Trailblazer: Shriti Vadera is the only female chair of a British bank
Shriti Vadera has been shattering glass ceilings and defying stereotypes her entire life. She is the first – and so far the only – female chair of a British bank, after being appointed to lead the board of Santander UK in 2014, making her one of the most powerful women in the UK finance industry.
Baroness Vadera – though she rarely uses the title – cut a swathe through the ranks of grey men in Whitehall as an adviser to Gordon Brown during the financial crisis, when he was Prime Minister.
She began her career at investment bank Warburg after graduating from Somerville College, Oxford and battled her way to the top in the notoriously sexist City of the 1980s and 1990s.
Now she is being spoken of as a candidate to be the first female Governor of the Bank of England – which would be a break with a 300-year line of men.
The Bank has come in for criticism recently for the lack of women at senior levels and on the Monetary Policy Committee that sets interest rates. So is it time for a female Governor when Mark Carney steps aside next year – and would she like the job?
‘The Bank needs more senior women in all of its areas, it’s not just a question of the Governor. It is a very uncertain time at the moment, not least in monetary policy so it is more important to find the best person for the job,’ she says in a rare interview.
Nice swerve, but would she like to do it? ‘I would like the best person for the job to do it and I can think of many better people than me,’ she counters, with a smile.
In the early days of her career the thought of any woman becoming Governor would have been outlandish. Vadera, 56, says sexism was much more overt when she started out in the City. ‘It toughened me up, but it is not fair and not right. When I look at all the gender issues we faced, the point is that later generations of women should not have to.’
She is adamant that inequality is not just a women’s issue, and says the unfairnesses will never be erased without the support of men.
‘It is never going to happen without men buying in to it. Never. Whenever I give talks as I do frequently, I always ask where are the men in the room.
‘What are the barriers for women? It’s definitely not simple because if it were, we would have solved it. This is about the wider society, about how women are perceived, how they perceive themselves, the roles they play, what is seen to be feminine and masculine, the balance with family life and bringing up kids. There is no magic bullet.’
At Santander UK, she says, there are extensive measures including a ban on all male interview panels and a leadership programme for more than 200 women. She also points to the way language is used negatively for women and positively for men. ‘There are still words – like strident, or feisty – that are used for women and show unconscious bias,’ she says.
One of a wave of Asians who came to this country from Uganda to flee Idi Amin, she was shaped by her childhood. Her well-to-do family first went to India, where, arriving in Mumbai, she says it was ‘a real shock to see the poverty. It left a huge mark on me, seeing how they took kids on the street and maimed them so they could beg.’
Another early experience that left a deep impression was as a very young child when she found her nanny crying because she didn’t have the money to send her children to school. ‘I went to my granny – I must have had some rudimentary grasp of economics because I knew granny had money. The worry was that my nanny’s husband would drink or gamble away anything she gave him, so my granny arranged to pay the money directly to the school. It made me realise education means freedom and also you can’t really change the world without education.’
Shortly after she joined Brown’s Government as Baroness Vadera of Holland Park, the world financial system plunged into turmoil. She was one of the key group of people who put together the rescue packages that saved Lloyds and RBS – and with them the whole UK economy. It’s almost exactly a decade now since the financial crisis, but the memory remains vivid.
‘It was never about saving the banks. It was about saving the economy from the banks. It was about avoiding the 1930s and the Great Depression,’ she says.
‘I don’t think I had ever been so frightened in my life. But the important thing was not to show it because the whole package was about confidence.
‘There was never a moment’s respite. We had Blackberries back then and mine was primed to alert me to certain financial indicators and it would keep going off during the night,’ she says. ‘That tension and total awareness are hard to switch off. When I left in autumn 2009 I had nightmares. It stays with you.’
How does she think Brown will be judged by history for the role he played during the crisis? ‘He was the right man for the moment. There were people who understood the politics, people who understood the economics, and people who understood international negotiations, but only one leader internationally combined an understanding of all of that and it was Gordon Brown.’
Inspiration: The ‘Man In The Arena’ speech by US President Theodore Roosevelt
HOW SHRITI WAS INSPIRED BY ROOSEVELT’S ‘MAN IN THE ARENA’ SPEECH FROM 1910
Lives: West London.
Car: Does not own a car.
Marital status: Single.
Day in the life: Training or yoga before work, then into the office (whichever one it is that day), often followed by a dinner in the evening.
Best advice ever received: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.
Best tip for the top: Follow your passion.
Ideal dinner guests, dead or alive: Leonardo da Vinci, 18th Century economist Adam Smith.
Ideal dinner guest: Leonardo da Vinci,
Inspiration: The ‘Man In The Arena’ speech by US President Theodore Roosevelt at the Sorbonne, Paris, 1910:
‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.’
Career: Chairman of Santander since April 2015, having previously served as a non-executive director and deputy chair. Vadera was an investment banker with SG Warburg/UBS from 1984 to 1999. She served on the Council of Economic Advisers at the Treasury from 1999 to 2007, and was a Government Minister from 2007 to 2009. She is an independent director of mining group BHP Billiton.
She points to the G20 summit in London in 2009, where he persuaded fellow world leaders to back a $1 trillion injection of funds to stabilise the global economy.
‘We had constructed a $1 trillion liquidity package for the world and were negotiating it live, I have never seen the like. That is a story that has not been told.’
Does she worry that the meltdown of ten years ago could happen again? ‘I don’t know where the next one is coming from but there are cyber risks, there is uncertainty in the political environment all over the world and there is increasing financial activity outside the conventional banking system. The banks are ten times better capitalised but I have to tell you there is no shortage of sources of crises in the world.’ As for current preoccupations, Brexit is, naturally, high on the list. She voted Remain but stresses that as a business leader, it is the practicalities that count.
‘People are fixated by the politics, but we have to deal with the pragmatic daily issues. There are real businesses, households and people at the end of this.
‘It is important to have a transition period. If we don’t get one we will have serious problems.
‘The single most important thing the banking sector is focused on is financial stability.
‘If you imagine a world with a complete cliff edge…you could have contracts that stop being valid, you could have, for instance, ten million people in Britain with insurance that originated in Europe that would be invalid if there are no arrangements. You could have trillions of euros of derivatives contracts that technically would be legal but very hard to service. That would create a lot of instability.’
What was the view on the vote from Santander in Madrid, I wonder? ‘A reasonably standard European one of bemusement,’ she says drily.