I enjoyed a successful career as a banker for 35 years, latterly as head of Citi’s Asia Pacific Corporate Bank in Hong Kong. But last year I retired to pursue my new passion, fitness, by starting my own gym in my home country, Singapore.
Junior bankers often ask me about ‘what drives me’ and how I have managed to become a ‘superwoman’. But frankly, I’m not a superwoman. I’m like many other women across Asia who want it all: a family, a career (or several careers)....and a (good) life. So how did I get right to the top in the male-dominated banking sector and balance my work with my family commitments? Let me share my advice on what it takes to lead a fulfilling career and life as a female banker.
As female bankers, we must always strive for excellence in whatever work we undertake, whether what’s dealing with colleagues or clients. Why? Because for women in banking, recognition that is earned commands respect and promotes meritocracy. Diversity should never be about setting quotas or seeking preferential treatment. Women, just like their male colleagues, should seek to win a new job or promotion because they performed to the very best of their ability.
I have never felt discriminated against because of my gender, nor do I expect to compete based on any criteria but meritocracy. In fact, I would be deeply insulted if I were told that I got a job because of a gender quota. I’ve participated in many meetings where I was the only woman, but I often didn’t realise this until there was a toilet break and I was the lone ranger heading towards the ladies! In other words: don't get too besotted with being a woman when you work in banking, even if you’re in a very male environment.
Even though banks typically promote diversity, gender biases in banking are hard to erase completely. We should expect to occasionally meet with cynicism or even resentment, and we should learn to deal with it. Some men find it hard to accept it when women are in charge. A male colleague once responded to an instruction by saying “yes Sir!” to me. I promptly replied with “thank you Madam” – that left him speechless. As a female manager, I learned to laugh at these kinds of antics instead of getting upset by them.
My personal definition of success is my own sense of satisfaction at work, at home and as an individual. We have to be happy people before we can be effective as bankers. And our happiness is defined by us, not anyone else. Let me give you an example.
I took on my first regional banking role at Citi back when my daughter was just four years old, thinking I could cope with all the work-related travel. As it turned out, I soon had a crisis when my daughter’s caregiver suddenly left and she had to cope with a new nanny while I was overseas. After three months I was ready to quit my job because I couldn’t bear to leave my daughter. Fortunately, my bosses came to the rescue, offering me a three-month sabbatical and even a part-time role. From this experience I learned what was really important to me, and I then set better priorities for myself, recognising that I would compete as a senior banker only on my own terms!
When my daughter was young, I wasn’t ‘mobile’ and made that widely known at the bank for fear of being transferred away from Singapore. But one of my bosses advised be to “never say never” in my career and “always leave the door open to possibilities” – wise words. If I had stuck long-term to my plan of never leaving Singapore, I would not have made it to my Asia Pacific role.
Because I later became more flexible with my career plans, I had the privilege of changing jobs without changing banks. Women in banking sometimes overanalyse possible roadblocks in their careers. Female bankers need to be open to new challenges and promote themselves internally through networking within their banks and across the industry. In doing so, you become an ‘influencer’ within your bank, enabling you to promote yourself and your team.
One of the things I valued most in my career at Citi was the fact that I worked with so many high performers. They became role models for me as I learned how they strategised and navigated tricky situations. I’d also encourage women in banking to ask their role models to take an active part in their career development by becoming mentors to them. I certainly benefited immensely from mentoring in the course of my banking career.
Agnes Liew was a banker at Citi in Asia for 35 years and now runs her own company – oompf! fitness – a bespoke gym in Singapore.