Member Stories

International Women’s Day: Four female leaders share their thoughts on inspiring inclusion in the workplace


For International Women’s Day, we spoke to four incredible female leaders in the customer-owned banking sector. We asked them what advice they’d give emerging leaders looking to forge a career in the sector, and for their ideas on developing pathways for women and fostering inclusion

What drew you to work in the customer-owned banking sector, and what’s keeping you here?

Vivien Allen, Chief Executive Officer, Geelong Bank: I started my career at one of the big four, Westpac, and while enjoyed the training I recieved, I didn’t like being part of a big bureaucracy. When I moved into the customer-owned banking sector, I appreciated having the ability to make a difference and not be one little cog in a great big wheel. I really love that small team environment and the ability to be incredibly focused on the customer.

Marnie Fletcher, Acting Chief Executive Officer, Defence Bank: Throughout my career, I have always been more motivated by values alignment and purpose. My background is working with major banks ANZ and Westpac, but the customer-owned banking sector, by nature of the work we do and whom we serve, means there is a more natural values alignment. We are member owned, not shareholder owned, and this enables better decision-making in the interests of our members and our people.

Mona Mahabale, Website Lead, Bank Australia: The role offered me the opportunity to merge my passion for technology with my values-aligned desire for giving back to the community so that was perfect for me. Bank Australia’s core purpose is putting customers first and trying to improve financial literacy of vulnerable customers – and what keeps me here is this sense of purpose. I also love that all the mutuals care for one another and work together. This collective sense of purpose keeps me motivated.

Elsbeth Torelli, Chief Risk Officer, First Option Bank: I started my working career in a law firm, which was very old-school hierarchical, and you had to stay out of sight and just do what you were told to do if you weren’t a partner. After leaving and whilst trying to work out what my next career was going to be, there was an ad in the paper for a clerical position, at a Credit Union, and without knowing what a Credit Union was, I applied. So when I started my career at what is now Bank First, it was almost from one extreme to the other. I entered into a working environment where it was non-hierarchical and welcoming where I was exposed to every level in the bank, and it was in the air that it was very member oriented with a strong sense of why it existed, values based, and collaborative. 40 years later and now at First Option, I’m still loving being part of the sector and I’m thankful for the richness of opportunities and experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met and fun I’ve had. We are a sector that can be close to people, whether it be our teams, our leaders, or our customers and their communities and make a difference. In a nutshell, that’s what’s keeping me here.

How have leaders inspired inclusion in your workplace in the past?

Marnie: The best leaders have taken the time to understand each individual within the team and what they bring to the table, and have led each of us differently. They are bringing out the best of the perspectives that we bring, whether that be the perspective of our backgrounds as kids into adulthood or whether it be our career experiences, knowledge, and values. The best leaders have brought that out and valued it, even if it is different to what they have or hold. Respecting that difference and allowing that within a room has been important.

Elsbeth: During my time in customer-owned banking, I’ve been blessed with having had many leaders who genuinely valued inclusion by taking the time to get to know me as a person, encourage me, let me have a go, listen to me. My ideas were not always accepted but they were well heard. The best leaders I’ve been exposed to largely treated everyone equally well without a lot of favouritism. Everyone feels good when their confidence and their self-esteem is built up – if opinions can be voiced, respected and valued, even if challenged – and where mistakes are seen as something to learn and improve from.

Mona: Inclusion goes beyond just promoting diversity. It is embracing having many perspectives from different financial backgrounds, age groups, locations – just people with different opinions. The other thing I’m proud of, because I’m working at Bank Australia, is how the organisation not only acknowledges but genuinely respects the Aboriginal culture and First Nations people as well. Last year at Bank Australia, there was an increasing cultural awareness training program that was open for all employees. We had a half-day of training that was amazing. I hadn’t seen that in any of my prior jobs.

The theme for IWD is inspiring inclusion. What does it mean to work for a sector that values inclusivity and leads with purpose?

Marnie: Just because you’ve got balance around a board table or an executive table in numbers, doesn’t mean you’ve got numbers in share of voice. And I think this is really important because inclusion is bringing out the voices that are silent even though the people might be present. My experience so far at Defence Bank and COBA events, is that because we are so values oriented and purpose driven, we are by nature interested in people’s voices, so if you have that situation of more females in the room, in most cases if the females are silent, a male will say, “Hey Marnie, what do you think about that?”. There is a greater tendency toward wanting to hear the voices.

Mona: Just realising that my wellbeing and empowerment is prioritised makes me feel more confident in my own abilities. For example, in some of my previous roles, the type of feedback I would receive was “You are too polite. You are too humble. If you are a leader, you need to be more stern and you can’t just talk to everyone and be on good terms with everyone”, which was not great advice. But when I started working here, it was very different. One of our core values is empathy, and I think Bank Australia does an amazing job of practising what they preach. It has instilled a lot of confidence in me that I know I can be authentically myself and still contribute without feeling judged. It is a very supportive environment where empathy and politeness are not considered weaknesses but strengths, and that’s how we can contribute to being an effective leader as well.

What advice would you give to female emerging leaders looking to forge a career in the customer-owned banking sector?

Vivien: I think it’s a great sector to be in. It is a sector where if you want to make a difference, you can. There are lots of opportunities, and supportive leaders ready to help women who want to develop themselves. It’s a sector that allows you to have some flexibility in working. I’m not just talking about working from home or working part time, but flexibility in being able to perform different roles and to try a variety of aspects of the financial sector, not just to be put in a box. Our sector allows people to explore their interests, and when they find what they want, organisations are usually very encouraging of helping them achieve their goals.

Marnie: There are a few things I’d advise. One is to always maintain an external perspective. One of the benefits we have with the customer-owned banking sector is in most cases we aren’t directly competing with one another – so in most cases we have what’s called collaborative endeavour across the industry, where we do talk and share ideas and we collaborate on innovation, etc. One of the things that has benefited me and helped me grow and perform strongly is I’ve been able to establish a huge network outside of Defence Bank across the industry and a lot of that has been through COBA events. I’m very proactive in maintaining that network. If I’m thinking about something and I’m not sure, I’ll call a colleague at another mutual bank and ask what they’ve done about the same problem and that’s very helpful.

I would encourage everyone at all levels to open their eyes to the sector. You’ve got to get involved in COBA-run events. You’ve got the Emerging Leaders Program, which is an incredible opportunity for people. In COBA or anywhere else, one of the things for us as female leaders is to have courage to stand up and have our share of voice. Don’t let people get away with silencing you – if you have a point to make, make it respectfully.

If you’re not confident in those situations, having a mentor is really important. One of my leaders is absolutely outstanding but does have a bit of imposter syndrome so one of the things we’ll do before a meeting is roleplay situations. You’ve got to practise your skill to get that confidence. It’s great to have mentors outside your organisation – contact your head of people and culture and ask if they can make a connection for you at another mutual bank. I’ve connected my team leaders with other leaders across the COBA industry for knowledge sharing and general connection.

The final thing is to be curious. Don’t let your job description define your day job. You’ve got to deliver what the organisation employs and pays you to do but be curious – get to know the broader banking operations, get to know the initiatives that are happening across the organisation, put your hand up to be involved in projects or initiatives to contribute. The bankers with more generalist knowledge outside their domain do much better because they are better able to transition between teams and roles, and that serves them much better in terms of career progression. You’ve got to be proactive.

Mona: Never underestimate your perspective. For someone at the table, it might mean something. Don’t hesitate to speak up.

Elsbeth: Firstly, care about what you do, why you do it, and for whom you do it. Second, do what you do as well as you can and with integrity. Third, be curious and continuously learn. And finally, if you are interested in something, give it a go. And if you aren’t included in something you’re interested in, speak up and ask if you can be included.

How do we create more pathways for women to gain leadership roles in the financial sector?

Marnie: Informal mentorship is really important. At Defence Bank, we’ve all nominated someone for one another to look after within our teams but it would be great to expand that more broadly across the sector, so mentorship among the customer-owned banks.

Elsbeth: There is no silver bullet. A few ideas I like – from an article published by Deloitte – are for organisations to set some diversity goals and report progress on those goals to their boards and our people, and also make a public commitment. Communicate clear metrics for success in the organisation to create a more equitable environment. And, if an organisation wants to have more diversity and for women to see if there is a pathway, it needs to also be set through internal policies and processes around recruitment and retention, and professional development. A good one personally for me has always been providing opportunities for women to network, such as the Women in Mutuals forum at COBA Convention or the Emerging Leaders Program.

Vivien: For younger women, the COBA Emerging Leaders Program is a really strong pathway and there are other initiatives and training available. There are many associations that will provide additional information and support depending on your interests. For example, for those people interested in risk and audit, MAGPI is an organisation through which they can develop and share experiences through meetings, collaboration, and networking. For credit professionals and lenders, ARCA provides educational events, briefings and policy work groups.

Mona: Being transparent and having merit-based promotions. Monitoring gender pay gaps actively and ensuring equal opportunities exist for men in women in leadership and non-leadership roles. Putting inclusivity policies in place. Flexible work policies are a big one for helping women balance their professional and personal responsibilities. They make it easier to pursue the leadership roles without fear of sacrificing.

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