The rewards of female financial empowerment
With many obstacles facing women's financial inclusion in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, addressing them is a key priority for the Egyptian government. In an interview, Hussein Abaza, CEO and managing director of CIB discusses how Egypt's financial sector has taken steps to promote gender equality and women's economic empowerment in the country.
Q: What role do banks play in driving women’s economic empowerment? How can they progress to management/leadership roles?
CIB is a firm believer in the importance of gender equality and the critical role of women’s empowerment in advancing economic development. Its relentless pursuit of gender equality has earned CIB the Egyptian Gender Equity Seal from the National Council of Women and the World Bank. CIB also co-chaired Egypt’s ‘Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator’, a national public-private collaboration model which enables the government and businesses to take decisive action towards closing economic gender gaps. Alongside leading businesses and ministers, CIB will lead the accelerator’s activities, shape its objectives and monitor its impact, while acquiring knowledge and industry exposures.
CIB is committed to providing a safe work environment for all employees, free from discrimination on any grounds and from any form of workplace harassment.
Women’s equal labour force participation is a particularly important factor in improving positive outcomes at the national, community and family levels for a comprehensive and critical range of socio-economic indicators, including those related to economic growth, agency, quality of life, health, and education. Efforts supported by the financial industry, national governments, global development organisations and the World Bank reflect increased focus to create an environment that supports women’s employment and financial inclusion.
Women need to be empowered to progress in certain job functions and in management/leadership roles through tailored leadership programmes and training tracks to enhance their key management skills and prepare them to embark on more strategic roles.
Towards this end, CIB has developed dedicated programmes targeting females to increase the number of females hiring in the organisation and raise awareness about gender equality. The Women in Leadership Programme was developed to provide female employees with a specialised development track to equip them with the skills and experience to achieve long-term career success and become leaders of organisational change.
CIB is also pursuing its Women in Tech initiative, introduced two years ago, to address the gender gap in the bank’s technology departments and help women build the skills needed to work in areas like security and resilience, global transactions and digital banking. Our programme is the first of its kind in Egypt’s banking sector.
Q: How can financial inclusion drive progress on gender equality?
With a gender gap of 12% in Egypt (only 27% of women having a bank account compared to 39% for men), which has steadily been increasing in the past few years and considerably higher than comparable developing countries, fostering women’s digital inclusion is a key priority for the bank.
CIB has long recognised the important role that tailored financial products and services play in empowering women economically. When women can access bank accounts and savings tools, they can control their finances and their futures. We also provide advisory services and capacity building opportunities to women to enable them to make informed financial and investment decisions. These products and services are ultimately intended to help women increase the resiliency of their businesses, reduce their exposure to economic shocks, and increase their incomes.
Lending to women-owned businesses increased more than nine-fold year-on-year in 2020, while our customer base grew by 154% for the same period.
Q: What is CIB learning from industry trends?
CIB is an industry leader in the area of data analytics, recognising that tailored digital financial services based on behavioral data and delivered through a robust agent banking network are key to the uptake and inclusion of women.
Best practices such as unbiased machine learning (ML) algorithms (that incorporate women data scientists in developing the algorithm) and having female agent bank representatives promote and create awareness for financial services as key enablers for active women engagement and inclusion. CIB is exploring some of these best practices, for example, the bank recently recruited a woman as the head of data science with multiple female data scientists on the team to develop the associated ML algorithms. We are also in the process of actively engaging with third party agents that have female representation to ensure that cultural barriers are addressed when onboarding and creating awareness to underserved women.
Q: How are you ensuring you are making progress at board level? How does this compare to progress being made in other parts of the world?
CIB is currently equal to or higher than international benchmarks in terms of women’s higher management and board representation. CIB is at 25% at board level and 33% at the executive management level.
CIB is the first Egyptian bank to sign the CEO Statement of Support for the UN Women's Empowerment Principles. The principles were developed by UN Women and the UN Global Compact to provide a holistic framework to empower women and girls in the workplace, marketplace, and community. The seven principles, are based on real-life business practice and seek to highlight gender within corporate sustainability efforts.
Within the financial industries sector, mild progress has been made, and the most recent studies indicate that women’s representation on executive committees has reached 20%, and representation on boards has reached 23%. While these figures represent some progress, they are still extremely low, and act as a reflection of a deep-rooted issue within the sector.
Q: CIB is the first bank in the MENA region to receive Egypt's gender equity seal certification from the National Council for Women and the World Bank. How is this a testament to CIB’s ongoing efforts in promoting gender equity?
CIB has had – and continues to have – an influential role in Egypt’s banking and finance sector, spearheading new approaches and best practices, including increasingly expanding its adoption of gender inclusion and diversity measures and commitments over the years.
Undergoing the EGES Certification process is one step in CIB’s continuous journey of improving its performance, and economic and social impact. It has provided CIB with critical insights on issues that were impacting not only gender equity performance, but could improve processes, procedures and performance of the bank as an institution. For example, identifying and addressing issues that have an impact on recruitment or staff retention and introducing measures to improve work-life balance for both male and female employees. CIB prides itself on its long commitment to gender equality and will run an action plan aimed at preparing women for the post Covid-19 world of work, closing gender gaps in remuneration between and within sectors, enabling women’s participation in the labour force, and advancing more women into management and leadership roles.
Q: What are some of the challenges facing women entering the banking industry?
One of the challenges facing women in the banking industry is that this industry is perceived as a male dominated sector that cannot be managed by women, however, women’s participation especially at the board and executive levels is associated with greater financial resilience and banking stability.
Another challenge for women might be gender bias in the workplace. It is a form of unconscious bias where it attributes certain attitudes and stereotypes towards women. Finally, the lack of flexible work arrangements (FWA) at the workplace is another challenge for women especially after the pandemic. FWA give employees the choice to work either remotely or from the office and allows them to choose their working hours.
Q: What steps are being taken to address some of these challenges, especially when it comes to improving access to education for women and girls?
CIB is taking a leading role in the Egyptian banking sector, with its early adoption, advocacy, and championing of gender equality. CIB is overcoming those challenges by enforcing an anti-discrimination policy, introducing FWA in the workplace, and conducting women empowerment initiatives to attract young female talent and facilitate the process for women entering the banking industry. In regards to our policies, CIB is committed to provide a safe work environment for all employees free from discrimination on any ground and from any form of workplace harassment. CIB also makes sure that it is an equal opportunity employer. We are committed to providing equal employment opportunities for training, compensation, transfer, promotion and other aspects of employment for all qualified applicants and employees without regard to gender, race, colour, religion, age, and physical disability.
To improve access to education for women, CIB launched the ‘Helmik Yehmena’ initiative (Your Dream Matters) aiming to support women preparing to join the workforce in certain geographical areas where they are underrepresented. The initiative helps women using short training programmes that began in South Valley University in Qena. To date, we have reached out to more than 200 women in Upper Egypt and Port Said and we hope to expand the programme across Egypt.
Q: How can technology support their future financial resilience and security?
Technology will facilitate the access of financial services by empowering women to easily open accounts, save, make payments, access credit and insurance products through their mobile phones. Alternative data, collected after obtaining the user’s consent, can be used to create digital identities and sell financial services to empower and enable women to better their livelihoods.
On the organisational level, the pandemic has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift in where work takes place. Technology enabled organisations to adapt swiftly in order to provide employees with the opportunity to work remotely and flexibly. Introducing FWA in the workplace has empowered women to maintain a work-life balance, which in turn will increase their potential participation in the labour market and enable them to become financially resilient.