Zarina was the first black woman in SA to hold the position of a partner at Ernst & Young,  and the first black woman to be executive director of Absa Private Bank, in this country. She is currently Vice-chairman of Absa Retail Bank.

he sub-prime lending crisis is having a ripple effect all over the world. Women and men in positions of power in the financial services industry in the United States are losing their jobs. This means fewer women in positions of power in Wall Street – and there weren’t that many to start with. Sadly, this is happening in spite of the fact that companies with women in senior positions outperform those than don’t, and that women bring irreplaceable skills to the world of banking.

The Business Women’s Association launched its Fifth Annual Census on Women in Leadership in South Africa in May this year. The survey revealed that of the 318 JSE-listed companies investigated, more than 39.6% had no women on their boards.

Women constitute only 25.3% of all executive managers and only 14.3% of all directors in this country. The survey identified only 13 women CEOs and 13 female Chairs of Boards. Together, they represent only 7,8% of the top executive positions surveyed.

Yvette Montalbano, CEO of the Business Women’s Association, commented that having women on a board brought diversity of thought and independence of action to the mix. This is borne out by a survey carried out by Catalyst, a firm that builds business opportunities for women in the United States, which showed that the Fortune 500 companies with more than three women in senior positions outperformed the return on equity, return on sales and return on investment capital of their less diverse counterparts.

The results highlight the huge amount of work that still needs to be done to bridge the gender gap, particularly when one takes into account the fact that women make up 42% of the South African working population and 51% of the population as a whole.

Unfortunately, the time to demand a turnaround in the numbers of women at executive level has coincided with the sub-prime lending crisis in the States, which has seen ripples throughout the global financial services industry. In June, Erin Callan was removed as chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers Holdings Incorporated. In November last year, Zoe Cruz lost her job as co-president of Morgan Stanley. Callan and Cruz represented the most influential women on Wall Street. They have both been replaced by men. It seems that the one thing that women can do as quickly as men is lose their jobs in difficult times.

Catalyst’s survey of Fortune 500 companies found that women accounted for 16.6% of corporate officers and 16.1 percent of board members in the finance and insurance industries last year. At the same companies, white men accounted for 45% of the workforce, while white women accounted for 31 percent, and men and women of colour represented 11% each.

The subsequent replacement of Callan and firing of Cruz leave very few women in positions of power in Wall Street firms. There might be more women in positions of power in Wall Street, in South Africa and all over the world, if attitudes shifted.

Frances Elizabeth Willard, well-known American reformer, wrote about banking as a possible career for women in her book Occupations for women: a book of practical suggestions for the material advancement, and the moral and spiritual upliftment of women published in 1897.

Willard wrote: “It cannot yet be claimed for women that they have in large numbers invaded what has popularly been a career sacred to man. Nevertheless, enough of them have within the last few years been called upon to occupy the positions of cashiers and tellers to make it quite proper to include this among the list of possibilities for the girl who has business talent and finds that she must win her own way in the world.”

Today, many years later, the financial services industry has gratefully moved on.

However, today, when women are embarking on careers in teaching, medicine, law, marketing and human resources – and even broadly in finance – the banking sector remains the last bastion for us. We are seen as spenders rather than earners, and almost never as the advisors and managers we are so capable of being.

There’s no escaping the fact that banking is an aggressive and difficult environment to work in. But, law, medicine and politics are equally intense and demanding, and many women pursue life-long careers in these areas.

In my experience, women make excellent bankers. They’re excellent client-facing people, investment bankers and private bankers. They are good listeners, are empathetic, and have a special ability to place themselves in someone else’s shoes. Men tend to want to transact while women tend to want to establish a relationship. Much like employing people of different colour and backgrounds, women enhance a business’s competitive edge.

It is the responsibility of the women of this generation to ensure our representation in the areas of investment banking and management of banks to drive a new generation of change, and to bring the benefits of diversity to the banking industry. It is also the responsibility of our generation of women to ensure that the profession is one that is better for our involvement and influence.

Zarina Bassa CA(SA) is the Vice-chairman of Absa Retail Bank.