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Women join the financial advice diaspora

During the five years that Linda McLaren used to travel to some of the riskier corners of Africa on business, on behalf of the financial service products suppliers she then worked for, she used to tell people she would meet during the course of her travels that she was there “visiting friends”.

Women join the financial advice diaspora


“I wouldn’t tell anyone I worked for a bank,” McLaren, who now treks throughout Asia in a similar business development role for VAM funds, explains. “You have to be aware of potential dangers, like kidnapping.”

In Nairobi, which she used to travelled to fairly often, McLaren found herself a local driver she could trust, who would ferry her around to all her appointments, and even fetch her directly from the dining room in restaurants rather than have her be alone outside even for a minute.

Although she also visited such other African cities as Johannesburg, Gaborone (Botswana) and Lusaka (Zambia), McLaren drew the line altogether at travelling to Nigeria, which tops the expatriate kidnappings league tables –  although she felt guilty about this at the time, and clearly still does.

A man in her position, she says, contemplatively, might have gone to Lagos at least anyway, in spite of the kidnapping risk.

The ‘What would a man do’ dilemma

Such soul-searching – also known as the What Would a Man Do in The Same Situation Dilemma – is not unique to women in the world of offshore financial services; nor is it even necessarily limited to women. (Some men wrestle with “What Would Another Man Do”.) Nevertheless, it is something many women in the mostly-male world of offshore finance say they often face.

Of course, as McLaren and most other female denizens of the business class departure lounge are quick to point out, just because you’re female does not automatically mean that you have things tougher than a bloke would in every situation, even though this is often the case.

Sometimes, they say, it’s easier: You get noticed more quickly, you are remembered better, your doors get opened for you, your bags get carried to your room.

The main downside, particularly for young and attractive women like McLaren, is that you may have to work harder to prove that you know what you’re talking about.

Explains Sarah Lord, who since 2009 has been financial planning director of London-based Killik & Co’s Dubai office, and who is one of the United Arab Emirates’ only female wealth managers catering to expatriates: “Sometimes you get a sort of ‘What could you possibly know’ attitude from potential clients.”

Still other times, women in the offshore financial advisory world say, they feel they are in completely uncharted territory, and having to use their own judgement in awkward or potentially dangerous situations in which they might be tempted to push ahead just to prove that they really are a man’s equal.

Entertaining clients, for example, is an area in which female IFAs cannot simply behave as though they were a man, notes Victoria Lewis, a France-based adviser of expatriates with the Spectrum IFA Group.

“I know very few women [IFAs] who would invite a male client or male business partner to go to a pub or watch a football match or car-racing event”, the way male IFAs typically do, she notes, adding that this difference applies to IFAs working in Britain as well.

“Women have to remain 100% professional at all times, otherwise it could be interpreted incorrectly.”

In addition to such considerations, there are myriad other challenges women in the offshore financial services industry describe: from the normal working woman pressures of balancing the demands of one’s high-pressure job with those of being a spouse and a parent, to less obvious ones.

If you are single, for example, some note, it can be difficult to meet someone even remotely compatible and unattached in the closed, mostly-married and gossipy expatriate bubble in which you live. 

If you already are married, it can be difficult in certain jurisdictions, such as Dubai, to form friendships with other women, since so few expat wives there work, and those who don’t tend to do their socialising with one another during the day.

Still others describe the regret of seeing their young children growing up thousands of miles from their grandparents, cousins and other relatives back home.

For some who intend to remain abroad, meanwhile, there are also worries about who will look after their aging parents down the road.

Numbers of women in offshore finance rising

Whatever the inherent difficulties, sources in all the jurisdictions surveyed  report that the number of women working in the world of offshore finance, advice and wealth management is slowly but inexorably rising, as demand for financial services in these markets grows.

In part the market is growing as a result of a continuous stream of retirees from such developed countries as Britain, the US and Canada, but more and more it is also due to a stampede over the last decade or so by business executives and their families from these same countries, as part of the global shift of wealth and industry towards the so-called emerging markets of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

Men still vastly outnumber women in financial service industry and advisory jobs in these regions, of course, but by all accounts the percentage of females in these roles is climbing, while at the same time, the roles they are taking on are increasingly important.

“In 2001 I was the only woman IFA working with expatriate clients in Thailand that I was aware of, and it was years before I heard of another,” says Judy Blair, a Kuwait-born Briton who settled down to a career in advising in Bangkok after around five years “backpacking, underwater filming  and cris-crossing the Pacific on yachts”. (Fortunately for Blair she completed a Masters in finance at Strathclyde University Business School before hitting the hippie trail.)  

Now, though, Blair says, she is no longer Thailand’s only female adviser, in part thanks to the company she and two (male) partners founded in 2004, Bangkok-based Infinity Financial Solutions, which employs some 32 consultants working out of three Southeast Asia cities – of which four consultants, including herself, are women.

Top offshore posts

Women are making strides in other key jurisdictions as well, and increasingly, are taking top roles. Last month, Guernsey Finance, the marketing arm of Guernsey’s financial services industry, announced that it was appointing a female KPMG executive, Fiona Le Poidevin, to be deputy chief executive, and the likely successor to the organisation’s soon-to-retire CEO Peter Niven.

Over the past two years, both Guernsey Finance and Jersey Finance have hired women to head up their marketing offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong; the Association of the Luxembourg Funds Industry last September similarly named a woman to oversee its new Hong Kong office.

Rachel Panagiodis, managing director of Hansard Europe, was named chairman of the Association of International Life Offices in November 2009. An American woman, Tamara Menteshvili, is chief executive of the Guernsey-based Channel Island Stock Exchange, while over on the Isle of Man, a local woman, Anne Craine, last year succeeded Allan Bell as treasurer. 

Such progress is particularly noteworthy now, as commentators continue to ponder the significance of an edict issued before the most recent World Economic Forum session in Davos, which called for at least 20% of the delgates to be women.  

Spectrum sees increase

Anne Ollerenshaw, one of three founders and partners in Spectrum, the Europe-focused IFA group, said that at a Spectrum conference in Berlin in January, five of the top 30 advisers (the only ones allowed to attend the annual event) were female; in all seven previous years, no more than two women had been present (besides Ollerenshaw herself).

“This is great news for us,” Ollerenshaw says, adding that Spectrum is also being approached by more and more women interested in joining the organisation.

“Our client base is changing as well. More and more professional women are looking to organise their own financial planning, and we feel it is important for them to meet advisers who are able to empathise with them completely”.

Early doyenne of offshore financial services

One of the first women to achieve prominence in the offshore world of modern financial services was Connie Helyar, a Guernsey native (and former Miss Guernsey), who founded International Private Equity Services in 1998 with partner Peter Gillson, to supply administrative services to private equity funds.  In 2008, she and Gillson sold the company, now known as Ipes, to buyout firm RJD Partners for what was reported at the time to have been around £22m.

Helyar says the workplace environment for women has changed “dramatically” since she started out.
Back then, “the rules had only just changed to allow married women to continue working after their marriage. Forget about maternity leave and child care, and of course we didn’t get equal pay,” Helyar, who began her career in banking in the 1960s, says.

“However, even in a small place like Guernsey, the Sixties brought change, and progress.”

One advantage to small offshore financial jurisdictions like Guernsey, Helyar notes, is that there is often a shortage of qualified staff, so the emphasis among those who are recruiting is “not on the sex of the person in question but on their ability”.

“The disadvantages are, I think, the same as everywhere else, in that a woman still has to be good at her job, and make sacrifices and compromises when it comes to family life.”

Why they stay

As for the reasons women stay abroad in spite of the difficulties, there is unanimity: it is exciting, and often, there is an element of challenge that they say rarely exists back home. (Although for some, of course, like Helyar, the offshore jurisdiction already is home.)

“I love pushing myself to the limits, trying something new, and I can’t see myself [ever] going back to the UK [to live]”, says Vanessa Vrdoljak, a Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam-based consultant with Infinity Financial Solutions.

An adventurous type – like many of the women in the offshore financial advice sector – Vrdoljak, who is not married, is philosophical about the potential dangers of frontier life, noting that she was “held up at gunpoint several times” while travelling through South America, and that she was caught up in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 (“my hotel room looked onto the back of the Taj Mahal Hotel”).

She says she doesn’t know whether she’ll end up spending the rest of her life in Vietnam, and if not, where she’ll eventually end up.

“I see myself retiring in Southeast Asia, but I have no specific country in mind yet.” 

Pam Wager, who came to Southeast Asia seven months ago from the UK, where she was a financial adviser for 13 years, is also in no hurry to come home. She is based in Kuala Lumpur, with Asia-specialists Three Sixty Financial, and says she is "having a great time", even though she is single, in an expat world full of couples and young backpackers. 

"On the other hand, all of my friends [here who] are married include me without a second thought, and it is much easier to make friends here, as we are all in the same boat without our support networks of family and friends," she adds.

"All in all, I am having a ball."


Offshore women’s organisations




Dubai Business Women Council (2002)

Membership open to women "in various economic sectors"; helps them to liaise with the Dubai Chambers of Commerce & Industry


Dubai Media City-based organisation for all women "looking to relocate to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the Northern Emirates or Qatar". It provides guides and advice on schools, housing, relocation issues and removal services

International Business Women’s Group

A UAE busienss network for professional business women; members must be ‘decision makers’, such as proprietors, partners, directors, general managers and senior level management

Women in Business(IoM)

A support, development and networking group, set up in 2008; open to "collaborate with [other] existing groups"

Women in Professions (2006)

 (under construction)

Professional networking organisation open to women in senior positions, contingent on committee approval

 (If you are part of an organisation that is not listed here and would like it to be added, please email 






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