• Megan Fleming

Breaking the bias in the financial services industry - International Women's Day 2022

According to the 2017 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, “Female talent remains one of the most underutilised business resources.” In the financial services sector, this is extremely clear as only 15% of those working at an executive level are women.

At LendWell, we are embracing this year’s International Women’s Day theme #BreakTheBias by speaking with LendWell Founding Partner, Karen Bennett about her career in the specialist finance industry, establishing a business within the sector, the challenges she’s had to overcome, and her advice for women looking to pursue a career in finance.

Hi Karen, thank you for your time today we know how busy things are at the moment. Shall we start from the beginning – how did your career in the finance industry begin, and what’s your personal experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry?

After completing my A-Level course in Business and Finance, I was keen to get started and immediately joined a local finance business close to my home in Watford. It was a specialist lender, that was run by no other than David Johnson and that’s where my career in finance began!

My career started in Redemptions and Recoveries, I then moved into the Underwriting department and specialised in supporting new brokers we were working with. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to move to a new business David was starting in ‘sunny Essex’ focusing on building a specialist mortgage market on commercial assets. It was very successful but unfortunately was wholesale funded, following the 2008 recession this meant a change in direction and an eventual sale of the operational elements and teams to what is now known as Shawbrook Bank.

My personal experience within the finance market has been on the whole, a very good one. I have definitely experienced judgement as a woman, however I’ve always remained determined not to let the small number of outdated views of what ‘should be’ hamper my ability to deliver the very best I can.

What a career you’ve had! Is there anyone that has been particularly influential for you throughout your career?

There are too many to mention in one piece. Stephen Johnson is one of the largest, he’s believed in me since the very beginning. He recognised I wanted to better myself and my skillset and therefore has continually pushed me to challenge my comfort zones and aided my development. I feel incredibly proud to be building LendWell alongside him.

Lindsey McMurray is another individual I learnt a lot from. She truly values the people in a business and despite critique that would only be bestowed onto a female, she carries herself with such professionalism and dignity.

Finally, my former colleague and, I hope for a long time to come, friend Emma Cox, who is currently ‘killing it’ as MD of Real Estate at Shawbrook. Her enthusiasm for this industry is infectious and her personal commitment and strength to treat people with respect and kindness by always looking to build others up makes her one of life’s real role models.

There is however the other side, the people that have quite possibly inspired me more, but in the way to be as different from them as humanly possible, but I won’t be naming them anytime soon!

It’s great to hear about some amazing women in the industry, but also about individuals like Stephen who support and champion others. During your time in the industry, what is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome?

Definitely dealing with the fall out of the 2008 financial crisis, losing so many people within the team, and then having to rebuild. Commercial First was more than a business, it was a family unit, and it was gut-wrenching to see the impact. However, this experience meant we truly understood the importance of sustainability and a strong team. Ever since we have focused on building businesses that are built on wonderful specialist people supported by strong risk management and a healthy appetite to lend.

I can only imagine how tough that must have been for everyone involved. How do you manage to maintain a healthy work/life balance?

I have to juggle! And I don’t always get it right, but I adore my family, especially my two boys, and spending time with them is my favourite thing to do, so my balance comes from being there when it is important for them that I am. It’s important to not give myself too hard of a time, as being a working mum is tough, but it is made a lot harder when you set unrealistic expectations for yourself. I think the biggest mistake people make is not valuing themselves as much once they become a parent. You go from just worrying about yourself to juggling expectations as a parent, as an employee/partner but it is important that you don’t forget you are also still just you.

The biggest key to my happiness is valuing downtime, which in my world generally amounts to enjoying silliness, whether it’s becoming hulk for the afternoon with my 5-year-old, getting overly competitive with my 10-year-old over a board game, or drinking cocktails at a bottomless brunch with friends.

I am very fortunate to love what I do, so working is fulfilling for me. I really want both my sons to grow up with good morals and beliefs and seeing their mum working hard to support the family will hopefully help them to value all people equally.

I couldn’t agree more! What is it that you love about working in the specialist finance industry the most?

The buzz. It is a specialist market, no matter how many people try you cannot simplify it and the specialists within the market will always flourish. The market is always evolving and the learning never stops. I love working with the brokers who are working hard to find solutions for their clients, designing those solutions, and being part of the team that can actually deliver those too.

Why do you think it is important that women in finance are better represented?

The financial services sector absolutely needs more women, as women have so much value to add. Recognising this and creating a diverse culture and workforce can create so many opportunities. The world is finally starting to move forward, and it is important that finance catches up. I believe progression has started so it will get there, but all change takes time.

I found that when I was younger, despite facing some initial stereotyping, most brokers and customers that I met, after discovering that I could add value to them and their business, they routed for me, that’s what we the world needs more of – supporting one another and wanting success for others as well as ourselves.

What would you like to see in the future for women in finance?

The continued championing of female talent, at senior levels and throughout businesses. My real wish is to see the normalisation of women in finance, so it’s not a spotlight piece and instead it is standard. Finance is a really interesting industry and bringing in fresh talent from a wider more diverse group of people who will bring different views, new experiences and ideas will aid the continued growth of the finance market.

I have to say it has been good to see the shift in the flexibility offered within the market since the pandemic, that supports parents better. Should women want to have children, this offers more flexibility they can return to a workplace that helps them keep their work persona without feeling the need to not own their motherhood one too!

Finally, what advice would you give to young women who are just starting their careers in finance?

Go for it! Don’t be afraid to reach out to others around you for support and advice and don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s how everyone learns and what I have always found in this industry is people are always willing to share knowledge – be humble enough to let people support and champion you, and then pass it forward every time you can.

What great advice! It has been great speaking with you and finding out more about your career in specialist finance and happy international women's day!

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