As part of our diversity and inclusion commitment, Smith & Williamson is proud to be a signatory of HM Treasury’s Women in Finance Charter, which seeks to improve gender balance within the financial services sector.
Signatories to the Charter pledge to support the progression of women into senior roles, set measurable targets and to report publicly on delivery against the targets each year.
Of our pensions assurance team, 50% of the senior team members are women.
The pensions industry is traditionally seen as lacking in diversity and lagging behind the general corporate environment. We asked three women who spend their working lives in the sector for their thoughts.
1. What brought you into pensions?
JR: My Godfather worked at a pension and life assurance company close to where I lived and suggested I interviewed for a vacant post after leaving college. I joined as an administrator where I dealt with defined benefit pension schemes and the attaching risk benefit arrangements. I have been in pensions ever since. You could say I fell into pensions but I was following the profession of my father who had worked at Standard Life all his career.
KN: I came into pensions after completing my maths degree and then choosing to train as an Actuary so I could use this experience.
My current role as an independent trustee came after I qualified as an Actuary and I wanted to be more involved with the most enjoyable parts of my work: meeting with and helping clients.
SM: My first job in pensions wasn’t really a planned career move, it just happened. However, I chose my next (current) job because it took me into a pensions-related area I really wanted to specialise in which is audit.
2. What changes have you seen in the treatment of women in the pensions industry over your career?
JR: When I joined the pensions industry, other than administration support, senior appointments, consultants, trustees and actuaries were predominately men, A woman holding a predominant role was rare. It’s only in the last 15 years or so that there has been a shift towards embracing the skills women bring to the industry and supporting them to reach positions of prominence. As well as women striving to achieve the professional qualifications to support them on their journey they are now been recognised for their management, relationship building and new business skills as well as their leadership qualities which was not the case previously.
KN: As I mentioned, I had a radical change fairly early in my career to become an independent trustee. At that stage, most other independent trustees were towards the end of their careers and overwhelmingly male. So, I definitely looked different to the typical trustee as I was younger and female!
I also had to work much harder to get over the “you’re not what I expected” views I encountered with clients and potential clients.
However, I believe that there are more opportunities now for women and younger people generally. Many new business pitches are specifically asking for women candidates and there are many more women taking lead advisor roles for schemes. Something that was rare when I started out in pensions.
SM: My first role was at a firm with a male only manager group with a conservative culture. So, it made a very pleasant change to find a mix of genders in all roles at Smith & Williamson.
3. What do you think have been the positive and negative impacts on your career of being a woman?
JR: Key positive impacts are firstly, the ability to empathise and use my emotional intelligence to build trusted relationships quickly. The other is from a networking perspective as there is less of presence of women within the industry. This has opened up a wider number of opportunities to attend events and interact with key figures within the pensions industry and other supporting professional practices.
Key negatives are that I undoubtedly received less financial reward through my early working career and that I have also had to work harder and longer over the years to achieve recognition and advance my career.
KN: On the positive side, being a woman certainly helped those I met remember me as most others in the independent trustee sector are still male. It has also brought with it a different perspective and energy level.
I have had to work harder to gain respect as, being a woman, I didn’t fit peoples’ preconception of what an independent trustee looked like. There is also the challenge of juggling family and professional lives.
SM: I haven’t noticed being treated any differently because I am a woman. However, I feel my career is moving more slowly compared to male colleagues as I’m trying to balance family and working life. This isn’t a pensions specific issue though!
4. Who has inspired you and why?
JR: I was inspired by Sarah Jeffery-Gray who in the late 90’s achieved a senior professional role within the pensions industry and was a leading voice, with whom I worked with on a number of appointments.
Ian Hartnell, who had faith and confidence in me to open up the possibilities of a long career at Smith & Williamson and who supported me and pushed me to achieve. He was a highly innovative thinker and had a second-to-none knowledge on corporate pensions.
KN: Rather than inspiring me there have been those who have encouraged me in making the next step in my career and given me confidence in my own abilities.
SM: Both my parents were accountants so, unsurprisingly, I was exposed to what this involved at an early age. Especially as my Dad had an office at home into which I would have to go if I wanted to speak to him some weekends! Dad did inspire me to follow in his footsteps.
5. What do you see as the challenges for women in pensions in the future?
JR: There continues to be a number of older men in the industry and sponsoring corporate who still have tunnel vision when it comes to the professionalism of women and their ability within the industry. It may be a further 10 -15 years from now where we see a final trend to women being considered equally for senior appointments, lead consultancy roles and as Trustee Chairs, once the older generation finally step away from the industry.
KN: The pensions industry has got to change its approach as current communications with members is not working. Mainly, I think, as current trustee boards do not know what members want as they are unable to relate to their needs.
Women and younger people are in a better place to understand the needs of these demographic groups and design appropriate communications.
SM: Despite the Government’s initiative, I believe that there is still gender inequality in businesses generally. The reporting about the gender pay gap by larger companies is placing focus on this inequality and, I think it will result in more women getting senior positions. However, notwithstanding this, it is still work- in-progress.
6. What do you think the challenges are to improve diversity and inclusion in the pensions industry?
JR: With the continuing contraction of the pensions industry there are less opportunities for everyone Through AI and technology advancement the servicing of pensions is changing. There will therefore be the need for more diversity in the skill sets need to service the industry. However the remuneration packages offered and the industry appeal, may impeded the ability of companies to hirer the “cream of the crop”. The Pensions’ Industry is slowly coming into the 21st Century but the word “Pensions” is still seen as a dull and uninspiring.
KN: The pensions industry as a whole is not diverse although improving this should not just be a ‘box ticking’ exercise.
It is great that there is more discussion around diversity and inclusion in the industry and I have seen efforts to improve this. However, we should be careful to have diversity of thinking as well. You could have a trustee board, for example, that might look diverse but could all think in the same way. I believe that ‘Group think’ in this way is a bigger threat to the future success of the industry than diversity and inclusion in itself.
There is also the fact that people have describes the pensions industry as “dying” for decades. From my point of view, this is certainly not true and discourages people from entering what can be a very interesting and fulfilling career. We should be encouraging people to enter the industry and be positive about what this can bring to their careers.
SM: I think the main challenge is to attract and retain people working in pensions generally, not just women. Unfortunately, a career in pensions might not excite many young people, even though it is a growing industry with lots of career opportunities.
7. What advice would you give to a woman just starting out in their pensions’ career?
JR: Work hard, obtain your qualifications, use your emotional IQ to build and strengthen relationships and ensure you have a structured networking approach. Build long lasting relationships with people who you enjoy spending time with and can talk to about your life, not just about pensions!
KN: Have confidence that you have valuable skills to bring to the role you take on and that you will have a voice round the table.
There has been a massive shift in independent trusteeship in the past five years so make the best use of this going forward.
SM: Work hard, be yourself and be confident.