Women tackle investment banking obstacles
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Women tackle investment banking obstacles

Sexism, gruelling hours and a drinking culture are among the hurdles that senior female investment bankers in Asia have had to clear. The barriers are starting to come down – but not fast enough.


Carrie Chen still recalls the day when she and a bunch of other investment bankers pitching for a deal were set a challenge. The Chinese client told the assembled bankers that anyone who guzzled down enough Maotai (China’s national liquor, distilled from red sorghum) would win a role on his deal; anyone who failed to do so, lost the mandate.

At the time, a decade ago, Chen was a vice president and still in the early stages of her banking career. Today, she is vice chairwoman of Greater China banking at Barclays. Despite a career in investment banking spanning 15 years, the incident remains fixed in her memory.

In such situations, “you have to decide where you stand on things that really matter,” Chen says.

In her case, it meant quickly dropping coverage of that particular client.

“I realized that client wouldn’t want my professional advice if his idea was to mandate firms for a deal based on drinking capabilities,” she adds.

Chen is not alone in having that kind of experience. Most women who have spent a reasonable amount of time covering Asian clients know that investment banking is still a boys’ club.

This is perhaps most visible in the Hong Kong and China markets where, as recently as a few years ago, deals could be sealed over a handshake between men at 3am in a little bar.

The glass ceiling only started to crack and fall fairly recently
Carrie Chen, Barclays
Carrie Chen Barclays_400.jpg

“Investment banking has always been a very white male-dominated industry globally,” says Chen. “The glass ceiling only started to crack and fall fairly recently.”

A few senior appointments stand out, showing that the industry is slowly moving in the right direction.

Tamao Sasada is Bank of America’s co-head of Asia Pacific investment banking and country executive for Japan, taking up the latter job last year.

In Taiwan, Citi appointed Christie Chang as chairwoman for Asia Pacific corporate banking in May, in addition to her existing responsibilities as president of Citibank Taiwan and head of Taiwan banking, capital markets and advisory.

Seat Moey Eng-Kwok runs DBS’s capital markets division, while Cynthia Chan is country chief and head of corporate and investment banking for Deutsche Bank in Taiwan.

Chen herself was a managing director for China coverage at Morgan Stanley before she joined Barclays in March as vice chairwoman for Greater China banking.

These are the success stories, but there are still very few women in the top ranks of investment banking. There may be as many as 15 men for every woman at managing director level in investment banking, according to estimates from human resources managers at banks in the region.

Research from Emolument, the salary comparison website, shows that women are paid significantly less than men in investment banking at all levels of seniority for jobs in London. In Asia, however, bankers say the pay gap is flat or a little bit in favour of men at junior positions, with the difference widening at the top levels.

Despite the progress made, gender-related bias is still very much part of a woman’s career in investment banking.

One head of debt syndicate says that differences don’t often arise over gender in an office environment, but off-site, it is still obvious that women are in the minority. She says she finds that the bias is subtle, especially around how close you can get to clients who are men.

“Most women don’t talk too much about sports events, football and stuff like that,” so it’s difficult to connect socially by chatting about such topics, or to go out drinking until 4am or 5am, she adds.

That plays a role not just with clients, she adds, but also with senior management at the bank. “Then, naturally, you don’t get the connection with senior management.”

A Singapore-based loan syndications banker, who has worked in the industry in coverage and syndicate jobs for more than a decade, says she does not think she has faced discrimination necessarily because of gender.

But she says this with an important caveat: “My worry is that I don’t feel the discrimination because it has always been this way. The loans market doesn’t have a good gender balance, and not a lot has changed over the years as it is still very male-centric. There are still clients who prefer to bond and build relationships outside of their offices, so over drinks or lunch or dinner, and there aren’t enough women game enough to do that all the time.”

She adds that even when it comes to her male colleagues, they often go out for after-work drinks, sometimes without inviting their women colleagues.

“I think they are scared to do so, because since the Me Too movement, any little thing can fall under the category of harassment and they are too scared to invite women out for drinks.”

The Me Too movement against sexual harassment and abuse gained momentum in 2017 after sexual abuse allegations emerged against US film producer Harvey Weinstein; numerous stories of assaults and harassments by famous men followed.

Climbing the ladder

There are two key things holding back women from climbing up the investment banking ladder in Asia.

For a start, there are the gruelling hours. While men face the same hardship, it is tougher for women who want to juggle a career in investment banking with some semblance of family life.

“This industry is very demanding, so finding the right balance between work and life can be quite difficult,” says Jeans Jingqi Wang, managing director and head of Greater China equity capital markets at Credit Suisse.

“Many capable women bankers leave the industry, sometimes for family reasons, and sometimes for a job where they can have a slightly better balance,” adds Wang, who has worked on big IPOs such as Alibaba Group Holding’s $25 billion deal in the US in 2014 and its $13 billion secondary listing in Hong Kong last year.

Capital markets deals and M&A transactions can take a long time to execute, often in a high-pressure environment. The amount of travel involved in investment banking, whether to originate deals or for the investor roadshows, is tiring and puts a big demand on family life too.

Chen says that before Covid-19 hit and led to travel restrictions, she used to spend at least three to four days a week in China on business trips.

“It also means you can’t have holidays scheduled ahead of time because you have to work around the pace of deals or your client’s time,” she adds.

As a result, some women in investment banking switch from jobs where they are frequently on the road meeting clients to either management or office positions that require less travel and offer more flexible hours. In some cases they quit the banking industry entirely when the opportunities arise, switching to more appealing jobs in private equity firms, asset managers or blue-chip corporations.

The second hurdle women investment bankers face is the extremely sexist culture, despite a big push by banks and corporations to be more inclusive.

Where is your boss?
Tamao Sasada, Bank of America
Tamao Sasada Bank of America_400.jpg

Sasada, who works for BofA in Tokyo, tells Asiamoney about an incident which took place about 15 years ago, when she first started covering investment banking clients. When she went in to introduce herself to a client, his first question was “where is your boss?” as he had expected to meet a male coverage banker. But, she says, despite Japan’s hierarchical society, that mindset has changed over the past few years because there are more women on the client side of the business.

Issuers, whether corporations or financial institutions, are becoming more aware of the importance of gender balance when it comes to picking banks to execute deals. Occasionally, a predominantly female team can even be an advantage, as Abigail Buenviaje-Magpayo, a Manila-based banker, found recently.

Buenviaje-Magpayo is a first vice president and head of ECM and corporate finance and advisory in the investment banking team at First Metro Investment Corporation of the Philippines. When she was called in for a beauty contest for an IPO mandate in Manila, she noticed that the majority of her pitching team were women, while the rival teams were dominated by men. First Metro won the mandate and helped its client to list last year.

“The client wanted that balance in diversity to get different perspectives,” she tells Asiamoney. She says the client picked her team because they listened more and asked more relevant questions.

But Buenviaje-Magpayo adds that the investment banking market in the Philippines has been quick to recognize that women are “just as hungry as men to get mandates, if not hungrier”.

The situation in Greater China is similar – clients are increasingly sophisticated when it comes to handing out mandates for transactions, says Chen.

While it is still common to discuss business over drinks, the trend of extravagant wining and dining of clients in China, particularly state-owned clients, has been winding down in recent years due to pressure from the government.

“Delivering the best service and advice [in order to tap into capital markets and overseas markets] is now critical, and it is not something you can do simply by socializing with clients,” says Barclays’ Chen. One way she tackled that challenge when younger was by spending time talking to some of her clients’ children, for instance. She says the older clients wanted their kids to have a good role model, with Chen stepping up to offer advice on education and career. That, she adds, helped the client see her as part of the family.

Improving their game

Banks are slowly improving their game, both to entice women into investment banking and to retain them.

Credit Suisse, for example, has an Asia Pacific women in investment banking and capital markets (IBCM) group, promoted by the bank’s co-heads of IBCM for the region. The group hosts events to encourage mentor and mentee relationships, and to offer advice on career paths, career progression and balancing family life, in an attempt to promote a culture of inclusiveness.

In Wang’s Greater China ECM team, more than 60% of the members are women. She says the bank’s IBCM-focused initiatives promote an inclusive culture and have encouraged many women to stay for the long run.

Banks need to make a conscious effort to hire women and to retain them by being understanding of the different personal stages women go through over the course of their careers, as well as offering the right kind of support.

When it comes to winning mandates, I don’t see myself as a female or male banker
Jeans Jingqi Wang, Credit Suisse
Jeans Jingqi Wang_Credit Suisse_400.jpg

DBS’s capital markets head Eng-Kwok, for example, took two sabbaticals from the bank so that she could support her family. Citi’s Hong Kong and Macau CEO, Angel Ng, first took a two-year sabbatical, before later quitting her job for another three years, to stay with her family. Both of these women executives rejoined their respective banks in senior positions.

Others urge banks to adopt a more hands-on approach. Barclays’ Chen says senior management teams need to set diversity targets for each business area, especially investment banking; they need to identify women outside the market, bring them in, and keep a close eye on the pace of promotions.

Banks should also make the effort to build a diverse talent pool of next-generation leaders if they want to reach some level of gender equality in the next few years.

Women need to take things into their own hands too, to make their mark in the industry.

“When it comes to winning mandates from clients, I don’t see myself as a female or a male banker,” says Wang. “It’s all about how well you cover your client, the in-depth understanding you have of their issues and the innovative solutions you develop to address these.”

As a female rainmaker in Greater China, Chen admits it is tough, especially given that a lot of blue-chip companies are controlled by men. If women are unwilling to participate in heavy-drinking sessions with clients or go out to clubs until the early hours of the morning – practices that are still common – they need to find other ways to build important client relationships.

“To achieve the best result, it is important to be very focused on the day-to-day work, the process,” says Credit Suisse’s Wang.

“For every single client and every single deal, I want to make it the best. I do have very high standards for myself, and for my team. It’s important to do your best, think out of the box and deliver the highest quality of work for your client.”

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