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Transforming Finance, Embracing the Unconventional

Women in Financial Services

Off the back of recent Deloitte Insights research into female representation in the financial services industry across the world, this article is the sixth in a series about women in leadership in the New Zealand banking and insurance industries. While Oceania is leading in regard to female representation in senior positions, there is still a way to go yet. This series explores the perspectives of women in executive roles in the New Zealand banking and insurance industries about developing and supporting the workforce experience and strategies that can be employed to foster upwards mobility for upcoming talent. We delve into diversity, equity and inclusion and consider how to facilitate a positive and rewarding working experience for all. 

Westpac CFO, Tania O’Brien, has had an unconventional career path. She had excelled in maths throughout school and pursued a degree in accounting at university to take on a graduate auditor role. Although Tania had not previously been familiar with the nuances of external audit, the role would require her to spend time at a variety of client sites, including a freezing works, a cement factory, and a bank – ANZ. Over 30 years in senior leadership positions with ANZ in New Zealand, Australia, and Asia followed.

Now, Tania has taken up a familiar role in a different organisation, as Westpac’s Chief Financial Officer.

“My passion is transforming finance,” says Tania. It’s not surprising then, that Tania has sought to take on positions throughout her career that would significantly change in scope and scale from one to another. “I stayed with ANZ for 30 years and did three international assignments and every few years, I changed significantly what I did.”

Tania speaks of her experience with Westpac and going through an interview process with Catherine McGrath, Westpac CEO. “I was incredibly grateful and privileged to get the role and to supported by Catherine as the CEO.” When speaking of role models throughout her career, Tania makes mention of Rob Hayward who has been a mentor to her. “I worked alongside him for over 20 years, and he has always been a thoughtful and calm guiding light. It was about having someone you could go and say anything to, and he would give his considered thought and gave other perspectives.”

Tania speaks of the importance of these types of figures early in one’s career who can push you to do more and bring your skills to the table. “When you’re moving up the ranks, having good performance discussions is really important.” Underscoring the importance of having a mentor, Tania says, “you’re not necessarily the first to experience something so you need to keep going and have the confidence to back yourself. I didn’t fit the mould of a finance professional at the start of my career, and in those early years, sometimes you think you need to change who you are to be successful.”

Care, inclusivity and sustainability

Within Westpac, there’s an understanding of how care, inclusivity and sustainability will impact talent attraction. Broadly, Tania believes that the financial services sector is performing well in regard to diversity, equity and inclusion. “Things have changed because as an industry, we’re more aware of certain things and there’s an element of safety, inclusion and stability that banks are working towards. Banks are realising the important role they play in lives and livelihoods.”

Speaking of pay equity and opportunities for women - another key pillar of equity and inclusion - Tania says the financial services sector is moving up the curve. “There’s an acknowledgement of diversity of thought and voice. That brings value to an organisation in a broad sense.” And now, three out of the big five banks in New Zealand have female CEOs. From a pay parity perspective, Tania is optimistic, noting there is proactivity within the industry to advance the collective ambition of equity, but it will take time.

Moving on to weighty topics that are at the forefront for banks, Tania speaks about risk management and care for customers, staff and community with passion. On the topic of modern slavery, of which the risks for banks can be vast in terms of lending, investing, procurement and as a financial services provider, Tania says that the landscape is ever-changing and constantly evolving. In practical terms, it means that banks need to be agile to manage those risks. “As we embed controls or frameworks, we need to be able to move quickly because the threats are always changing but we, as financial services providers, need to continually uplift our capability and management of the risks.”

So, where to from here? Tania has a positive outlook on the issue noting that while there will always be threats and forces that seek to harm and disrupt, banks are putting the controls, regulations and governance structures in place to continue to support customers and communities alike.

For more from our Women in Financial Services series, read our conversation with ANZ's Astrud Burgess here, BNZ's Kate Skinner here, Naomi Ballantyne of Partners Life here, AIA's Linda Page here and Fidelity Life's Melissa Cantell here.