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Diversity in the finance sector: Starling Bank make a flying start

By Karen Young, Director of Hays Accountancy & Finance

Launched in 2014, Starling Bank is one of the fastest growing challenger banks. In this Hays Journal, founder and CEO Anne Boden tells us why she believes the finance industry still has a long way to go when it comes to diversity.

Anne Boden is not somebody who is afraid of change. Having studied Computer Science and Chemistry at Swansea University, she switched her focus to join a trainee scheme at Lloyds Bank in 1981. Since then, her career has included consultancy roles and heading up regional and international teams, before she decided to start a bank of her own in 2014. It’s only natural, then, that she would build an organisation that is as dynamic as she is.

“Starling Bank is all about taking the things that I instinctively believe and the lessons that I’ve learnt from a long career in traditional financial services,” she explains. “The important thing about Starling is that we want to move fast because the world is moving fast. We have to execute our ideas very, very quickly.

“We are able to reinvent things and start from scratch when the traditional banks are having to put new systems on top of old. They are stuck in the traditional ways of doing things, using traditional hierarchies and structures. We can build an organisation and technology that is appropriate for the way people live now.”

Banking – but with a different look

Accordingly, the shape of Starling Bank’s workforce is not that of a typical bank. It has an in-house art director, yet other, more traditional departments are not represented.

“We work as groups of people, so we do not have a contained IT department,” Boden explains. “Technology takes place across the whole organisation. We don’t believe that, as a technology-led bank, IT should be ring-fenced.

“Technology is everywhere and that’s why we don’t have that sort of self-contained function.”

For this reason, she continues, outsourcing is also rare. Their agile approach means that ideas and critiques can come from anybody.

“Everybody should be contributing to the vision of this bank, whether that’s a software engineer deciding whether our artwork looks good or our art director giving a view on the functionality of the app. Those are equally important opinions.”

A case in point is the innovative vertical debit card Starling Bank launched in July 2018. The orientation of the card was chosen to match that of people’s phones, while all numbers and the account holder’s name have been moved to the reverse of the card, making it easier to input details for online payments, and more difficult for anyone to steal card details.

“We started thinking about how we could do something that would be very practical and useful in people’s lives, as well as being beautiful, creative and aesthetically pleasing,” says Boden. “It was very important that it was totally practical and pleasing to the eye and we weren’t prepared to compromise on either point. The care we have taken to engineer something well that also looks good says a lot about us.”

Paving the way for diversity and inclusion

Unsurprisingly, creating this sort of culture has required diversity in the workforce, yet this has not been a struggle for Starling in the way that it has been for many banks, as it was part of Boden’s vision from the start.

“I’ve been in finance, I’ve been in technology, and both of those professions have very few women,” she explains. “Now I’m an entrepreneur and there are very few female entrepreneurs who are getting big funding. But diversity is not something we have to aspire to at Starling; it’s what we are.

“We have people who have come straight from school to work as junior software engineers and we have people like me who have had long careers in banking. You look around the place and it’s a hugely diverse group. I’m really proud of creating such a diverse environment in all senses.”

That’s not to say there are not wider diversity issues to be dealt with across the industry. Looking back to the start of her career, to say Boden is disappointed in the progress made in finance would be an understatement.

“I started in banking and finance in 1981 and things have not got better,” she says. “We’re making strides in the boardroom, with non-executives being more likely to be women, but we still don’t have enough females in senior positions.

“It’s not good enough – we’re not making the progress that we should have made. Looking back to the early 1980s, if you’d told me then that 30 years later we would still be fighting this battle, I would have been shocked.”

Putting customers at the centre

As you might expect, Boden has ensured that opportunities are open to everyone working at Starling Bank – something she feels gives it an edge over larger competitors.

“We believe that people can achieve an awful lot very quickly,” she says. “Every person here can make a real contribution to the end game. It’s very difficult to do that if you’re one of 100,000 people.”

The second enabler of opportunity, she believes, is the bank’s customer-focused approach. “The team are free to make sure they can execute in a way that delivers solutions to customers,” she continues. “We don’t believe in preparing lots of presentations for each other, we believe in delivering products that customers can use. Throughout the organisation, we only spend our time on things that are outward- and customer-focused.”

This seems to be paying off. Earlier this year, Starling claimed first place in The British Bank Awards – a prize voted for by consumers. Boden says steps have been taken to ensure that a lack of physical locations does not stand in the way of strong relationships with their customers.

“We have a vibrant community where people share their ideas and discuss issues with us,” she explains. “I will contribute to the community and chat to customers about three times a week.

“We also have an area in our office where people can meet with us. We have events and people come in to talk to us. Just because we’re a digital-only bank, it doesn’t mean that we don’t talk to customers. I think we have a far richer engagement with our customers than most traditional high street banks.”

Innovating freely

Boden also encourages a fast-moving culture to improve services, and the company is reliant on technology to allow this. It is a big user of cloud-based team collaboration tool Slack and endeavours to share information and projects openly wherever possible.

“We don’t keep things separate for the sake of it; we much prefer to share information than keep it private,” she says. “When you’re sharing, it’s much more interesting.

“We don’t have to create processes for innovation. Big banks have to do that, big companies have to do that, but innovation is our lifeblood; without it, we die. It’s something that everybody does every day, it isn’t something we have to force.”

Furthermore, says Boden, this outlook keeps the team mindful that Starling Bank will face challenges in the future – something they welcome.

“This new world is far more outward-looking than previously. We know very well that traditional banks have been able to compete against a very limited number of other big banks. We believe that our competition is in all places – traditional banks, new digital banks, retailers, big tech and more – but having that competition is very, very good for all of us.”

Starling Bank is also taking this competition into new territories. In 2017 it received a banking passport into Ireland, which enables it to offer its products to customers there. This is just the first step in its plans to provide services to markets across Europe.

Banking on change

Boden’s focus is not limited to changing the industry within Starling Bank. She is also campaigning to change how men and women are treated differently in the media when it comes to finance.

Her inspiration for this came while skimming magazines as she waited to get her hair cut. In publications aimed at women, she realised, articles on money called for frugality and assumed women were prone to spending frivolously. In men’s titles, the language revolved around power and investment.

“I’m passionate about talking to men and women about their financial lives,” she says. “At a time when we’re talking about the gender pay gap, the way we engage with men and women about money could be something to do with that inequality.”

In March, she launched the #MAKEMONEYEQUAL campaign to try to combat these discrepancies. Research by Starling Bank confirmed her belief that the language used in financial articles was vastly different depending on gender. Out of the 300 titles analysed, 65 per cent of money articles in women’s magazines defined women as excessive spenders, while 70 per cent emphasised that making money is a masculine ideal.

She knows she needs to change her own behaviour, too. “I sometimes make fun of the fact that I spend too much money on shoes and think ‘why am I saying these things? Is it because I’ve been brainwashed to speak that way?’ #MAKEMONEYEQUAL is about getting the media to think twice before they write about men and women and money.”

Taking responsibility

She is also well aware of her responsibilities to help improve gender representation in the industry. For her, the key is being open and vocal about the challenges she has faced in her own career, in the hope that others will not have to face them in the future.

“Women like myself need to make it very clear that it is tougher for women to be promoted,” she says. “Women have to do more, work harder and achieve more to get promoted in all financial professions and businesses. We have to talk about this, realise that it is a real issue. And women like myself need to be prepared to say that things are not good enough.”

She concludes by looking forward. While she says that her younger self would be shocked by the lack of progress made in the industry to improve gender equality, she is still positive for the future.

“My hope is that 50/50 representation in all walks of life will be the norm. I think it’s very sad that the industry is setting expectations so low.

“I don’t know what life will be like in 30 years’ time. We’re experiencing a huge change; we’re going to have more artificial intelligence and machine learning, and there will be a shift in the jobs people do. I very much hope that future society and the future job market will be more favourable to women.”

About this author

Karen is a Director and recruiting expert at Hays Accountancy & Finance. She provides strategic leadership to a team of 400 accountancy and finance recruitment professionals across 100 UK offices. With 20 years of finance recruitment experience, Karen has a track record of recruiting top finance talent for businesses across a range of industry sectors, and is a trusted industry voice on career planning and market insights.

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