Rupi Kaur once wrote that “we all move forward when we recognise how resilient and striking the women around us are”. In a time where female leadership in Finance is on the rise, it becomes essential to share stories of women like Aidana Zhakupbekova for inspiration.
Growing up in Kazakhstan, Aidana has been working in Finance for over a decade and has grown as a finance leader in what is still perceived as a man’s world. And although she believes that today, we live in the “best time to be a woman in any field, and not just in finance”, biases and discrimination in the workplace might still come into play preventing women from reaching higher positions in the corporate world.
As a woman in Finance, Zhakupbekova has grown into a senior position and is now the CFO at Rydoo, after starting her career as a credit risk analyst. Luck might have tipped the scales, but Aidana believes it’s much more than that.
“One can argue there is always luck or serendipity in our lives that lead us towards a certain path, but I would hate for anyone to rely solely on luck. Get yourself ready to get lucky!”
And even though studies still point to the fact that Finance is a man’s world, times are changing, and companies have a role to play in the way they help suppress bias and create equal growth paths for all their employees, despite their gender.
Aidana’s journey as a woman in Finance
You’ve been working in Finance for over a decade. What was it like, when you started your career at IBM?
My experience in Credit Risk analysis at IBM was great! I was only 19, it was my first job and I was extremely excited. I learned a lot, everyone in the department and my teams (I had a chance to work in two, with different managers) was very supportive and open, I honestly could not have wished for a better experience.
The whole department was great, absolutely amazing. When I moved from one to the other, I had different managers, and they were different, of course. One was a woman, one was a man, but that didn’t affect my personal experience with both teams. It was a great experience overall.
Today is the best time to be a woman in any field, and not just in finance. It’s not perfect but, historically, we are in the best spot so far.
Do you feel like it’s easier to be a woman in Finance today, compared to 20 years ago?
To be frank, I don’t believe I am the best person to answer this question. 20 years ago I was in a completely different space in my life — I was in my mid teens, living in Kazakhstan, just having graduated musical school and yet to graduate high school. At the time, I did start thinking of my initial placement post graduation, but I don’t believe I had the depth of understanding to truly compare the conditions in the two time frames.
I do strongly believe, though, that today is the best time to be a woman in any field, and not just in finance. It’s not perfect, if such a condition even exists, but historically we are in the best spot so far, so I am highly optimistic about women in Finance today and moving forward.
Challenges and sacrifices for women in the corporate world
A June 2023 Deloitte report reveals only 18% of C-level positions in Finance are held by women, despite them comprising 52% of the sector’s workforce, according to Gartner. Why aren’t more women reaching top roles?
I struggle to answer this question with a high degree of certainty, moreover with a blanket statement.
I would need to properly understand the current positioning of a workforce, when they entered the field, what is their current position and aspiration, what are the conditions they work in and what are the reasonably possible next steps in their career. It takes time to reach a certain level in your career. The more interesting analysis would probably lay in the spectrum of middle-management to C-level, understanding why those women didn’t get to C-level in their paths.
I would speculate that a certain percentage is due to, unfortunately, biases and discrimination in the workplace; some of it is probably due to women anticipating the said bias and just stopping pursuing the goal, as they see it as ultimately impossible and hence not worth the effort.
A portion could be attributed to different priorities at a certain point of life, be that investing more of your time in taking care of children or similar. Some could be attributed to personal characteristics, such as lack of assertiveness to claim and apply for a role or dealing with imposter syndrome.
Then there is also a percentage of a workforce that simply doesn’t want to get to the C-level, as it does come with a lot of additional responsibility and effort, and that’s perfectly fine too.
The same study states that, by 2031, only 25% of women will have C-level roles in Finance. Is there a way to change these numbers before then?
I don’t believe changing the number itself or changing it sooner should be the goal, as it would solely imply getting more women to the C-level positions sooner.
It might be a good short-term fix, but I always prefer a mid to long-term approach to solving complicated problems like this one. I would probably ask questions like: “Are girls in high schools aware that a career in Finance is attainable?”, “Do they see it as desirable? Why or why not?”, “Are the hiring processes we have truly inclusive? How can we ensure/improve the current status?”, “Are the promotion processes we have truly inclusive? How can we ensure/improve the current status?”, “Is there a portion of a current/potential workforce that wants to obtain a certain skill (to aid them or the career path) that we can aid?”, “Are the working conditions in our environment truly inclusive? If necessary, how can we improve them?”.
I am a big proponent of equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome. Therefore, I believe we should be improving conditions to the degree that would allow competent talent obtaining certain positions in their career, regardless of their race, gender, etc., and willing talent to find ways to grow and evolve in the competencies.
I wouldn’t want women to feel pressure to obtain C-level positions, or any other positions, just for the sake of equality and representation. If you are in a position to choose, you should be comfortable with your choice either way. If women want to be in C-roles, and they are qualified, they should totally be in C-roles. But if they don’t want to, and they want to be whatever they want to be, nobody should push them or anyone else to be someone they don’t want to.
Do you think it takes women longer to achieve higher-level positions and that they have to work harder to prove themselves? Why?
I would imagine so. Unfortunately, to properly answer this question we would need to go into a lot more details rather than averaging the statistics on men vs women. I feel like at least some of it can be linked to your “starting point” — be that geographical, social-economic or otherwise — and the environment you are in.
That being said, I can’t claim that there is a perfect equality of opportunity across all organisations, that is simply not the case. There is still plenty of bias (both deliberate and not) that is present, be that due to inadequate leadership or outdated company principles used for hiring, evaluation and promotion.
I do feel it is up to us to take charge of our own careers and help forge a better future either in our current workplace or a new one. You need to know when to push through and when to move on. To extend on Michelle Obama’s famous quote: “When they go low, we go high, or we go on to a better environment”.
I am a big proponent of equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome. Therefore, I believe we should be improving conditions to would allow competent talent to obtain certain positions, regardless of their race, gender, etc.
Can we talk about “luck” in these situations?
“Luck” of getting a job or being promoted? Sure, one can argue there is always luck or serendipity in our lives that lead us towards a certain path — being in a certain place or company at a certain time or meeting certain people.
I consider myself an extremely lucky person when it comes to a plethora of things, especially people I have and got to meet in my life — my parents, husband and extended family, my friends, colleagues and managers. My closest people have always been supportive and encouraging, firm at times, but I could never be where I am without them.
That being said, I would hate for anyone to rely solely on luck or view any interaction as potentially transactional. Get yourself ready to get lucky! Be curious, have a strong work ethic, be genuine and inquisitive in your interactions, so that when the lucky opportunity presents itself you are ready to seize it completely. Moreover, run an analysis and try to position yourself in a situation where your probability of getting lucky is much higher, be that in a company with different values, different company type or geography.
You mentioned that the people closest to you were firm at times. Did it have an impact on your career?
I think my parents were probably the firmest influence on me. They rarely accepted a good enough solution, a good enough grade or a good enough something if they knew I could do more.
They didn’t necessarily push me into doing anything, I took dancing classes as a hobby for a while and then dropped out, went to music school and then started my career in Finance. But during all of these journeys in my life, they always told me never to give up . “Give it your all, go again, try again”, they would say. And it did help, to be honest. It helped me set higher standards for myself and to always get me thinking: “did I give it my all, could I do better?”
A recent podcast discussing women in finance highlighted the dilemma of maternity leave choices in many countries. Does this indicate that women still face career sacrifices?
I believe it is absolutely fair to say women have to make choices for their careers, some of those choices are actual sacrifices, some are a conscious shift in priorities. Although there have been significant improvements made in the past couple of decades of making conditions more equal, there are certain realities families have to face. In a lot of cases, women are still primary caregivers to a newborn, which makes the choice quite “simple”. Furthermore, not all families can afford external help and, for a lot of them, fathers still have higher income, hence making the analysis of “who should stay home” for the purposes of household income rather “simple”, yet again.
There are further cases to look at and understand, like personal situations, cultural expectations, economic pressure, etc., to fully grasp the choices or sacrifices people make at times. I would imagine we could work on improving a lot of them or at least minimise their effect, but won’t be able to completely eliminate all of them.
There are also plenty of cases that I have personally encountered where the choice is a result of a shift of priorities. Those aren’t the cases of sacrifice, but rather a redirection, at least for a given period of time. I believe we should be inclusive of those choices as well.
I don’t use the mind frame of “this or that for the rest of my life” for the majority of decisions I make, either career or personal wise. It puts too much pressure on a given decision and it’s also not realistic in most of the cases. Let’s focus on the long haul. We are lucky enough to be able to plan a lot of events in our lives, like when it comes to timing having children, in a vast number of countries, so let’s take advantage of that to the degree that is possible.
Empowering women in Finance: the importance of diverse and inclusive corporate cultures
Are the companies solely responsible for these changes or do governments have a role to play as well?
I don’t believe companies are solely responsible for the changes. At the end of the day, at first you operate in a given structure, often needing to abide by the laws of a given country.
Companies do have a choice — within legal bounds, of course — to make the environment more inclusive and diversified as I believe it is easier and quicker to change rules in a given company than a whole country.
Did the companies you worked at before have Diversity and Inclusion Policies? Do you believe they helped women like yourself achieve higher positions in those organisations?
I am certain that corporations I worked for had those policies. I am not sure the scale ups did have a separate document for it, it was rather embedded in the company’s values and culture.
I do believe the implementation of those principles helps — or at the least, doesn’t preclude — women from progressing in their careers. The awareness of a potential or current problem and implementation of a solution is always key in cases like these.
You’ve worked in many different countries, have you noticed any significant differences in the way women are perceived in Finance between them?
I have had a chance to live in four different countries and worked in three, and there are certainly differences between them. But I don’t believe my sample is enough to make a statement on this. I have mostly worked in either European offices of American corporations or scale-ups. Both present quite an international environment, leading to a mixture of local culture, parent company culture and internal culture.
I can, however, say that conditions, social norms and expectations towards women do vary in the countries that I have lived in, based on my experience, knowledge and understanding. I believe the Netherlands to have the highest degree of equality from the countries I have personally experienced.
“Companies do have a choice to make the environment more inclusive and diversified.”
At the Board of Innovation, the Exec team was 50% male/female, and you found the same at Rydoo, when you joined. How does it feel to work with a team where this balance has been reached?
I have to be honest and explain that, historically, my ability to work well and form a good professional or personal relationship with a given person rarely has a strong correlation with them being of a certain gender. Therefore, I can’t claim that my experience in the Board of Innovation was better or worse than my previous experience, where I was the sole woman on the exec team, due to that split.
Nevertheless, I do want to emphasise that working in a company that understands and strives towards diversity and inclusivity is of the highest importance to me. The environment you work in plays a very big role in your life, work and happiness, therefore I do try to be diligent about mine.
Do you believe Women in Finance such as yourself are an example to other women who are just starting their careers? How?
I am realistic enough to understand that I am nowhere near being in a spot in my life to state to all the aspiring women to “do as I did”. However, I do believe that representation matters a lot.
Maybe seeing me would change the mind of at least a girl or woman who is thinking that finance is just for men. Maybe a talent who is thinking of joining a company can feel more comfortable seeing diversity in the leadership team in general, and in Finance specifically.
Moreover, I do take it very seriously when it comes to offering equal opportunity in workplaces that I am part of. If nothing else, that is one drop in a bucket of striving to do better for future generations.
Can you give some examples of actions you’ve taken?
There was this one time when I needed to hire someone for my team and I was asked if I wanted to target the position specifically to women, and I said no. I wanted all candidates to have equal opportunities, regardless of their gender.
I’m not necessarily worried about creating more opportunities faster. I want it to be systematic. In the end, I chose a girl, but because she was good at her job, the best out of everyone I talked to. Moreover, I was extremely serious about training my team members (most of them are women), either personally or obtaining external training for them. I’ve also allocated time to build up their confidence so that they would be strong and confident to take the next steps in their careers.
What advice would you like to have received when you first started your career?
I would have to split this into three categories. First, there’s the advice that I was given and that guided me through life.
Like when my mother used to tell me that, if I ever got rejected from a job or promotion, I shouldn’t think that it happened because I was of a certain gender, age, race, etc. “That should never be your default thought”, she would say. You can’t and shouldn’t have to change those things for a job. Think of something you could improve or add to make you unrejectable next time. And if the rejection was truly due to the conditions that are beyond your control, be thankful, you wouldn’t want to work in that environment in the first place.
Something that I was also told growing up is that if work occupies so many of our waking hours, we should take pride in what we do. Set higher standards, be more inquisitive and strive for better. And if things don’t turn out the way you expected them to, don’t freak out: we’re here for the long haul. Go through your emotions, take a breath, take a step back, re-evaluate and pivot! In the end, it’s up to you to make it happen.
Also, keep in mind that it’s close to impossible to maintain the work-life balance at 50%/50% at all times. So learn to prioritise, but never let one aspect fully dominate your understanding of self.
Then, there’s something I didn’t really resonate with until later on in my career, and that is that you won’t love every job you have. And that’s fine. Analyse and understand one, two or three skills that you are obtaining in your current position and would be valuable long-term, and focus on those.
And finally, two things I’ve learned along the way. First, don’t be afraid to ask for help. But, before you do, try to find the solution on your own. That will allow you to understand the logic behind solving a similar problem in the future and it can potentially impress the person you are asking for advice when you present them with your findings.
Second, if you are in a position to choose your work environment, be picky. Your colleagues, manager and company culture will have a much higher impact on your job satisfaction than the work itself.