Lessons from a woman who smashed (and re-smashed) the glass ceiling

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, getting ahead wasn’t always easy for Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia, the new Chair of HMRC Board. But, as she tells Annie Makoff, her experiences spurred her on to achieve career success.

After more than 35 years in the sector, Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia has had her fair share of challenges in what used to be a male-dominated sector. Starting out as a newly-qualified chartered accountant at Aviva in the 1980s (then Norwich Union) before quickly rising through the ranks, she went on to become CEO of Virgin Money and later Salesforce UKI. In 2016, Gadhia was appointed as the UK Government’s Women in Finance Champion where she founded its Business Diversity and Inclusion Group and in 2018 was named Leader of the Year the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards.

Gadhia is currently Founder and Executive Chair of financial management app Snoop, which uses open-banking and AI technology to help households save money. And, as of January this year, Gadhia was officially appointed chair of the HMRC board.

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Gender inequality

But like many women in finance, she sometimes faced hostility from her male peers and was often referred to as a ‘bloody difficult woman’.

“I remember exactly how I felt, years ago, when an otherwise fantastic boss told me that I could be brilliant – if only I was less emotional,” she recalls. “A member of the board at Virgin Money even referenced the menopause in a particularly fraught board meeting. There’s nothing more discouraging for a woman than to hear that you’re ‘scary’, ‘emotional’ or ‘hormonal’ – and I’ve heard it all.”

Yet, Gadhia insists these attitudes actually motivated her more. It made her more determined to do well in her career, to ensure her achievements were based entirely on ‘merit and hard work’. Her ethos, she says, was always about being open to new challenges and opportunities.

“Fortunately, I’ve always had more supporters than detractors,” Gadhia adds. “I’ve always pushed myself to deliver results. Performing or even better, outperforming, and delivering on promises means you’ll not only be taken seriously but you just can’t be ignored.”

It is well known there is a persistent issue with gender inequality in finance and there have been several high-profile gender discrimination and pay gap cases over the years. Recent BBC analysis found that the average gender pay gap in the sector rose to 23.1 per cent from 22.2 per cent in 2018.

Last year, following the government-backed Hampton Alexander Review into gender diversity at board level which showed that just 15 per cent of 15 per cent of FTSE 100 finance directors are female, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) accused the industry of ‘sexist aggression’ towards women.

No longer a man’s world

But Gadhia believes things are starting to improve. And Gadhia, more than anyone, would know. In 2016, she carried out a governmental review Empowering Productivity: Harnessing the talents of women in financial services which looked at gender diversity and equality across the sector. It set out four recommendations:

  • Appoint one member of senior executive team who is responsible and accountable for gender diversity and inclusion
  • Set and publish internal targets for gender diversity in senior management
  • Publish progress annually against these targets
  • Have an intention to ensure the pay of the senior executive team is linked to delivery against these gender diversity targets.

In response, the Women in Finance Charter was set up in 2016 to ensure these recommendations were met on a sector-wide basis. AAT has been a strong promoter of the charter, and was the first accountancy body to sign up in 2016.

According to Gadhia, since the launch of the charter, over 370 organisations, from global banks to credit unions, insurance companies and FinTech start ups, covering 900,000 employees in the sector, have signed up to improve gender balance in financial services. AAT has been a long-standing supporter of the charter, since becoming the first accounting body to sign up in 2016, and continues to press more corporations  and SME to get behind it.

“So a new picture is beginning to emerge,” she says. “There is much more to be done but I’m pleased with the direction of travel. Now more than ever we need to use the talents of everyone to power productivity and economic recovery in a post pandemic world.”

Humanise, personalise and digitise

It’s an attitude Gadhia is bringing with her to her new role at the HMRC. The HMRC, she says, has been an essential force of ‘economic support’ for the UK during the pandemic. Just as businesses need to keep pace with rapid change within society, the economy and technology, so too must tax administration.

“HMRC isn’t just the ‘taxman’ and it isn’t just a brown envelope,” she adds. “It’s about telling the story and building on existing work streams to humanise, personalise and digitise HMRC services.”

Transforming such a huge tax system will be complex and it will be a while before accountants will start to see any significant changes to procedures and practices any time soon. As Gadhia points out: “Modern accountancy may have roots in Venice, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Career highlights

  • 1995: Co-founder of Virgin Direct.
  • 2007-2018 CEO of Virgin Money.
  • 2016: Appointed UK Government’s Women in Finance Champion.
  • 2018: Named Leader of the Year at the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards.
  • 2019: CEO of Salesforce UKI.
  • 2019: Made a Dame in 2019 New Year’s Honours List.
  • 2020: Launched financial management app, Snoop.
  • 2021: Chair of HMRC Board.

The AAT view – practical tips for firms
Sign up to the charter
The Women in Finance charter welcomes firms of any shape or size who are willing to take the pledge to promote gender diversity and greater inclusion at all levels of financial services.

When the Women in Finance charter was launched in 2016, AAT was one of the first professional accountancy bodies to sign up. AAT are now wanting to widen the scope of the charter to encompass all sectors of the economy. A recent AAT survey carried out by YouGov found that over half of MPs (54 per cent) would be in favour of this.

AAT’s target under the charter was originally to have 40% female representation in senior management by 2022, but targets were met and exceeded three years early. By September 2020, the gender split in the AAT Executive Team increased to 57 per cent from 30 per cent in 2016.

Offer flexible-working initiatives

Women make up nearly two-thirds of AAT’s 130,000 members worldwide and to date, there have been ten female AAT presidents. Flexible and remote working may be the norm for most, if not all firms right now due to the pandemic, but it’s important that the majority continue to offer these opportunities in order to ensure workplaces remain a level playing field for all.

Publish gender pay gap data

All large firms across England, Scotland and Wales who employ 250 ‘relevant’ staff are now required to publish their gender pay gaps. Although there is no legal requirement for other firms to publish this data yet, those wanting to commit to gender diversity should consider reporting on their pay gaps to help promote fair pay structures.

Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.

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