Women in financial services need allies like Mikkel Bates

The sector can't afford not to be diverse and inclusive - there is simply too much competition

In this special feature, DiversityQ caught up with Mikkel Bates, Regulatory Manager at FE fundinfo, to hear why the financial services sector can be a great place to work for underrepresented talent.

Tell us about your progress and development within the financial services (FS) industry.

I first came into the industry through an interest in sales and marketing, and financial services. In the early 1980s, the asset management industry in the UK was nowhere near as mature as it is now and could hardly even be called an industry.

My interest in financial services meant I started by providing technical sales support within fund management groups, setting up and managing three of the earliest broker desks in the UK. I then moved into more of a marketing role after joining the fledgling fund business set up in the UK by Société Générale with Nicola Horlick at the helm, and I managed the combined retail and institutional marketing team there for several years.

After GLG bought the company, now Man Group, I left to help set up an innovative residential property investment business, Castle Trust, as Head of Marketing, and then somehow morphed from marketing into providing regulatory advice at what is now FE fundinfo, as many of its document and data solutions meet regulatory challenges. So I have pretty much gone full circle by providing technical sales support once more.

What have been some of your biggest achievements and challenges?

I’d say my achievements fall into two camps. At a personal level, I’m proud of the fact that in all my technical support roles, I built a reputation, both internally and externally, for being able to find out the answer even if I didn’t know it. Professionally, I have helped build two very different investment businesses from scratch. My technical knowledge and marketing experience have given me a real blend of experience and a great opportunity. I know the reality of dealing with clients and advisors and helping them decode technical details. I also understand the importance of understanding and translating technical detail for the real world.

I have always worked for active fund managers, so one of the biggest challenges has been trying to promote them against passive funds in recent years. But they both have their place in a balanced portfolio.

What are some of the biggest myths about the sector? Why do you enjoy working in FS?

From the regulator and others, there seems to be a perception that companies in the industry don’t compete as robustly as they could because everyone knows each other, and fund charges tend to be quite similar. But I remember speaking to the CEO of a fund management group many years ago, who decided to compete aggressively on price, cutting both the initial and annual charges of the whole fund range, but who found that clients placed greater emphasis on other factors.

The industry has been accused of being homogeneous in the past, and although there is still a way to go, I have seen enormous changes. I have worked with people from all sorts of backgrounds in terms of upbringing, education and employment. In the time I have been working in the industry, it has become much more of a meritocracy, so if you know your stuff, work hard and deliver the results, there is rarely anything holding you back, which is one of the great things about it. Our challenge is to persuade people at the start of their careers that this industry could be for them.

What have you learned that you would like to share with others coming into FS and moving up the ladder?

The industry has rightly become very professional in terms of skills and qualifications, so if you want a career in finance, take advantage of the wide range of training available, which almost any employer will support financially and with time off. A relevant qualification really helps distinguish a candidate, regardless of background and culture, when it comes to progression.

There will also be, at least in larger companies, an opportunity to explore different avenues if you aren’t sure which career path is the one for you, so I would say to anyone coming into financial services that you need to go out and grab whatever chances there are and don’t wait for them to come to you; if you don’t put yourself forward, someone else will take the opportunity instead.

What tools does the sector have at its disposal to make meaningful change?

As a technologically-advanced service industry, the last couple of years have been a good but enforced example of how flexible working can succeed. Whether working remotely, fitting around family commitments, with children and elderly relatives (for both men and women) working part-time or fitting in further studying, I’m not aware of any cases that couldn’t be accommodated. It’s not like working in hospitality or manufacturing, where you really need to be on a particular site at a specific time. Of course, it would have been good if the industry had embraced this of its own accord without being forced by a pandemic, but at least it stepped up en masse.

The growing success and expansion of the Financial Services industry mean it needs to attract and keep very bright people. That can only happen if opportunities are open to all. In the end, talent trumps everything and smart employers know they need access to all of the talent pool. Our industry simply can’t afford not to be diverse and inclusive – there is too much competition, not just in FS but beyond.

Why are you passionate about seeing the sector’s diversity and inclusion improve?

From a personal point of view, my wife has worked in two industries traditionally dominated by men, insurance and commercial property and certainly had a few stories to tell about unthinking bias over the years, many of them amusing but mostly with a serious point about missing out on talent. I think and hope all of these sectors are changing, and while I think Financial Services is more equal than those, I have no doubt there is plenty of room for improvement.

My daughter has recently started in the world of work (not in finance), and I don’t want her to have to fight those fights. It shouldn’t take a personal experience to drive this, but that certainly turns the hypothetical into reality and helps me question myself and my assumptions; after all, we all have biases; the thing is to acknowledge them. 

I know many women in senior positions in this industry who would say that they have had to keep proving themselves to be at least as good as, and often better than, the men around them to get to where they are. In the past, having families has often hindered women’s progress, and all industries have lost real talent as a result. I hope things are changing.

I’m encouraged that employers are working much harder to support employees – women and men – who choose to have children. I hope that changes to parental leave and leave for those needing to support elderly relatives will also mean a better appreciation amongst the coming generations that people work more effectively if their home life is balanced. And in the meantime, my wife, daughter and son make sure that I am challenged daily.

Lastly, as I just said, the industry can’t thrive and grow without fully embracing diversity and inclusion.

Why do you think the Women in Finance and Asset Management initiatives are important for the industry?

I said that in the time I have been working in the industry, it has become more of a meritocracy, but the workplace hasn’t always been like that. So what these awards do is highlight – particularly to women coming into financial services and considering it as a career choice – that it is working very hard to address these challenges and that there are great opportunities for all.

And they also remind those who have been working in the financial services industry for a long time that it’s not there yet, and that success stories among women must continue to be celebrated. In the end, if the next generation of women sees themselves represented in this industry, that is what matters. Our actions will speak much more loudly than any words or policies ever can.

The irony is that the more successful women are in financial services, the less need there will be to single out their success stories. As with that other headline story these days – ESG investing – the bigger it becomes, the more it will become the norm, so the less it will be identified as a separate category.

You can find out more about the Women in Finance UK Awards 2022 here and the upcoming Women in Asset Management USA Awards 2022 here.

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