Challenging disadvantages for women when it comes to their finances

14 March 2023

As part of International Women’s Day 2023, we’re celebrating the Inspiring Women from our MBA programmes by digging into their experiences around the theme of equity.

Samantha Secomb, Executive MBA alum, is a hormonal woman on a mission to democratise unbiased financial advice for women, both as investors and as financial planners.

Firstly, can you tell us a bit more about yourself?

I have been in personal finance for over 30 years and have been lucky enough to have my youngest son follow me into the profession and succeed me in heading up the family business. This has left me free to dedicate the last decade of my career to making a difference for women, because it has become so clear to me that women are seriously disadvantaged when it comes to finances.

Mother, daughter, sister aunty, grandma, great aunty, cousin, niece – I am all these things as well as a business woman. I love being part of an extended four generation family. My youngest granddaughters live locally, and I have them over on a Sunday afternoon – at 2 and 4 yrs they are a challenge. I have to go to bed early on Saturday to prepare, and sit in a dark room for a few hours after – it is much easier running businesses than caring for children!

What made you choose your career and industry?

I initially became a financial adviser because I needed flexible working, not because I was particularly attracted to the industry. I was helping my husband run his business when we separated, so I was out of a job as well as my relationship. I needed a career that offered a challenge, with good earnings and flexible hours because I was a single mum. I had a BTec National Diploma in Business & Finance and a handful of GCSE’s, which was enough to get me an interview with GA Property Services, who were looking for a trainee mortgage adviser. I could drop the boys at school, do a few hours in the shop, collect the boys from school, and do home appointments with mortgage clients once they were in bed in the care of a babysitter. It worked out for all of us, me, my kids, my employer and my clients, who were all working age people and grateful for evening appointments. Hurrah for flexible working!

Why Warwick Business School?

I had gotten quite good at running a family owned business, but I wanted to try something else: a start-up, disruptive and scalable. I realised I hadn’t got the right skill set and perspective, so I signed up for the Executive MBA at The Shard, taking up the option to lean into the entrepreneurship specialism to make sure I came out skilled up for my mission.

I explored a few Executive MBA courses and chose WBS because it ranked highly, and the Friday and Saturday on campus every other weekend worked well for me. I was impressed by the entrepreneurial modules and calibre of lecturers – It seemed important in this area of the syllabus that we were meeting real life entrepreneurs and venture capitalists rather than accessing purely academic content. And of course, The Shard!

How has WBS supported you in your career?

My business concept, Women’s Wealth, was already forming and I didn’t hesitate to make it the subject of every assignment – marketing, organisational strategy, finance, operations, organisational structure, culture, pitching and capital raising.  My business idea got prodded and poked, managed and manipulated through every module and it has proven immensely valuable. Right down to my dissertation which has now been published by my professional body.

I really needed to know why more women who were adequately qualified to be financial advisers were not in the role.  Did they not want to be advisers or were they finding barriers to transition? The Chartered Insurance Institute helped me with access to data and allowed me to canvass the membership for interview candidates. Guided by my supervisor I did my very first ever piece of primary research. The findings have been vital to my business, which is built specifically to attract female advisers, as well as serve female clients, but it is an added bonus that my business profile has been enhanced by having my research published. I have presented my findings on a dozen or so stages, including my professional body’s annual conference, The Festival of Financial Planning, at the NEC Birmingham. This was the biggest audience I have ever presented to and I don’t mind admitting it made my knees knock!

Have you ever experienced inequity due to your gender? How did you handle the situation?

Only 16% of financial advisers in the UK are women, and the financial services industry is shockingly behind the curve on gender equality, so the answer is yes. It has been so inequitable, so completely, for so long, that I find I am desensitised to it. I think that is a very sad situation, but I also don’t think I would have survived in the industry for more than 30 years if I was still smarting from every discrimination.

I recall one incident when the firm I worked for dispatched me to meet a client used to dealing with a local adviser. The firm had regional experts to handle more complex client needs. The client had been told Sam Secomb was coming and had assumed I was a man. This mature gentleman greeted me by saying “I was expecting a real adviser. I would not let my daughter or my wife near my finances and I won’t be letting you do it either!”. Slam – door in face.

The biggest disappointment was that my employer then dispatched a male expert from a neighbouring region, apologised to the client for causing disappointment, and insisted all my business cards were scrapped and replaced with one that carried my full name (Samantha rather than Sam) so clients were not deceived in future. You may be mistakenly believing this was in the ‘60s, but I am not actually that old! It was the early ‘90s.  You know what I did? I let it go and moved on.  I had decided that there were advantages to being one of so few women in a male dominated environment and I needed to exploit those rather than crusade about the very many disadvantages. Examples of exploiting the advantage – in a crowded room, people knew who I was. I had profile because I was unusual. I also got clients who preferred to speak to a woman and because there were few women to choose from, I got lots of referrals.

I guess if more women had crusaded more in those days we would be further on now, but sometimes in order to get on you have to go around the obstacles rather than through them – sorry ladies that I didn’t do more for our case back then, but maybe that is why I am fired up and determined to make a difference now.

It will take a long time and intentional effort to disrupt the endemic gender bias in financial services, but progress is being made and it seems more effort and investment is being applied, but it is still shockingly backwards compared to many other industries and professions. I hope Women’s Wealth will be a platform from which I can encourage challenging conversations and show some examples of alternative ways of delivering financial services that appeal to women as both advisers and clients.

How can we create workplaces where difference is valued and celebrated?

My research findings are that women are resistant to becoming more like men to assimilate into male-gendered work places. We continually proffer a male-gendered template of work and pretend it is gender-neutral. It is not. It was designed centuries ago by men for men.

If we need women in the economy to enable future economic growth, we need to scrap the historic version of “work” and design for an inclusive future. Let’s start measuring what women are good at and hiring and promoting based on these characteristics: Collaboration with colleagues, client satisfaction, risk-adjusted production, corporate reputation. Instead, we measure the biggest production, the greatest number of clients and loads of other volume metrics which add up to taking more and more risk to deliver cheaper and quicker, until something goes wrong. I love the quote – There would never have been a Lehman Sisters! We need diversity of thought and management to get the balance right and it is sadly missing.

What’s your advice to any young women reading this?

Make a difference whenever you can, but I also completely get that it is not easy and can have consequences when you push back against the status quo. It is only in my 50s that I feel able to stand up for equality and equity, but I have to say it feels bloody marvellous, so maybe give it a go where the consequences are tolerable.

Discover more Inspiring Women on our MBA programmes