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The banking sector plays the numbers game

As a young graduate, I had an opportunity to work for one of the well-known banks in South Africa. At the time, most of the front-line staff were white women. There were only three staff including the lady who cleaned the bank and made the coffee.

I could not articulate my discomfort with the arrangement, I knew deep inside that all was not okay. I was also unhappy with working on routine administrative tasks as I felt I could contribute a lot more. I only lasted three months.

The picture may have changed, however, we can all attest to the fact that most of the people we encounter when we visit banks are women.

In 2013, women made up 60% of the 160 000 employees in the banking sector[1]. Men on the other hand dominated the technician and personal service band. Looking at the racial profiles of the labour force in the sector, Africans made up the largest number, estimated at 46%, while whites made only 26% of the workforce[2]. With this general view on the numbers, we can all agree that there is the perception that this sector is doing well in terms of driving the transformation agenda in the country, as the numbers mirror the racial and gender demographics in the country.

However, when we take a closer look at the nature of the jobs occupied by the women in the sector, we find that most women employed in the sector occupy clerical and administrative and sales categories, estimated at 60% in 2013[3]. The numbers of women in key decision-making positions declines significantly. This, in my view lends credence to the perception that we may be victims of playing the numbers game and that in the banking sector – we are no different from the general belief that women are only good at taking minutes. Leslie Williams (2016) refers to this as “implicit bias”, which she describes as “discriminatory behaviours and outcomes that arise without intent”, born from judgments/beliefs we have normalised and often take for granted.

Such biases risk hiding the gross disparities and inequities that exist between men and women and different races in the country. Indeed, one cannot deny the fact that the South African policy and legislative frameworks have done a great deal in addressing the explicit bias and discrimination against women. However, borrowing from William’s words, while the milestones are appreciated, this has only served to push the bias underground.

These admirable numbers for example do not tell us that most of the jobs occupied by women in the banking sector are entry level jobs that do not require much skill and higher levels of education. In fact, the WSP, cited by the BankSeta (2013-2014) suggests that “most banking employees do not have a tertiary education”. Fifty-one percent of the employees have a Grade 12 certificate, and only twelve percent have a bachelor’s level degree. With low levels of education and skills required to carry out these jobs, women are confined to low paying jobs that are not fulfilling.

This, combined with other factors, such as gender socialisation mean women are also less likely to have the courage to negotiate for better salaries, let alone climb the corporate ladder towards leadership and top management. I am not suggesting that negotiating for better salaries is only a problem of women working at the lower echelons of the corporate sector and those who are less educated, there is ample evidence to suggest that women generally find it difficult to negotiate and fight for themselves. As in other sectors and world-over, women are either at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, “stuck at the middle, or locked out of the top (exhibit)”[4].

The survey carried out in 2014 by Oliver Wynman, indicates that 55% of women worldwide, who participated in their survey, experience hardships in reaching senior leadership roles in financial services as compared to their male counterparts.

One of my friends, who has worked in the banking sector agrees with this view. She was denied a senior position because she had children and therefore would not be able to “play with the boys”. Unpacking this more, she explains that the expectation was that for her to perform well in this senior position, she would need to “play with the boys” either in the golf clubs where the boys negotiate important deals, work late or even have drinks after hours. As a mother with young children, she would be able to meet these expectations. Even more saddening was her manager’s apparent lack of awareness of how discriminatory this practice was. Such practices and the apparent lack of awareness that accompanies them, suggest that the issues women in the financial sector face will continue to be overlooked.

If the banking sector in South Africa is serious about transformation, it has to take drastic measures to re-image a different game, where it is not only about the numbers, but where numbers truly count. Serious measures are required to break the ‘glass ceiling’ that prevents many qualified women from advancing through to the higher ranks of the banks. Similarly, it is not enough to fill up the front lines of the banks with women who mainly occupy low paying jobs.

[1] BankSeta, 2013
[2] 2012-2013 BankSeta WSP, cited in BankSeta, 2013-2014
[3] ibid
[4] Mc Kinsey and, 2015

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