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International Women’s Day: a spotlight on female FinTech leaders
To mark International Women’s Day, FinTech Global spoke to a number of successful women in senior positions in the industry about their careers, challenges they’ve encountered, and what can be done to achieve great gender equality in the FinTech industry.
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According to The FinTech Diversity Radar research, published by findexable, a global data and analytics firm, less than 6% of CEOs in the FinTech industry are women, and less than 4% are CIOs or CTOs. Of the 1,032 FinTech firms studied, just 16 were funded solely by women; they received just 1% of total FinTech venture funding.
Most in the industry will insist things are improving. Yet women account for less than 20% of all senior and C-level executives, according to the findexable research. What’s more, it found that only 11 companies were run exclusively by women, compared to the 498 run solely by men. Instead, most women are in HR or marketing-style roles.
When it comes to the board of directors, the report noted that just over 40% of FinTech companies have appointed a woman. This appears encouraging at first, until it is revealed that it is rare for a woman to account for more than one or two places at the table. There are on average 1.46 women and 4.5 men on the board at companies with 1-500 employees and for those with 501-1,000 employees, there are an average of 1.48 women and 6 men. Beyond that, the number is too low to be statistically relevant.
For an industry with a reputation for pioneering innovation and for disrupting old ways of doing things, this is deeply disappointing. These statistics matter because women visible in senior positions encourage more women to follow in their footsteps. A diverse leadership brings about tangible benefits; when half the population is not being seen or heard, everyone loses.
“It is important to celebrate days such as International Women’s Day,” said Remonda Kirketerp-Møller, CEO and founder of RegTech firm Muinmos. “To alert women and girls to the wealth of career choices out there in the tech and finance industries.”
Kirketerp-Møller set up Muinmos in 2012 before RegTech was even a widely recognised term. She said female entrepreneurs tend to have to prove themselves much more than their male counterparts, and encounter challenges their male peers do not.
“Venture capitalists tend to be male-dominated, and I met a number of male investors, particularly in the early days of Muinmos, who expressed concern about the time I would commit to the business as a female and asked whether I would need to take time out to have a family,” Kirketerp-Møller said. “They wouldn’t have considered these issues for male founders. I never let these attitudes bother me and have managed to succeed, and have a family, by remaining totally focused on my vision.”
Kirketerp-Møller is not the only female founder to have experienced this gender-biased behaviour in setting up a company. Marsha Parker, chief strategy officer and founder of RegTech firm eflow Global, said, “I never felt the male female thing got in my way until I started trying to build a company. Trying to raise money as a woman in the early 90s was very, very hard.” Parker’s background is mainly in programming, she founded eflow Global after MiFID 1 was announced in 2004 and realised the system she built – PATH – could be used to help firms with their new regulatory compliance requirements.
Despite such hurdles, the executives FinTech Global spoke to exhibit a great degree of resilience and determination in their careers, which undoubtedly was key to their later success. Jenny Cohen Derfler, co-founder of global InsurTech company Air Doctor, attributes some of her success to her focus in the face of adversity, “You just need to do what needs to be done to achieve results,” she said.
Derfler began her career as a leader of a youth movement in Uruguay, before working on a Kibbutz (a type of settlement unique to Israel) where she worked the soil, raised chickens and milked cows. After managing a community centre in a low-income area, Derfler shifted from social leadership to tech.
When she began working at Intel Semiconductors facility she was the only female team lead for 15 male engineering managers. “Initially, it was exceedingly difficult to be my complete self and integrate into an environment where 80% of the employees are male engineers and technicians – and almost no women are on management levels,” she said. But she realised where her advantages lay: her people skills, ability to motivate others, and leadership, this was key to her later success.
Sarah Anderson, chief customer officer at RegTech firm Regnology, said she became aware from an early age that women are treated differently in society. She acknowledged that women encounter challenges in their careers that men do not, “regardless of how you present yourself.”
Strikingly similar to Muinmos’ Kirketerp-Møller’s experience of investors asking her if she would need to take time out to have a family, Anderson said she has been asked about her plans to have children in a job interview, “I can’t ever imagine a man being asked that question,” she said.
Unlike many others, Angela Schmuck, chief operating officer at biometric-powered identity-proofing platform IDmission, has had a positive experience in the tech industry. Schmuck started out as a COBOL programmer back in the late 90s, working for a healthcare company rewriting data routines in thousands of programmes to ensure the company did not implode at the turn of the century.
“In all the roles I have held in information technology in various companies, my work ethic and results have always been valued. I don’t feel I have ever been held back or not had a voice at the table because of my gender,” she said. However, she noted that she can attribute this to the leaders and teams she has worked with, “I realise this [experience] has not been the same for many women in this industry.” Schmuck said in her first role as an entry-level programmer, her director was female. Many higher-level positions in this company were also held by women “so this set the stage for me,” she said.
Melanie Hayes, co-founder and chief marketing officer of cyber risk management firm KYND, said that despite the gender imbalances in the industry, she has primarily had a positive experience. “It’s an industry where intelligence, hard work, and talent are recognised and rewarded very equally,” she said.
In terms of tackling challenges, gender-related or otherwise, Hayes said to succeed in a tech or startup environment, “you need to be resilient, assertive, and customer-focussed. It is having these characteristics along with the ability to take on hurdles head-on that enable you to succeed, not your gender.”
Fiona Tee, chief financial officer at cross-border payments firm Currencycloud, said that gender bias can be difficult to recognise on an individual level, and even if you have identified it, how do you go about challenging it? Tee joined Currencycloud in 2016 after working in a variety of leading finance and technology companies, she has since steered the company through several funding rounds and its subsequent sale to Visa. “Your personal experience and confidence is going to be what helps you tackle it and move forward – always believe in yourself,” she said.
There is a consensus in the industry that to tackle FinTech’s gender diversity problem, we must go back to the beginning: education.
Renology’s Anderson said, “With two daughters and one son, I can see that from an early age they are encouraged to do different things, and once they hit their teens that divide grows.” Anderson started her career working in technical roles after gaining a degree in computer science and software engineering. She believes that to get more women to enter the tech and finance industry, more girls at young ages should be encouraged to engage in a wider range of activities, including technology and science.
IDmission’s Schmuck believes science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes in lower-level education will help. “But they must also be supported in the companies they join. Women must be given opportunities to lead and have a seat at the table. But I think they also must be chosen for these roles for their work ethic and results, not just their gender.”
Addressing the problem should begin in early education but should also be followed through into the workplace; company culture is paramount. KYND’s Hayes said, “Organisations need to make diversity an integral part of their culture and step-up efforts to support and empower women in the workplace.”
We must change the narrative, Hayes continued. Industries such as cyber and tech are routinely portrayed as masculine, whether that be male actors playing the “technical whiz” in films and TV shows, or just via the general masculine imagery that is presented to us. In addition, Hayes said the industry has real benefits, such as a better work-life balance, rewarding salaries, and quick progression, and this should be promoted.
Hayes herself did not start out in tech; she spent the first 15 years of her career in marketing. Her path to the cyber industry came after having her daughter and wanting to work without compromising her family life. This has been paramount to building a culture at KYND that values diversity and promotes a work-life balance.
Similarly, Fiona Tee, chief financial officer at cross-border payments firm Currencycloud, said that culture is important, if more women see their peers and role models in traditionally male positions such as sales or IT support, they are more likely to recognise that those opportunities exist for them. This is what she has witnessed at Currencycloud, where an increasing number of females are in such roles, “it has an accelerator effect.” “Building the pipeline of female talent, and providing a real model for an increasing number of women is critical in helping to create a truly enjoyable and diverse work environment,” she added.
We are seeing more women enter the tech and finance industry, which is encouraging. However, there is still some way to go. “Until there is a 50/50 split of women to men across all functions, it is not enough,” said Tee.
When asked what could be holding women back either in the application process to senior positions, or once they have landed them, eflow Global’s Parker, said it is both a societal and a systemic issue that can feed into the confidence of individuals.
Changing this is a slow process and can take generations, she added. “When I started in the mid 70s, unless it was a secretarial position, a woman’s CV wouldn’t even land on the desk let alone secure an interview. But at the same time, most men couldn’t boil an egg.”
“The future for women in FinTech is bright,” Muinmos’ Kirketerp-Møller said. “There are so many routes to get into this sector, and such a breadth of roles that women with a wide variety of skill sets can find an area of work that they really enjoy and excel at.”
“The sector is changing but we do need to put diversity and inclusion at the heart of our industry and embrace this change. We will be so much stronger as an industry when we are able to achieve this.”
eflow Global’s Parker said for those who want to, they should go as far as they can, but they should not have the expectation that they have to. “Women have the extra burden of feeling like they have to do extra just to prove a point, to show they’re up to the task, but this is the wrong approach. You should look inwards to find out what you want, and then go achieve it.”
A second article, with further insight from female FinTech leaders, will be released later in the week diving deeper into women in leadership roles and senior positions in the industry.
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