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Fintech - a triple hurdle for gender diversity

By Nathalie Oestmann, COO, Curve08 Mar 2021
5 min read

On International Women’s Day, Nathalie Oestmann, Curve’s Chief Operating Officer, confronts head on how to fix gender disparity at Curve and, more problematically, in fintech.

Career-wise, I’ve mostly worked in large corporations, like Amex, where diversity as a human resources concept has just poked its head into the boardroom. Now, I’m steering a high-growth fintech where we have an opportunity to make diversity a principal focus of our growth.

Across our 300+ employee base in London, Bristol, New York City and in our most recent office addition, Vilnius, Lithuania, Curve is composed of 45 nationalities, from six ethnic minority groups. By design, we are a melting pot of cross-cultural richness, and as a globally minded citizen, I am very proud of this accomplishment.

Yet our gender diversity remains poor.

Overall Curve has a 33% female-to-male ratio of employees. Curve is born and bred in the UK, which claims the global fintech crown. Benchmarked against a 17% of women overall in finance in the UK, Curve’s gender diversity appears positive. But as fintech is a key cog in the UK’s economic growth, 33% is unacceptable and not where I need us to be. 

We’re up against an engrained dynamic at the intersection of finance and technology. Currently and historically, finance and technology are home to feeble gender diversity. Couple that with a start-up environment with its “tech bro” image and you’re left with few women who are interested.

To solve the problem, we have to first face facts:

Hurdle #1:  To be in finance or technology, candidates need to come from a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education.The triage begins here. 

While more girls go to university (57%), very few study STEM - even fewer women go one step further, like I did, to get an Engineering Masters. There is no scientific or logical reason for fewer women to be studying STEM. In fact, girls are 14% more likely to pass GCSE Maths than boys at age 16 years old.  So why does the funnel thin out?  I find two main reasons: 1) STEM is already male dominated; and 2) many girls/women lack the confidence or interest to study STEM perhaps because of point 1, creating a self-fulfilling barrier.

This is not an excuse. But, as Curve is hiring mostly for STEM roles, our top of funnel is already diminished due to the gender imbalance emerging from the higher education system. 

Hurdle #2:  Our Engineers are the backbone of Curve. Without them we have no product. No product, no customers, no company. Fine. But they are a 86% male team. Any young female software engineer entering this environment could understandably feel daunted. Our CPTO would dearly love to hire more women for his team, but he needs to hire fast and we rely on referrals and inbound applications, which leans towards bringing in more males. Compound that with the fact that 70% of women prefer to join a company where they will be mentored by another woman, according to the Olivet Nazarene University Study. The same study found that 87% of men prefer to be mentored by a man. It takes more time to find and entice women to come to a fintech, and time is one luxury Curve doesn’t have.

Hurdle #3:  Finally, Curve is in a hyper-growth stage. The pace is frenetic and tough.  The hours are long and the pressure relentless. Yet we offer the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to take on tremendous responsibility; make a huge impact daily; learn new skills fast and work with best-in-class, like-minded colleagues and a game-changing founder. Those are the reasons why I left the corporate world to enter into what can feel like chaos at times. It’s a sink or swim environment and I love it.

This can pose a problem for women who have children, and it is especially distressing in our Covid home-schooling times. As primary carers, women have borne the brunt of working from home.  Childcare, and a lack of confidence to progress their careers, mean that 62% of women and 48% of men report increased levels of stress during covid. A crushing combination that leaves fintech out of the reach for many working Mums, and Dads. 

Yet, I am determined to fix this. Women do form 33% of the gender balance at Curve, a not insignificant voice. We’re growing from 300 to 600 people in 2021, a stage that represents an opportune moment to turn the tide on gender parity.

Our gender diversity action plan is straightforward and requires focus:  

  1. Make sure women are in our talent funnel because you need to “see” the women to hire them. In the past 30 days of hyper-growth hiring our female intake was 40%.

  2. Start from the top with women in leadership positions because women tend to attract women candidates. 

  3. Invest in and develop female talent from within, our Customer Experience team (49% female) is a great starting point for a varied career at Curve.

  4. Provide a flexible working environment for both men and women, so that a vibrant, fast-paced career doesn’t come at the expense of being a great parent.

We’re striving to communicate this plan across the company, build it into our systems, so that in a short space of time it becomes intuitive. 

As for the issue of women studying STEM, we need to go way back into the education system and strongly channel and encourage girls to take the route less chosen.  I’m trying to do my part at home by encouraging my own teenage daughters on a regular basis.

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