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Sara Coupe of the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance and Abby Butkus of the Catalyst Fund consider the forces for change, the importance of mentoring and how inspirations can come from a variety of sources when addressing the FinTech workplace gender gap.

Catalyst interns sitting together wearing masks working on a project together.
Picture: Catalyst Fund; shot in Ghana

By Abby Butkus, Senior Program Manager, Catalyst Fund & Sara Coupe, Intern Programme Manager, Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance

The economic impacts of COVID-19 (coronavirus) have sent shockwaves throughout the world. But recent research from the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance has found that despite the negative impact of the global pandemic, fintech firms in most sectors have experienced growth in terms of transaction volume and value. This has put fintech firmly in the spotlight as one of the potential catalysts for economic recovery post-COVID.

But fintech isn’t just a force for economic growth, it’s a force for economic inclusion as well. It opens up access to finance for the unbanked and underbanked globally. It provides Micro, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (MSMEs) with access to financial services and credit that wouldn’t be available otherwise, allowing them to access formal services and better manage their businesses.

Fintech can also contribute to greater opportunities for gender equality – providing access to credit for women, who incumbent banking institutions often overlook or shy away from. But, whilst the gender disparity in the gender split of the globally underbanked isn’t significant (55% of the unbanked population being women), gender gaps in fintech employment are more dramatic and marked. 

A 2018 survey by Lendit revealed that, in 80 leading fintech companies surveyed, the average gender split was 63% / 37% in favour of males. Indeed, only three responding firms had a greater than 50% female workforce.

Research from the World Economic Forum underlines that gender gaps are more pronounced in sectors that require disruptive technical skills. For example, in cloud computing, women make up only 14% of the workforce; in engineering 20%; and in data / AI just 32%.

A force for change

But there are initiatives that are seeking to bridge these gender gaps in fintech – one such example being the Catalyst Fund Inclusive Fintech Talent Program, which is helping talented young women to establish themselves in the sector and gain the experience that will help to cement their places as future role models and mentors.

Of the applications received by the programme, 48% are women, yet only 37% of interns brought on board are female. However, within the portfolio companies participating in the programme, 63% of full-time follow-on offers post-internship are women. Further encouragement can be taken from the fact that, at the culmination of the internship, men and women equally reported (89%) being likely to pursue a career in fintech.

We therefore took the opportunity to talk to three inspirational women who are either taking part in the programme or have taken part and moved into permanent roles with Catalyst Fund portfolio startups. We wanted to hear about their experiences, their journey so far and their thoughts on how the fintech industry at large can help to address the gender gap.

Early days and distinctions in the workplace

Looking back on her childhood, Karla Solares, formerly a Backend Developer intern with Destacame in Mexico who is now a full-time employee noticed a difference in the way STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subjects were accessed was different for boys compared to girls “We just weren’t encouraged to participate in class, which ultimately makes you start doubting that you will learn those subjects well – and that takes away your confidence.”

“Societal expectations, pressures and attitudes reinforce the thinking that STEM is meant for boys and that girls should focus on softer skills,” continues Karla. “It’s little wonder that you start seeing distinctions in the workplace.”

And it was just this differentiation that motivated Karla to make her educational choices. “Studying economics really appealed to me, as I was concerned about inequalities around the world and understood that the economy of any country impacts people’s choices and decisions.”

Having made that choice Karla noticed that there was still a gap at university level with an estimated 70-80% of participants on her degree course being male. “Societal and educational attitudes can affect your confidence and make you question your ability,” she explains. “But when you take those initial steps, you find that there is support and encouragement.”

This is a theme that is mirrored by the experiences of Brenda Ngugi, a Customer Success Trainee intern at Kwara in Kenya. Brenda’s experience was also that girls at school were encouraged towards “softer skills” – music, home science, art – whereas her brother and his peers were given access to subjects including design technology, computer studies, manufacturing. Hardly the way to encourage women to develop the disruptive technical skills that careers in fintech demand! 

“When we participated in school competitions, you could see that the boys were better prepared to present well and to provide practical demonstrations of their solutions,” Brenda explains. “That didn’t mean that their solutions were better than the girls’ solutions, it just meant they had been given the means and skills with which to make them appear better.”

Relatable and visible role models

So, what needs to be done to enable women to follow a passion for technical subjects at school or a career in fintech? What can be done to create and signpost those opportunities?

“Women are doing everything, every type of job, at every level, just not in equal numbers,” says Rina Joseph, formerly a PR intern at Pesakit in Kenya who is now employed full time by the startup delivering solutions to mobile money agents. “At school, it’s important to hear from someone you can relate to, someone closer to your own age, because then you can see that the opportunity exists and, if you are determined, you can achieve that position.”

Rina explains that it’s not always important that the subject is relevant to all pupils, more that the journey is possible. “Girls need more relatable examples,” continues Rina. “I listen to TED talks from female CEOs, and they are inspirational. But when you are a young girl in school, a CEO – even if female – is inaccessible.”

Those more relatable role models do exist – just look at Karla. Having graduated with a degree in economics, Karla joined a major bank’s graduate trainee programme – one female in an intake of four. She then moved on to work at a financial regulator, before working in aviation and then taking the significant step of starting her own business. In building out a website for her business, Karla discovered a passion for coding and set about learning how to code, which is what led her to the internship at Destacame.

“You don’t have many references of women working in fintech or STEM-based roles as a young girl, so it is important to make women visible for young girls,” states Karla. “And when girls show an interest in STEM, or any subject really, it is critical that extra effort is made to include them, to help them and to keep encouraging them.”

Practical steps towards a real difference

The value of mentorship and, therefore, role models was highlighted in a 2021 study in which 72% of respondents highlighted the provision of mentorship opportunities as one of five things that tech companies should do to support women in tech.

Initiatives such as Mastercard’s “Path to Priceless” aim to highlight women entrepreneurs and provide advice and mentorship opportunities. Whilst this programme is focused on reaching 1 million women business owners, it is an example of how wider reaching mentorship programmes for women can be rolled out and help to narrow the gender chasm that exists.

And the Catalyst Fund Inclusive Fintech Talent Program places high importance on the value of mentorship and role models in bringing through the next generation of role models. Interns receive one to one mentorship and coaching by experienced HR professionals and coaches. But the conversations with our interns showed that inspirations come from several sources, not just the formalised relationships within corporate programmes. The programme is structured around peer to peer networking at the core with an online learning space, buddy programme, and monthly networking opportunities.

Inspiration comes in many forms

“My parents have always been my inspiration, as they have reiterated that knowledge will always be my best friend and that is always in the back of my mind,” explains Rina. “When you have such a strong support system, you can do anything.”

For Karla, it was more of an “anti-inspiration.” An out-of-the-blue invitation to lunch with a senior director at a previous role led to some very encouraging words for Karla. “This director was very tough, hard even, and whilst it was great to get that encouragement, I felt like she had had to change who she was to get to that level. Women shouldn’t have to pay the price of changing who they are.”

Two of Brenda’s inspirations have come from her work at Kwara. “My supervisor, John, has been inspirational from the moment that I first met him, with nothing being too much trouble and seemingly never-ending proactive offers of support. I also need to spotlight my colleague Tabitha, who has given me such insight into data analysis and is such a great teacher.”

But the first inspiration Brenda highlighted was her cousin Mercy, who came to live with Brenda’s family after completing her degree in communications and media. “Mercy only lived with us for a couple of months, but it was at a time when I was looking to what I wanted to do with my life and we spoke a lot about goals, career paths and aspirations.”

Brenda continues, “After securing an internship in customer service at Safaricom, Mercy really progressed her career and some years later even completed her Master’s degree while working and being pregnant – that kind of drive and determination is inspirational.”

Advice from the future

So, looking back on their journeys so far, what would the interns say to their younger selves? What would they perhaps have done differently? It would all be about trust and fear.

“You have to trust your instincts and have confidence that your ideas or approaches are right – even if you listen to those around you that you trust, have conviction that your ideas will work,” says Rina. “I would tell my younger self to stand up for myself more – if I had, I would have got here sooner. But it’s all a learning curve.”

And learning is key to another message to a younger self and others. “Don’t be afraid to fail and make sure that you fail quickly – it’s the best way to learn and to continue growing,” explains Karla. “Take the risk – if it works, great, if it doesn’t learn from it and move on. Finally, I would also say to own your life and decisions, but don’t compare yourself to others.”

And the final word goes to Brenda. “Do it afraid,” she advises. “Even though you aren’t sure of the outcome, take that step.”

“I heard a quote that sums this up. It says ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.'”