Women's work: interview with RBS's Alison Rose

Written by Gemma Fraser on 7 June 2019 in Inside Politics

Alison Rose talks about the importance of getting the gender balance right and supporting women into business

Image credit: RBS

When Alison Rose started working in banking in 1992, she was “gender blind” to the male-dominated environment around her.

She had joined the National Westminster Bank as a trainee after graduating from Durham University and her group was a mix of men and women.

But as Rose started rising through the ranks, she soon found her female counterparts were depleting and she was awakened from the gender blindness that she once had.

“I used to end up working in teams that were all male or most of the client meetings were all male, but it wasn’t something that I was particularly conscious of at the time,” Rose tells Holyrood. “It was really only as I got to more senior levels that there was almost the moment where you look around and say, ‘Gosh, where have all the women gone?’”

Rose continued to climb the career ladder, and after NatWest was taken over by Royal Bank of Scotland in 2000, she became RBS’s head of leveraged finance in the UK and Europe, and subsequently head of markets and international banking in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

In 2014 she took over commercial and private banking and last year she was appointed deputy CEO of NatWest Holdings.

Rose has made it one of her career missions to promote gender equality and to set ambitious targets to ensure that women are well represented within her organisation.

“The industry has moved a long way, certainly since I started, and we’ve been pretty proactive – and I have [been] right the way through my career – in supporting gender and inclusion.

“As a bank, we set targets back in 2014 to get to 30 per cent female levels in our top four layers and I think by 2016, we’d got to 44 per cent. So then we said our top three layers – which is about 700-800 people – to be 30 per cent, then we reached that and got to 37 per cent, which is great, so we’ve now said we’re going to set a 50/50 target for a later stage.

“You can certainly be proactive, and one thing I do in my business is set very specific gender targets and diversity and inclusion targets – not quotas, targets - and you can see the results of that.

“I’ve also been responsible for introducing programmes like ‘Come Back’, developed specifically to retain women returning to work after a period away.

“Generally, as an industry, the financial services sector is like lots of industries, there are just not enough women at the more senior levels, but it’s improving and getting better. I just would like it to get better faster.”

Rose adds: “I think we’ve been pretty bold. The diversity and inclusion aspects are a really important part of our business focus because we want to create an environment that is inclusive for all of our employees and, frankly, it makes good business sense and you’re making sure your talent thrives.

“And also, we need to be reflective of our customer base, so it’s very firmly a business agenda and we’ve set some very bold plans to get there. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet, there’s no one thing that fixes this, but we’re trying very hard.”

Last year, Rose was commissioned by the Treasury to conduct a review of female entrepreneurship, which she recently concluded and published.

The Rose Review found that just one in three UK entrepreneurs is female and only one per cent of venture funding goes to all-female teams.

While Rose knew beforehand that female entrepreneurs are vastly underrepresented, it was the scale of the problem that shocked her most.

She says: “I describe it almost as a problem hiding in plain sight. What was really helpful about the report was really being able, because we did a huge amount of interviews and data analysis, to really get to the root of the problem and being able to quantify the opportunity.

“Some of the findings were not a surprise, some of them were more stark than I expected, but the actual scale of the issue, and therefore the scale of the opportunity, was pretty shocking.

“And the fact that only one per cent of the VC [venture capital] funding is going to female-led businesses really is quite an astounding fact and really understanding why is that, I think, was really helpful to then think, ‘Well, what can we do about it?’, because there is lots of funding, lots of support, lots of help out there for entrepreneurs, but we’re just not channelling it or allowing women to get access to it in the right way.

“So I was pretty shocked with both the scale of the problem and potentially excited by the scale of the opportunity if you can address some of the barriers.”

The review highlighted five key barriers that lead to lower rates of entrepreneurship amongst women: low access and awareness of capital; greater risk awareness; perceived missing skills and experience; disproportionate primary care responsibilities; and a lack of relatable sponsorship, mentorship and role models.

Rose explains: “Very specifically, what we wanted to do was understand what the particular barriers were that were facing female entrepreneurs and examine what we could do about it.

“I think that’s a really important topic and subject to get to the bottom of because it goes to the heart of creating a really thriving business community and economy. Really deeply understanding what the barriers were to then identify, hopefully, some initiatives that we can support across the public and private sector together.

“The findings are both positive and negative. Positive that we have this massive vibrant entrepreneurship culture in the UK, but actually, what we’re finding is that only one in three entrepreneurs are female. On average, they’re half the size of male businesses and they’re not getting access to the funding, particularly the VC funding, so if we can address that gap, you’re talking about a £250 billion opportunity to the UK economy.

“So at a time you’re really talking about productivity, here’s untapped potential that actually, with some practical help, hopefully we can intervene. It felt very congruent based with what I’m doing as a business leader trying to support entrepreneurs, but also, the female leader trying to support female business owners and women more generally.”

The Rose Review found that the gender gap is equivalent to over one million fewer female entrepreneurs in the UK.

Women are drastically underrepresented in the most productive sectors, with less than one in four entrepreneurs in sectors like transport and information technology being women.

The review also found that fewer UK women choose to become entrepreneurs than in best practice peer countries, the ratio of female to male entrepreneurs in the UK has declined in recent years, UK women are less likely than men to consider starting a business and they are also less likely to scale up their business if they do.

It identified eight initiatives to help female entrepreneurs from start-up to scale-up.

“One thing about the review is that it really does shine a spotlight on the issues,” says Rose. “It’s a bit of a no-brainer, really, when you look at the opportunity that’s there, not to put interventions in place to try and support female entrepreneurs with all of that drive and ambition and contribution they can make – because don’t forget, entrepreneurs are creating jobs and creating opportunities for people and creating income for the economy – so for me, it feels like we’ve highlighted something and I think as a result, there is a greater awareness around the issue.

“I hope it’s the start of a commitment to really drive change, but that will only happen if the people who can help across the industry, across my industry, across the venture capital industry, across the public and private sector, roll their sleeves up and actually intervene to help.

“It won’t happen by itself. Like most of these things, it’s going to take concerted effort, continued focus, practical interventions over multiples of years, but I hope that it’s the start of driving real change and support.

“Fundamentally, you’ve got the entrepreneurs there, we just need to get out of their way and make sure we give them the help they need to succeed. I hope we’re not having this conversation in ten years, but I think we’ve got to make sure it is an ongoing conversation in order to keep it at the top of the agenda and to put practical changes in place.”

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