“If There Was One Letter That Should Have Been Addressed To ‘Madame’, It Was Mine”

Gaelle Haag is co-founder of sustainable investment platform Capitana (Photo © Silicon Luxembourg)

Women remain underrepresented in management and technology. No surprise then that they are few and far between in fintech.

Seconds after Luxembourg financial regulator the CSSF sent a letter of approval for Gaelle Haag to launch her fintech, Haag received a strange call from her account manager. “He apologised that the letter was addressed to ‘monsieur’ Haag, because this is the standard template,” recalls the founder of sustainable investment platform Startalers.

“It made me smile, because I had been interacting with these people for over a year: they know me, they know my business. If there was one letter that should have been addressed to ‘Madame’, it was mine!” Haag’s letter speaks volumes about the people who have made their mark in the fintech sector in Luxembourg, and in Europe. Haag reckons that you can count the number of women fintech founders on the Belgian, Luxembourg and French markets on a couple of hands. Fintech is not the only field where women are under-represented-this phenomenon impacts all areas of technology.

“In 2021, in Europe, only 7% (1) of the technology jobs were held by women,” says Giulia Iannucci, an entrepreneur leading a gender diversity project for the Luxembourg House of Financial Technology.

Her research shows that while girls outperform boys in mathematics and science in school, in many instances they are discouraged from moving into this field. And those who do persevere face barriers from employers. “I recently listened to a podcast from a woman engineer who applied for a job and had to do a test. When she finished the test, she said to the other applicants ‘that test was tough!’ It turned out she was the only one who was asked to do the test because she was female!”

“If you want to remain relevant, you need to put different voices around the table.”

Gaelle Haag is co-founder of sustainable investment platform Capitana

Tech Skills

Tech skills are one thing but most fintech founders will have found their niche as a result of a career in finance, a field whose leadership is considerably gender skewed. Women represent 40% of the sector’s workforce, and occupy just 27% of upper management positions, according to Luxembourg for Finance, a promotional agency for the financial sector.

“If you look at finance, there tend to be more women in compliance and legal,” reckons Jonathan Prince, co-founder of Luxembourg fintech Finologee. But even here few women break through the glass ceiling from “senior to top manager”, the entrepreneur adds. Given that regtech makes up around 40% of the fintech sector in Luxembourg, it suggests that there is potential for female mobility into the startup scene, either as founders or leaders.

Entry Costs

A major barrier to entry faced by both men and women in a high capital intensive business like fintech is the high costs. “You need a licence to operate and that licence costs money,  you need different types of expertise, to be able to cover the different complexities,” says Haag, explaining: “Of course you need someone who is knowledgeable in finance, but you also need some tech experience and then you need regulatory and compliance experience to navigate so the cost to start is super high.”

While a high capital investment poses a universal problem, women founders are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to raising capital. A damning Deloitte report found that female-founded fintechs received just 1.3% of all capital raised in 2019, rising from 0.6% in 2015.

“A solution is to work with the media to portray more role models, for girls to see that they can be whatever they want.”

Giulia Iannucci is a marketing expert and founder of women-centric social enterprise Know Thy Brand

Details

Then there is the difference in which men and women approach the launching of a business. In what is a heavily regulated industry, Haag noticed that she asked herself more questions than male peers and was more detail-oriented. “I realised that I’m probably being too much of a good student,” she said, adding: “You need to strike the right balance and move away from being a good student and being appreciated, to what’s right within the conditions in which you need to operate.”

A rare advantage of being part of a minority group is that female fintech founders know one another and Haag says this has fostered a close and mutually supportive community. “We’re not afraid of sharing and they’re very honest about the fact that it’s not always an easy road,” she says.

Normalising Women In Fintech

Outside of the sector, the media also have a role to play in tipping the balance on gender inclusion in technology and subsequently fintech. “I think a solution is to work with the media to portray more role models, for girls to see that they can be whatever they want,” says Iannucci. S

he cites Pixar’s Turning Red movie as a good example to follow. In the fintech sector, there are some powerful role models in Europe, such as Anne Boden, the founder of Starling Bank, in the UK, but personalities like Boden and Haag remain in the minority.

Iannucci says that something everyone can do is to be more aware of their own gender bias and challenge sexist comments. “Even if it’s a silly joke, you need to stand up against these microaggressions because they really affect people’s confidence.” More broadly, Iannucci sees the solution in addressing some of the fundamental cultural attitudes towards gender.

“In general terms, women might not be confident enough to apply unless there was a 90% match.”

Jonathan Prince, co-founder of Luxembourg fintech Finologee

Recruitment

An issue that Prince has encountered in his business is that few women apply for tech roles, even if they are qualified. To encourage more women in the sector generally, he urges women to take more risks when applying for jobs. HR leaders advise people to apply for roles if they meet around 70% of the criteria listed in a job description.

“In general terms, women might not be confident enough to apply unless there was a 90% match,” he moots. Further progress to recruitment in tech roles could also be made by offering government incentives to employers who hire women for such roles. He suggests something similar to the state scheme that subsidies 80% of salaries of employees aged 45 and above for a limited period.

Creating more gender diversity in Luxembourg’s fintech sector will take time, but time is a luxury that some actors in the industry don’t have. Haag warns: “Your customer base is changing […] So if you want to remain relevant, you need to put different voices around the table.”

(1) Deloitte Insights, Achieving gender equity in the fintech community by Jim Eckenrode


This article was first published in the Silicon Luxembourg magazine. Read the full digital version of the magazine on our website, here. You can also choose to receive a hard copy at the office or at home. Subscribe now.

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