Women in Financial Advice Award winner Gemma Harle tells COVER's sister publication Professional Adviser why women ought to be celebrated at all levels of the sector
Last week, Gemma Harle won the Woman of the Year - Mortgages (Including Equity Release) accolade at the second annual Women in Financial Advice Awards, which are run by Professional Adviser, COVER and Retirement Planner.
The managing director of the Mortgage and Protection Network at Intrinsic has more than 20 years' experience in financial services, having entered the sector after her father, she says, gave her an ultimatum of either going to university or going to work.
So, rather than taking the further education route, shortly after completing her A-levels she headed into the world of finance with a job at Halifax. "I've had quite a variety of jobs within the sector," she adds. "I wasn't that precious about what I wanted to do."
She may be being modest - Harle has worked as managing director of Intrinsic's mortgage and protection businesses since 2017, following eight years at TenetLine as managing director.
And, in addition to those two decades' experience in mortgage lending and distribution under her belt, Harle also has experience sitting on various boards, including the FCA Small Practitioners Board and the AMI Board.
Being a woman in an industry that is predominantly led by men, Harle says she has been lucky not to have experienced the difficulty she knows some women can face on a daily basis.
Nevetheless, she does admit she has at times "unconsciously turned a blind eye" to when women might have been treated unfairly compared with men.
"I think my tolerance was much higher, - which it shouldn't have been," she says. "I have seen that and I now reflect on some conversations that I've overheard and thought ‘why did I ever think that was ok?' and where I should have perhaps stepped in.
"I have seen stuff and accepted it - but now that acceptance has changed."
‘Remove unconscious biases'
That being so, she believes endeavours such as the Women in Financial Advice Awards are more important than ever. As Harle says - the financial services sector needs to be fighting any "unconscious biases" against women.
She argues companies should demonstrate the difference it makes to have a diverse team, arguing businesses are more successful when they are made up of a wide range of people. "It's proven that a diverse organisation performs far better, diverse teams perform far better," she says. "So it is a business decision to do this as well as the right one, morally and ethically."
Harle believes events such as the WIFA Awards help to demonstrate what success can look like for women, celebrating not only those who have been in the industry for some time, but the new people coming through as well, so more women are attracted to financial services.
First, however, Harle stresses the importance of making sure women and men understand how varied the sector is. She recalls a time when she was talking to her daughter's friends who said they wanted to go into financial services.
When she asked what they meant by that, however, they did not know what area and were not aware of how broad the sector is. "There is such a variety of jobs and people do not understand what opportunities are available," she continues. "As a sector, we have an obligation to get out there and let them know."
As such, Harle says there should be a focus on encouraging women to apply for jobs within financial services. To do this, though, she says there needs to be a consideration of the language used during the recruiting process.
"We know women will tend to exclude themselves more quickly than men," she says, "so make sure the wording is encouraging the right people to apply. We need to look at our practices and see why we are excluding people - why people are not wanting to join."
'Consider recruitment process'
Another obstacle to conquer, Harle adds, is encouraging women to apply for more senior roles. She says businesses need to consider how they approach the recruiting stage of such roles, recommending they should not focus on metrics such as who can work the most hours - or other things that may exclude female candidates - but consider who has the best skills.
"Think about the flexibility of working, the way we recruit people, the way we position our advisers to make sure they themselves are not excluding," she adds.
Such considerations are in no way an exclusion of men, Harle stresses, of course, but concedes it can be a difficult balance when women are so high up on the agenda. She says men should be on the boards who discuss diversity and inclusion, and that they should be involved in the issues facing companies.
Indeed, Harle is seeing people talking about the issue of equality to a degree she feared might never happen. She has witnessed male-dominated boards challenge themselves and the awareness people are beginning to show around diversity and inclusion.
‘Top of the tree'
Most importantly in all of these discussions about gender and the promotion of women at work, Harle encourages the celebration of both women and men across all levels of roles because sometimes, as she points out, not everyone wants to "get to the top of the tree".
As such, the profession should focus not just on the people who "have gone all the way up the ladder" but also celebrate people who are being the best version of themeselves they can be.
Sending a message to women specifically, Harle says they should think about what they enjoy doing and where and what they want to learn. "Don't worry too much about the next step on the ladder," she adds. "If you're really good at what you do and you learn new things, the opportunities will come."
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