When Soraya Alali returned from parental leave in 2010 she asked her employer, Commonwealth Bank, whether she could work part-time.
Not only did the bank fully support her request for flexible work arrangements, she was also offered a promotion soon after she came back – moving from internal consultancy to a business-facing role.
It was a similar story four years later when Soraya started work again following the birth of her second child.
“After my latest parental leave, my job scope actually doubled. Becoming a mum has had no negative impact at all on my career opportunities at CommBank,” says Soraya, who is now a General Manager of Product and Customer experience at CommSec, the stockbroking unit of Commonwealth Bank.
Soraya, who currently does full-time hours condensed into nine-day fortnights, says the bank has a “can-do approach” to staff, including returning mums, who want to work flexibly.
“The approach to flexible working is ‘how can we make this happen?’ – whether that’s job-sharing, part-time work, or working from home,” says Soraya.
Structuring her hours around her family life has become the norm for Soraya. “I can attend school events and do drop-offs and pick-ups for my kids, while still performing well in my job at a senior level. At CommBank it’s about the quality of your output rather than face time in the office.”
CommBank offers a range of other benefits for primary care givers, including paid parental leave, extended parental leave, support for transitioning back to work, and assistance with finding childcare. “It may also be possible, for example, to initially return after parental leave for just one day a week and then add more days over time.”
Across the banking sector, however, more women – especially those with young children – need to have the “courage” to ask for flexible working and not see it as a barrier to being promoted, says Soraya.
“The comparative underrepresentation of females in the senior ranks in financial services isn’t always to do with organisational barriers, it’s partly because some women wrongly perceive that they can’t, for example, work part-time and still be successful at the highest level. We need to break this paradigm.”
Soraya has moved steadily up at the ranks since joining CommBank in 2007, an achievement she credits in part to having “a clear sense of self and to knowing my strengths and actively seeking feedback from others to continuously learn”.
She says young women wanting a satisfying career in banking should be clear on what they want from their work and personal life. They should also have confidence in their abilities and be prepared to take on new challenges
“For example, I realised early on that I wanted to have a management-level career, but I also wanted to have a family and be a hands-on mum who’s there for my kids when they need me.”
But ambition and self-belief can only get you so far as a female banking professional. Soraya believes the best advice she can give is for women to believe in themselves and know their “authentic self”.
“It’s not an easy thing to manage work and personal life, regardless of your gender, age or any other factors. But knowing your authentic self empowers you to navigate through your career, be resilient through challenging times, and make decisions that are right for home and work.”
Soraya says from her experience, it also helps to build a strong support network of “sponsors” within your organisation. “Sponsors understand what you’ve achieved and can advocate for you when a new opportunity arises,” explains Soraya. “I’ve always had people at CommBank who’ve coached me and looked out for new opportunities they thought I’d be good at.”
She believes that there is a big opportunity for women, in banking and other professions, to own their successes. “Sometimes we’re not as upfront as men when it comes to promoting our accomplishments across the organisation and getting more support from colleagues as a result. But if you want a senior position, you need to actively manage your career.”
Another tip of Soraya’s is that women in finance should put themselves forward for senior roles even if they “don’t tick 10 out of 10 boxes in the job description”.
“It’s traditionally been a problem that women feel they need to be 100% right for the role from the outset. But I’ve always looked at each new job as a challenge and a way to learn new skills,” she says.
Women who are beginning their banking careers also need female roles models who they can aspire to.
“Role models have had a powerful influence on my career at CommBank. The best ones are women who’ve reached a senior level, but have remained true to themselves and have not conformed to false stereotypes of what it means to be a banker.”
Soraya is now herself a mentor for younger women at CommBank, coaching them on both technical banking skills and career management. She’s also involved in the ‘Women in CommSec’ programme, which aims to equip women with knowledge and capability in areas such as personal branding, networking and financial wellbeing.
“Gender diversity isn’t just about getting more women recruited, it’s about empowering them to advance their careers here. Many of the women I speak with have an ‘aha moment’ when they realise they won’t be penalised down the track for being a mum or for working flexibly. These things are totally compatible with senior success at CommBank.”
Flexibility is something that CommBank offers at all life stages, in both formal and informal ways. To read more about life at CommBank, just click here. To view current opportunities at CommBank, please visit our careers page.
Soraya Alali has 15 years’ experience in the financial services industry, spanning insurance and banking, and is currently the General Manager for Product and Customer Experience in CommSec. Her experience includes strategy, management consulting, programme management, customer experience, process improvement, product management, and end-to-end profit and loss accountability of large portfolios.