The retirement of Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar as chairman of the Securities Commission was a defining moment on the need to establish a 'bench' strength for women in Islamic finance.
WHERE are the "sisters in Islamic finance", if it is about inclusion?
The retirement of Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar as chairman of the Securities Commission (SC) was a defining moment on the need to establish a 'bench' strength for women in Islamic finance.
A company, much like a phenomenon, is as strong as its weakest link. Today in Islamic finance, the lack of enough women on the executive floor or the corner office is a human asset weak link.
However, in Muslim countries where Islamic finance exists, like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey and Pakistan, there have been women country leaders, yet number of women in Islamic finance is like the 'rain in the desert'.
It's more common to find accomplished women, including non-Muslim, in Islamic finance in Malaysia, western organisations with Islamic units, and progressive Muslim countries in 'Western' Asia. For example, at Thomson Reuters, I presently lead a small team of 24, with 12 women, and I'm optimistic about our industry reaching the next milestone of US$2 trillion (RM6.12 trillion) by 2015.
I had a conversation with Rafiza Ghazali, head of Islamic finance Asia, and Wiebke Buelow, head of Project Management, and there were meaningful insights on several important areas: entry (chance v. choice), direction (excitement on inputs), challenges (industry and for women), role models (family influence), and how they would like to be remembered. Question: How did you get into Islamic finance?
I was working as CFO (chief financial officer) of a Malaysian Investment Bank, and had exposure when working with Islamic Finance instruments. As time passed, my exposure increased by attending conferences, reading, workshop and working with the central bank. It's interesting that something that happened by chance became a present career opportunity.
Buelow: I was exposed to Islamic Finance while working at the front end with active customers in this market. A successfully completed research project started the process of becoming a member of the management team of the Islamic finance division of Thomson Reuters (TR), and now, I manage product and business development. Question: What interests you about Islamic finance?
It's about practicing the faith that has real link to the assets of an economy. Because Islamic finance is so young (compared to conventional), today, it allows us to have an impact on direction of growth and development with lessons learned and learn from conventional finance, as there are many things that could help Islamic finance. For example, we need to look at a complete set of Islamic indexes for all asset classes so that the offering is comparable to conventional.
Buelow: It's a new market with huge potential, and in need of standards. It needs a young and professional work force to keep up with the rapid growing market requirements. Being part of a team aiming to drive the market and the business in the right direction is exciting. Question: Who are your professional role models?
I'd say my mother and our governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz. However, the question starts off with family values (hard work and sacrifices), schooling, especially overseas (I am a graduate of London School of Economics), work environ-ment (in Australia, Turkey, etc) and friends.
Buelow: I grew up learning that hard work is the key to achieve success, not only from my parents but also from diverse working experiences in Germany. Living abroad made me appreciate the "German-Prussian" work ethics like efficiency, precision, reliability, timeliness and a general sense of duty. My personal professional role model is my father, a successful, hard-working, sincere and honest business man. Question: What has been the biggest challenge in Islamic finance?
There are so many challenges, but that is expected of a young industry that is an emerging market phenomenon. The main challenge is, level playing field for tax (where applicable), accounting and syariah (standardisation) for Islamic debt, equity, insurance, etc. Connected to this is a need for a professional industry body that can educate and create awareness of Islamic finance, much like what AIBIM (Association of Islamic Banking Institutions Malaysia) has done for Malaysia. Finally, patience, we need to be patient with the average Muslim (and non-Muslim) in making them believers of Islamic finance.
Buelow: The market has not one big challenge but several obstacles due to the way Islamic finance is operating. Particular issues are a lack of standardisation, insufficient transparency and power of a few, buzz-words you hear at every conference. It is still getting treated like a niche segment and one of the reasons is the fairly small size compared to conventional finance. This is a call for action on the regulators, particularly in the main hubs for Islamic finance such as the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and Southeast Asia, to set standards together with leaders in the market. These actions will show the global financial industry that Islamic finance is serious. Question: How does Islamic finance attract more women to the industry?
I think it's a process, as people don't jump into Islamic finance on a whim. It starts with family values, parents/religious teachers teaching us to pray and read Koran, and which makes many reference to 'trade over interest'. Then, it's the pre-university schools, especially in Muslim countries, the need to provide exposure to Islamic finance as its part of Islam. Thereafter, it's university courses and diplomas. Finally, Islamic financial institutions to provide an enabling environment for women: Comparable pay to men, ability to rise to the executive floor, flexible hours, child care, working remotely and so on.
Buelow: Like any other male dominated industries, Islamic finance is facing the same problems in attracting women. Even though there are very talented women, only a few reach senior management positions. A good way forward would be to get more women attracted to become syariah scholars, a male domain that needs to get breached. The Asian Islamic finance industry acts as a role model; therefore GCC regulators should pass on the same regulations as Bank Negara Malaysia did to allow syariah scholars to sit only on one board for each type of Islamic financial institution. And I would go even further, in a second step, pressure the market for a female quota of executives. All these actions result in a need for talented professionals and will attract females as they realise that they get a fair chance. Question: As women in senior positions, have you encountered challenges in, say, managing ma-les who are reporting to you?
Yes, there are challenging situations, but that is applicable in any company, in any country. However, at the end of the day, all of us, eventually, realise that we have KPIs, and, for Muslims, in Islamic finance one of the KPIs is 'reporting' to the Almighty. It's been my experience that through the passage of time, interactions on projects etc, these issues go away. If they do not, there are avenues and processes that attempt to address these situations.
Buelow: No, I have never encountered such problems during my career. Reasons being my personality and management style, and luck in working with professional teams where performance and not gender mattered. Working in male-dominated markets got me used to being underestimated by male colleagues in the beginning; however, that helped me to improve my management style. Question: Wiebke, you are a non-Muslim woman in Islamic finance, what has been your experience?
I'm a Christian and I believe in God. In Christianity, you do not have such detailed regulations about banking that is compliant to the holy bible but there is a large canon of behavioural norms that are considered ethical, much like managing rules of life. The absence of such ethical norms in much of the conventional banking industry cause enormous damage to economies. To me, Islamic finance is not a religious duty but it is a way of ethical banking, which in turn to me is the right way forward! Question: What preparation advice do you have for women, Muslim and non-Muslim, considering a career in Islamic finance?
The only advice I can give is what has worked for me. First, education and work experience by, say, internships, so it cannot be used against you. Second, work harder/longer hours and develop a thicker skin as you will be tested professionally and, at times, personally. Third, find a mentor that will be there, but this is not absolutely necessary. Fourth, think outside the box. Fifth, develop communication skills, especially important for conferences and media interviews. Sixth, once you have 'made it' give back as you have gotten.
Buelow: Women will have to continue to prove that they are just as quali-fied as their male counterparts, and it's not only in Islamic finance. This means they need to study and work harder to prove their knowledge and capabilities. They should not shy away but be encouraged to come into Islamic finance market. It lacks talents and needs to continually improve, hence, this market offers great chances for women with smart ideas and no fear of challenges. Question: What would you like to be known for accomplishing in Islamic finance?
I still have a long way to go to be known, but in the meantime, I am proud to be a part in developing an industry that allows for Muslims to align their practicing in faith and financing.
Buelow: I wouldn't say "be known for" but "be recognised for", as I enjoy my job while contributing to the market development.The writer
is Thomson Reuters' Global Head of Islamic Finance based in New York.