Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

International Women’s Day on 8 March, 2024 is rapidly approaching, and Trade Finance Global is preparing to host our own Women in Trade, Treasury & Payments campaign. While TFG’s campaign is designed to highlight the work that all women are doing in the TTP industry, we think it’s important to hear from some of the leaders of the industry.

Personal stories and journeys are an important part of pushing the industry in the right direction. With this in mind, Trade Finance Global’s Brian Canup (BC) spoke with Michelle Knowles (MK), Head of Trade and Working Capital Products at Absa.

  1. BC: Looking at your career journey, how do you feel like you were inspired and/or included by others in your industry? 

MK: As I contemplate my career journey, I realise how fortunate I have been to have the support and influence of several role models. Each one of them played a role in my journey, some formally and others informally. 

As a self-motivated individual, I thrive on new and diverse experiences. Fortunately, I found a career that I find engaging, particularly the complexity and diversity that comes with international trade. Being part of an ever-changing environment and a global community is very fulfilling for me. 

My purpose in life is to make a difference, and my career aligns with this purpose given the vital role that trade plays in economic growth and development. Working in an emerging market, where issues like unemployment are constantly in focus, I find it meaningful to be part of developing and delivering solutions that facilitate and enable growth. I am equally highly motivated by new challenges, and I enjoy meeting and engaging with new people and cultures, as well as being motivated by new opportunities.

I also believe in providing support to emerging leaders and driving change within the organisation. I am always curious and enjoy taking on new challenges. Early in my career, I got involved in industry initiatives that took me out of my comfort zone, allowing me to grow and influence. 

This exposed me to people from different countries, including some industry giants, from whom I learned a lot. Although many of them have retired or moved on to different industries, I am still in contact with many. This process opened other opportunities that further expanded my horisons, including being appointed to some industry positions.

I am grateful to the many leaders who have influenced and supported me throughout my journey. They encouraged me to take on new opportunities, pushed me out of my comfort zone constantly, and guided me. Although my journey has not been straightforward, the challenges I faced have made me the person I am today, and each part of my journey has taught me new skills. This has given me agility and resilience, and I look forward to the next part of my journey.

To all those contemplating the next steps in their journeys, I encourage you to take ownership of your career and take the lead. Do not wait for someone else to do it for you. Most importantly, surround yourself with people who will support and guide you.

  1. BC: How is Absa actively inspiring inclusion for others? 

MK: Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace is crucial for a company’s longevity, not just in terms of attracting talent, but also for business efficiency, success, and profitability. However, achieving a diverse and inclusive organisation can be challenging, and some initiatives aimed at promoting diversity can end up excluding certain individuals, causing negative reactions and fear. Therefore, everyone should be a part of the journey.

Absa, like most companies, has been focusing on creating an inclusive and diverse environment over the past few years. Several initiatives are underway, and many people are stepping up to support them. The organisation has specific working groups across the group that aim to create a diverse and inclusive environment and ensure that the voices of all colleagues are heard.

As a leader, I have been involved in many initiatives over the past few years, especially as I have progressed in my career.

I believe in the saying by Bonang Mohale “lift as you rise,” which means that we should actively support young leaders in their journeys and not “kick the ladder down” once we have achieved certain milestones in our careers. 

I mentor several young leaders across different countries, providing a sounding board for them and sharing my journey and how I approach certain decisions and stages in my career. I have learned a lot from those I mentor, and I encourage all leaders to get involved in mentoring programs both within and beyond their organisations.

I have also been actively involved in forums within the organisation, such as the Corporate and Investment Bank Banking on Women initiative, where we focus on topics such as the gender pay gap, representation, and building a network for women within the business. 

I was part of initiating the Corporate Transactional Banking Pan Africa women’s forum last year with the help of some amazing leaders in the business. Although this is a women’s forum, we are actively engaging men across the organisation to get their views and input into the process and ensure they feel part of the change we are looking to achieve. Allies are an important part of progress.

Considerable progress has been made around the gender pay gap, increasing representation, gender-based violence, and addressing the unconscious bias we all have. However, there is still a lot of work to be done, and we need more people to get involved.

  1. BC: We all like to strive for inclusivity in our companies and industries, but what makes it so difficult to be truly inclusive? How do we account for the different obstacles and barriers that many individuals face? 

MK: The industry is making satisfactory progress but there is still a way to go to achieve diversity, particularly at senior levels. While women make up more than half of the workforce, they are typically concentrated in junior and middle management. 

Representation at executive levels remains low and many organisations are not doing enough to understand the data around the development and progression of female leadership. This means that many companies are still not creating environments conducive to developing and retaining strong female leaders.

Research indicates that without specific initiatives to address the disparity in organisations, the trend is unlikely to improve. Accelerating gender parity initiatives to ensure the banking industry can realise its optimum business benefits will require decisive action at an organisational level. Furthermore, strong commitment and ongoing sponsorship and support by executive leadership are imperative.

With diversity and inclusion growing in popularity, it is more important than ever to think about how recognition systems can be utilised to optimise the benefits that come from a diverse and inclusive workplace. More companies are focusing on diversity and inclusion when it comes to ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other social factors to maximise success.

  1. BC: As we approach IWD, is there a story that you would like to share with the industry about successes you have experienced during your journey?

MK: I believe that everyone’s journey is unique, and what has been encouraging during my own journey is the increasing diversity within the industry. Looking back 10 or 15 years ago, it looked quite different from what I see today. There is now greater representation of diverse individuals in senior roles, forums, conferences, and some excellent initiatives to support leaders on their journey and create the right levels of networks. 

However, we need to ensure that there is continued focus on this. Throughout my career, I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by both male and female leaders who have supported me. It is important to remember that we should not just rely on female leaders to address issues around diversity and inclusion. There are also many great male leaders who are actively making a difference and bring valuable perspectives and insights to the conversation.

  1. BC: Was there a lesson you took away from your journey that you think will help others?

MK: Advancing in your career requires more than hard work and technical competency. To achieve career growth, you need to be bold, take control of your career moves, and demonstrate your ability by taking on new challenges. Do not hesitate to raise your hand for stretch projects or opportunities.

Even if things do not work out as planned, learn from your experiences, and move forward with a positive attitude. While taking risks is essential, it is also important to remain authentic and understand how the organisation works. Building networks and presenting yourself well, both in appearance and conduct, can help you climb the ladder of success.

It is natural to feel scared when taking on a new role or project. However, growth requires experiencing new situations, learning new skills, and making new contacts. To overcome self-limiting beliefs, you must first recognise and understand them.

By challenging and re-framing your beliefs, you can change your mindset positively. Overall, advancing in your career takes effort and a willingness to take risks. But with the right mindset and approach, you can achieve your goals and reach new heights.

If you’d like to learn more about our Women in Trade, Treasury & Payments 2024 campaign, follow this link!