A senior woman in banking

Judith Unwin, Head of UK Export Finance at BNP Paribas in London, tells Hannah Langworth about her career history, and shares her views on prospects for women joining the industry today

Could you outline the path your career has taken?

I joined a leading City merchant bank (as they were then known) in October 1976 as their first female graduate recruit. I learned the nuts and bolts of the business, and then started working on international transactions, mostly in Nigeria and what was then Yugoslavia. After about ten years, the "Big Bang" regulatory changes happened which led to many banks changing their business models. As a result, the bank at which I was working began to concentrate more on the UK corporate finance market. I was more interested in the international finance scene, so moved to another bank with a larger foreign network to work in export finance, specialising in South Asia - essentially I was working on providing financing in support of UK companies exporting goods and services to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. I also started to become involved with trade advisory bodies - I sat on the British Asia Trade Advisory Group, and became involved in other UK government export initiatives. In 2000, I was awarded an OBE for services promoting exports to South Asia.

In 2000, I was invited to join BNP Paribas to head the UK and Nordic Export Finance team here and worked for a few years with Nordic exporters and government agencies at a time when the UK's export credit activity was somewhat diminished. The Nordic business has now moved to Stockholm/Brussels, but I still work in export finance, concentrating on the UK. I'm now also involved in working with multilateral institutions like the World Bank Group, the African Development Bank, and also the so-called Development Finance Institutions in connection with their involvement in emerging market economies. I currently sit on the Board of the UK India Business Council.

How have things changed for women in banking since you began your career?

When I started out in investment banking, women were exotic rarities - at the first bank at which I worked there were no bathrooms for women on the partners' floor! Things have now changed significantly in many ways. It's never a surprise for me now to meet other women working in the industry, and there are plenty of female graduates joining investment banks. However, women are still very much in the minority in the very senior ranks of the industry, which I think is for a range of complicated reasons.

I'd also add that, throughout my career in banking, I've never felt any prejudice against me because I'm a woman. I feel that I've always been treated absolutely on a par with my male colleagues.

What do you think is preventing more women from reaching senior positions at investment banks, and what more could be done to tackle the problem?

I think there are some improvements to be made in workplaces in the UK in general to attitudes towards work/life balance, and in connection with maternity and paternity leave. These issues are dealt with, I think, markedly better in the Scandinavian countries - for example, they have much better paternity leave provisions in place, which potentially give women more flexibility in the way in which they approach their careers.

Do you think that the UK should follow Norway in requiring banks and other companies to have a certain percentage of female board members?

I'm terribly divided in my mind about whether quotas are a good idea or not. My instinct is that I don't think they are, not because I think that the percentage of women shouldn't be increased but because I think quotas can lead to a perception that women are there because of tokenism rather than merit.

The other problem with quota systems is that, although obviously they help get women into senior positions, used on their own they don't tackle the issue of how women can rise through organisations.

I think it's also important to remember that the Scandinavian countries are very different to the UK, with much smaller populations, and significant state support for childcare and other very progressive social policies. We can't just suddenly introduce board member quotas without a wide range of other factors in place to support this step.

What does BNP Paribas do to support its female employees and to encourage them to progress at the bank?

Here in the London office we have a programme called WIN - the Women's Internal Network. It was set up precisely with a view to looking at some of these issues facing women in banking and promoting the professional development of the women working here. The programme includes a mentoring scheme, which I'm involved with.

Finally, what would you say to female students considering working in banking?

First of all, there's an enormous range of different products, activities and career paths open to bright graduates here - for instance, you could be doing something highly analytical and technical, or you could be mainly marketing to clients. Secondly, your work could well be very international - and I've enormously valued being able to travel so widely during my career.

Finally, the work is generally very stimulating and interesting. I relished being given the responsibility to handle my own deals very early on. You'll learn a lot of valuable skills and, if you work hard, there are many possibilities for promotion. And, although at the moment there are not many women in the highest positions at investment banks, things are changing because there's a recognition that they have to.