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Dec 2009

Case study: Helen Weir, Lloyd’s Banking Group

Helen Weir’s phenomenally successfully career has led her to become the group executive director of retail banking for Lloyd’s Banking Group.

Helen Weir, group executive director of retail banking

Helen Weir’s phenomenally successfully career has led her to become the group executive director of retail banking for Lloyd’s Banking Group.

Her rise to the top of a leading organisation in the UK’s financial services sector is preceded by a career that encompasses successful stints at some of the country’s best-known companies.

Weir began her career at Unilever, then moved to a senior management position at consultancy firm McKinsey & Co before joining B&Q (part of FTSE 100 company Kingfisher plc).

Having served as finance director for B&Q, she later became group finance director for Kingfisher, and then moved to Lloyd’s TSB, now Lloyd’s Banking Group, as group finance director.

She is currently a member of the financial services practitioner panel and the Said business school advisory board, as well as chair of the British bankers' association retail committee.

A former member of the accounting standards board, Weir is also a fellow of CIMA.

Women leaders in financial services

Weir’s rise to a senior position in the banking industry seems to contradict the perception that it is an industry dominated by men.

Yet in parts of the industry – particularly on the trading desks of big banks – there are still relatively few women, and there are signs that banking does not appeal to the most able female candidates.

‘The glass ceiling is
a rapidly diminishing issue’

Earlier this year a survey of 450 female students at Oxford University suggested that 85% felt they would face discrimination in the financial services industry on the basis of gender.

This was a higher proportion than any other industry covered in the survey.

But Weir is adamant that such perceptions can be successfully challenged and that in reality there are many opportunities for women to take on senior roles in the banking sector.

‘The glass ceiling is a rapidly diminishing issue. I’ve never experienced it and there are fewer organisations where being a woman holds you back; in fact, quite the reverse: organisations want more diversity.

I’m in a retail business and around the table I want people who represent my customers,’ she states. ‘But a minority of organisations may have resistance to it.’

‘Companies have recognised the need for diversity of views within a business. That is a commercial realisation.

Also, more women have had time to work their way through to senior level.

Our board is nearly 50% [composed of] women. Women can thrive here, and they act as role models when they are in senior positions.

‘Some cultures, however, are less accommodating and welcoming of diversity, like the trading rooms of investment banks.’

Held in check by children?

One reason often cited for the relative lack of women in senior executive roles in large companies is their potential absence from work in order to have children.

Research from the Cranfield school of management in 2008 suggested that there are not only fewer women in senior roles in financial services compared to other parts of the industry, but those women that did rise to high positions were also less likely to have children.

Does this mean that in order to rise to the top in banking as a woman it is necessary to put a family on hold or forgo it altogether?

For Weir, the answer is a definite ‘no’.

She has children herself, and believes that maternity leave can be managed successfully with the right planning, although she understands that having a key decision-maker absent from a business for an extended period does bring challenges.

‘Having children needs better planning and compromise.

When I had my last child I was on the board of Kingfisher, a FTSE 100 company, and I was off for only four months. Any longer might have been problematic,’ she observes.

‘It requires give and take. It is harder to take maternity leave at middle management level, before you get to the board, as you may come back to the company in a different role.

‘Life is about compromises and trade-offs. In middle management now more men take time off to have kids, so increasingly it is a non-gender issue.

'It is more about work-life balance, which is an issue for any executive. 20 years ago it might have been acceptable for male executives to see their family very little, but that is not so now.

‘To be a senior executive you have to make trade-offs. You can’t have everything. You may not be able to get home to pick up your kids from school, especially if you manage a large number of people.’

Work-life balance: a challenge for men too

It is sometimes said that women have to become more like men to succeed in many industries and get the recognition they deserve.

Whether or not this is true – and opinion is divided on this matter – it is certainly true that male executives are now also expected to be more involved on the home front, no matter how senior they are.

Balancing work and home life is a challenge for any executive, regardless of gender.

‘Boards are interested in what
an individual can do for the business’

‘Senior roles require commitment, so you can’t have an expansive work and personal life, but it is a choice. In my view, it is misleading to think that you can have it all. Do women have to give more at work than men? Perhaps, but it may be intrinsic to them rather than because there is pressure from their organisation. I work long hours, but so do my male colleagues, so increasingly it is not a gender issue,’ says Weir.

‘There must be give and take. You can’t miss meetings because the nanny hasn’t turned up. Boards are interested in what an individual can do for the business. If you bring a lot to the business then it can be more flexible.’

Overall, she notes, ‘In my experience, employer policies should support all executives to have a better work-life balance. Valuing what an individual can bring to the organisation is the yardstick a business needs to use.’

Can the law push gender equality?

Legislation has played a major role in putting more women in the boardroom in countries such as Norway, where a 40% quota has been in force for decades. Now, women make up 44% of boards in Norwegian public companies. Weir, however, does not necessarily believe other countries should adopt similar measures.

‘Legislation has no impact at the most senior level, though it has improved factors such as wage equality. There is stronger legislation in Scandinavia and southern Europe regarding the percentage of women on boards, but there are questions about it,’ she remarks.

‘In Norway it has helped to push women forward, but I prefer to look at individuals, not males or females, so I prefer not to have positive discrimination.