Like many young investment bankers, Ee-Ching Tay spent her early career setting herself up for a move into private equity. She achieved her goal: after three years as an analyst at Standard Chartered in Singapore, Tay joined PE giant Warburg Pincus in 1999.
But although Tay thrived on the buy-side, she says she soon missed “the thrill of working in IBD”. By 2003, Tay had returned to banking and taken on an M&A role, partly focused on the real estate and power and utilities sectors, at UBS.
“It’s unusual to leave and then go back to banking,” says Tay, who’s now head of Southeast Asia M&A at J.P. Morgan and is one of Singapore’s most renowned female bankers. “But the high pressure and the variety of the work means IBD is never boring. And for someone in their 20s, you get unapparelled responsibility in deals and client meetings.”
Her return to investment banking also saw Tay relocate to New York. “I loved working in the US on many levels. I specialised in M&A and in certain sectors earlier on than I could have in Singapore at that time,” she explains. “Living in a country as diverse as the US was also eye-opening. Client meetings in the Midwest were very different from those in New York, for example.”
Tay, who returned to Singapore in 2011 to join J.P. Morgan and currently sits on the bank’s diversity council, says “career mobility” – changing countries or job functions – is an often-overlooked way for female bankers to rise up the ranks. “Many gender diversity programmes in banking concentrate on improving work-life balance, which is a good approach, but I think mobility is equally important,” she says. “My bank encourages internal mobility for all staff, which I believe can really benefit our female employees by raising their profile and putting them in line for promotions. Our team in Singapore has people with experience from across the world. That’s very helpful because we’re working on more cross-border deals.”
J.P. Morgan was ranked as the top bank globally among female respondents in the 2018 eFinancialCareers Ideal Employer survey, which asked more than 6,000 finance professionals to vote on the companies they would most like to work for.
Don't just rely on HR programmes
Tay stresses than women in banking shouldn’t rely on HR polices to reach the senior levels. “Women bankers generally need to be more proactive about building strong internal networks outside their own teams – men have perhaps traditionally been better at this,” she says. “Your career is unlikely to move in a straight line, so it helps to know people in other teams, across IBD and the whole bank.”
Neither should mentoring be limited to formal programmes provide by banks. “Again, female bankers need to take the initiative and ask seniors – preferably in other teams – for career advice and mentoring,” says Tay. “Most MDs would actually love the chance to speak to a junior about their career. I’ve made sure I’ve always had mentors and they’ve helped me get where I am today. Mentors don’t need to be female – most of mine have been male.”
Women make up about half of J.P. Morgan’s 252,000 employees globally but only about 30% of its senior leadership. “Like most companies, we’re still some way off having 50% female representation at the senior level, and that’s why it’s important to have a pipeline of diverse candidates who can one day step into the top roles,” says Tay. “Gender diversity isn’t about ‘do we have enough senior female bankers now?’ – no bank has enough at the moment – instead it’s about building the talent base for the future.”
That starts on campus. “The challenge is that many students, both male and female, don’t understand what bankers actually do. The potential female bankers of the future might not be studying finance or business,” says Tay. “That’s why my firm isn’t only sending MDs to talk to students at universities in Singapore. We’re now sending a larger number of junior bankers – people who the students can relate to and who can give them a realistic picture of being a young person in the industry.”
Female respondents who voted for J.P. Morgan as an ideal employer ranked it highly for its business prowess. ‘Financial performance’ was cited as a key strength of the bank by 71% them, while 70% perceived the firm to be an ‘innovator in the industry’.
“One of the reasons I joined J.P. Morgan is because of the bank’s strong global platform,” says Tay, who’s advised on more than 50 M&A and capital market transactions totalling about $90bn. “Ultimately, the way to make banking appealing to young women is to educate them that it’s now actually a very meritocratic industry – one in which you’re judged on your performance – and to show them career opportunities that meet their personal objectives.”