Meet the Virgin banker

Virgin Money’s Jayne-Anne Gadhia is one of the few female CEOs in the banking industry. Her new book, The Virgin Banker, opens the door on the financial sector and looks at the events that have shaped her life and career.

In the world of banking, Jayne-Anne Gadhia has bucked more trends than you could imagine. Here are her thoughts on topics as diverse as depression, bullying and gender.

Bullying

At the age of 14, Jayne-Anne’s parents sent her to a private school in Norfolk, where she was one of very few girls. As a six-foot-tall teenager, Jayne-Anne swiftly became a target for bullies.

“Being bullied at school gave me an understanding of how best to react, and I guess that prepared me for the sort of bullying that I found myself dealing with later in life. If anything, my experiences at school also taught me never to accept the taunts and jibes. Fight back, every time, became my motto.”

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Racism

Jayne-Anne’s first job was at an accountancy practice in Norwich. “The worst part of working there was the racism. One of the senior managers refused to sign my wedding card ‘because you are marrying a Paki.’ Talk about the university of life.”

Two decades later, Jayne-Anne experienced a different kind of racism, at Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). “One of the reasons why RBS failed was a complete lack of diversity at the top of the organisation. The vast majority of the senior team were white, Scottish men. Joining RBS was the first and only time that I, personally, have experienced what racism must feel like. I never felt excluded, but I definitely felt English. RBS was run by a bunch of like-minded men with similar educational backgrounds and at the time no one saw the problems that created.”

Running the London Marathon

Virgin Money UK became the primary sponsor of the London Marathon in 2010, and in 2015 Jayne-Anne took part for the first time.

“[As the weekend approached] I don’t mind admitting I was terrified. I genuinely thought it was possible that I might not get out of this one alive! The second half was absolute hell. Once we got to 18 miles, I began to feel that I just couldn’t do it. And that’s a bad place to be mentally, that’s for sure. But I made it. And the only reason I did was because of all the support, the sacrifice and the care I got from others. Just like my entire Virgin Money journey, really. So many people have been there and supported me every step of the way.”

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Women in finance

In June 2015, Jayne-Anne was asked by the Treasury to undertake a review into why women make less progress in financial services than in other industries. The resulting report was published in March 2016, entitled Empowering Productivity: Harnessing the Talents of Women in Financial Services.

“I was fascinated to see that the issue holding women back in financial services is one thing, and one thing only. Culture. Despite what people would have us believe, motherhood and childcare were not major points. The issues of culture were solvable. But they needed focus, just like any other business problem.

“So we decided to recommend that they should be addressed like any other business problem. That meant each business should have its own strategy and targets for gender inclusion, publish them and be prepared to be rewarded on them. Simple.”

The financial services charter

Following the review, the government published a financial services charter, to which more than 120 UK financial services companies have signed up. Some organisations, though, have made a conscious decision not to sign. “I can’t understand why,” JayneAnne told City AM. “Some say they don’t like targets. But they are their own [targets]. They don’t have to be onerous. Some say they don’t like the focus on gender and that we should consider broader groups. But we have to start somewhere. Some say not all of their jobs are suitable for women. But which ones can they be, at a time when women are joining the infantry? These are excuses and we should not allow them to wash.”

Diversity

Even without the Empowering Productivity review, Jayne-Anne has always been a staunch supporter of diversity within the banking industry.

“The issues at the heart of the financial crisis seem to have been caused, in part at least, by the same faces having the same conversations, and fearing to speak up and rock the boat despite us operating in a fast-changing world. The major banks and insurers are traditional institutions run by traditional people. And current management have tended to recruit in their own image, sometimes with conscious, but usually unconscious, biases.”

Despite bucking the trend herself, Jayne-Anne is acutely aware of the obstacles faced by female bankers. “I have never found any issues in being a woman in banking and have enjoyed liberal doses of support from influential men along the way. I guess there have also been some personality traits that have made a difference, too. Sheer bloodymindedness has helped. When I am knocked down, I get up again. There is nothing more discouraging for a woman than to hear she is ‘scary’ or ‘emotional’ or ‘hormonal’ – trust me, I have heard it all. I recall, all too well, as we tried to resolve our board issues in early 2014, that someone asked me if I was behaving oddly because of the menopause!”

Jayne-Anne recently featured on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. Listen to her choices below and check out the whole feature.

Mental health

In 2017, Virgin Money UK chose Heads Together, a mental health charity supported by Prince William and Prince Harry, as this year’s Virgin Money London Marathon Charity of the Year. It gave Jayne-Anne the perfect opportunity to speak up about her personal experiences of mental health.

“My experience with post-natal depression changed me and the way I look at mental health issues today. I had thought that ‘depression’ was a sign of weakness, an imagined illness, an excuse. Now I know it is an illness as real as a physical ailment and it needs as much care and repair. Just because we can’t see it does not mean it isn’t there.”

And that need for understanding extends to the workplace, she told the BBC. “I don’t want to get to a place where we’ve got everybody crying on each other’s shoulders. But I think finding a way for organisations to support staff that want to talk about the issues that they’re going through, and having maturity of line management to know when that’s required – to know where help can come from – is really important.”

Jayne-Anne’s book, The Virgin Banker is published by Virgin Books (rrp £20) and its royalties will be donated to Heads Together. It is available to buy online and in all good book shops now.

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