the asset managers. The Irish offshoots of Abrdn, Northern Trust, and LGIM are all led by women. Victoria Brown, head of Abrdn’s Ireland arm, who had worked in Luxembourg and London, says she was “very surprised” by the number of senior women in Dublin’s international finance sector when she arrived in 2018.
Across Ireland’s broader financial industry, Irish Central Bank data show that 31 per cent of applicants for regulated roles in finance firms are now women, up from 22 per cent in 2017. Some, like Brown, are returning emigrants attracted by post-Brexit opportunities to build big careers in a market that is more family- and lifestyle-friendly than bigger cities.
Others have forged their careers in Ireland, nurtured by initiatives such as the 30% Club, and the Women in Finance Charter — a government-backed project to improve female representation across finance.
Fiona Gallagher, Dublin-based head of Wells Fargo International, is among the most visible, through her role as chair of the Federation of International Banks in Ireland, an industry group.
She says the women running Ireland’s international finance sector have forged deep and productive relationships, in part through joining forces for initiatives outside finance, including fundraising for a homeless charity by sleeping rough. “[They] are really good at giving their perspective” on the non-commercially sensitive business issues they all face, says Gallagher.
She adds that, while her “first phone calls” might be to women because they know each other better, “in the last number of years, guys have been really great at getting to the table”.
“Having a group of peer senior women helps reduce the imposter syndrome that all of us feel from time to time,” argues Carin Bryans, who led JPMorgan’s Irish business until 2022. “The first time I went to New York in my twenties, I saw women in their fifties in business suits and it struck me I’d never seen that before,” she adds.
Eve Finn, head of LGIM in Ireland, who returned to the country in 2017, says: “I was welcomed by a great group of senior women across the financial sector. There’s real power in a network . . . to get advice, to be mentored, to talk about [issues such as] coming in and out of maternity leave.”
Laura Trimble, who moved to Dublin last year to head HSBC’s office there, says a female chief executive in finance is now so common that the gender of an individual appointment is no longer remarked on. A former HSBC colleague, Francesca McDonagh, became the first female chief executive of an Irish bank, Bank of Ireland, in 2017 (she is now chief operating officer of Credit Suisse).
That “normalisation”, Trimble says, which is “not typical in other markets”, has helped make it “far easier” to recruit women.
Having more women at the top means they can share the load of being “women at the top”. When senior women are scarce, they “end up sitting on every committee”, says Ylva Baeckström, of King’s Business School at King’s College London, and author of a book, Gender and Finance. That affects their day job and puts them at an added disadvantage, she argues.
“Female skills are exactly what the industry needs,” Baeckström adds, because finance “suffers greatly from overconfidence and concentrated risk taking” — characteristics that women are less inclined to display.
It is too early, of course, to say if the gender shift in Ireland’s banking and asset management sectors will help save the country from another financial crisis. Calamities such as the one that hit in 2010 are long in the making. And an avalanche of regulation means much else has changed in Ireland’s financial sector since 2010.
Still, the industry does feel very different to the one I remember from 15 years ago, as a reporter in Dublin. And, having seen the catastrophic fallout from the pre-2010 status quo, any difference seems like a good thing.
The writer is the FT financial regulation editor
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