Banks, Money, and the Expanding Women's Market

By Amy-Willard Cross

The king may be in the counting house counting all his money, but these days, the queen is too. And some banks around the world have realized the power of the women’s market.

Rebeccca Ruf is with The Global Banking Alliance for Women, an organization of 39 financial institutions driving women's wealth creation. Ruf says, "Even though there are a lot of different initiatives—there is a lot going on around employees, getting women mentored, all of these women’s networks; there is a lot of momentum, but it’s not a comprehensive approach." Gender equity has to be built into a bank’s DNA--and it starts with the employee.  

Ruf adds, "It’s not about handing over money to women. In order to reach scale, there has to be that market opportunity, and that has to be the focus." Banks now have an incentive to appeal to women. It's good for their bottom line. 


The first to realize the opportunity was Westpac in Australia, which is among the world’s 15 largest banks. Many years ago, the bank was looking for different ways to position itself. Larke Riemer, the director of Women’s Markets says, "We recognized how women were changing—that they were starting businesses. We recognized the female economy." That was back in the '90s. Now the World Bank cites Westpac for its best practices in women’s banking.  It offers women information, education, as well as networking and an annual award named for 19th century businesswoman Mary Reibey who is featured on Australian currency.

Westpac realized women want to be treated with respect. They want information and education in personal finance and business—"not a pink product." Studies also revealed that Australian women were not saving, and would need to work an additional 25 years to afford retirement. So the bank spent 3-4 billion dollars on women’s markets, including website and community Ruby—an investment, which shows just how big Westpac envisioned the market to be. Riemer notes that "beyond social responsibility, it needs to be profitable."

"A lot of countries and banks underutilize their women," says Larke. "They haven’t recognized the power of the female economy. If they were to look after female customers, they would turn around the profits and turn around the economy."

Many people mistakenly assume that men are the primary stakeholders who make all the decisions. They discount what Larke calls a new generation of women who are ambitious, spending money on their education and getting well-paid jobs. But Westpac measures it all, because what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done. This works when it comes to leadership: the board is 33 percent women, and 42 percent of women are in leadership roles—with a goal of 50 percent by 2017. And the CEO is a woman. When it comes to customers, there are 2.3 million primary account holders in the Women's Market Program, which amounts to $110 billion and contributions of more than $1 billion in profits.   

Riemer notes that many women do operate differently. Even those at the top who make a good enough profit for their families and look after their staff are less likely to work themselves into the ground with no time at home than men. She says, "Women aren’t driven by the millions, but the desire to provide for their families."


In Lebanon, BLC opened Women’s Empowerment (WE) Initiative two years ago, which address executives, entrepreneurs, and mothers alike. It’s the only bank in the region that follows UN principles of gender equality. That's a big deal because, keep in mind, until 2009, Lebanese mothers were not allowed to open an account for their children without permission from the "guardian" (the father).

The bank offers special loans for entrepreneurs, accounts for kids, business workshops, and gives an award for entrepreneurship worth $30,000 US. At the same time, the WE Initiative puts forth a host of non-financial services, including training, workshops, networking events, and advisory services. There’s a website and a members-only community. It’s both personal and professional.

Besides pleasing customers, BLC also seeks to be an employer of choice. The bank has even trained employees to eliminate all forms of conscious and unconscious bias in dealing with women. Women returning from maternity leave are offered flextime.

Dima El Daryri, Brand manager for the WE Initiative says, "Women are loyal to the bank; once we get them as a client, we will always keep them." She also points out beyond that, women tend to be "less risky clients." Until WE, El Daryi says women were an untargeted market and now are "one of the most lucrative business segments across the globe." As word gets out, the target may well expand.

Back in Australia, Westpac’s Riemer says, "My big push is to get banks globally to support women—and I have to prove to them it’s profitable."


Image: Tax credits via flickr