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APRA Deputy Chair, Helen Rowell - Speech to the Women in Financial Services Awards

Tuesday 11 September 2018

Diversity matters

Helen Rowell, Deputy Chairman – Women in Financial Services Awards, Sydney

Good evening. It is a pleasure to be with you and share an evening amongst some very impressive women who have made significant contributions to the financial sector. I understand that the awards tonight have been reshaped to better reflect women who help lift each other up, and allow better recognition of those who may do that in understated ways. I see that as an important step and one that accords very much with APRA’s approach to supporting and uplifting its people through an ongoing focus on inclusion and diversity initiatives.

I look forward to the awards announcements in just a little while and want to take the opportunity to acknowledge in advance not only the winners of the respective awards, but also the nominees, for their outstanding contribution to the financial services industry.  

It is an interesting time to be addressing the industry, as we face into the current environment of mistrust, and intense scrutiny and criticism of the financial sector, including its regulators. As APRA’s Chairman, Wayne Byres, noted earlier this week, the broader community has lost confidence that the financial sector understands and acknowledges the privileged position that it holds in society, and the obligations that come with it. The issues being examined by the financial services Royal Commission are at the front and centre of the public’s consciousness, and how the industry responds from here will be key to regaining community trust. As Wayne noted, it is not APRA’s role to regain trust for the industry; rather, the industry needs to sustain and earn that trust through its own actions.

Nevertheless, the Royal Commission is causing APRA to reflect on whether we need to change our approach in some areas. Hopefully everyone across the industry is undertaking similar reflection, as a change of mindset is needed to clearly put the interests of the customers and communities that institutions serve at the forefront of business decision-making. 

The cases that have been the focus of the Royal Commission have overshadowed the enormous good the financial sector does for the majority of consumers. We should not lose sight of this important context, particularly tonight as we celebrate the hard work of the talented women in the industry; work that supports the industry to achieve its core purpose: meeting the needs of the Australian people. 

As I look around the room, I’m sure each of you has a personal story of courage, hard work, dedication, commitment, satisfaction or pride as you reflect on the impact you have made across your career. I have been asked to share a little of my story with you tonight.    

However I also want to talk about something else that I am very passionate about – and that is the importance of promoting diversity of thought, perspectives and approaches to support better decision-making in the financial sector. We all need to take concrete steps to tap into and leverage the ideas of all of those who make up our workforce and community – whether women or men; younger or older; Australian or from other cultures; and whatever their family structures and relationships. How do we help everyone find and use their voice, contribute to their full potential and enable the financial sector to make better decisions and deliver better customer outcomes?

Personal insights

But let me start with my story.

I began my career as a young actuary at AMP and then an actuarial consultant at Towers Perrin, where I stayed for 17 years and ultimately became a partner of the firm. As a teenager I was shy, somewhat nerdy, and lacking in confidence. I liked maths and ancient history and had no real idea of what career I should pursue. I didn’t know what an actuary was, but after encouragement from my maths teacher, and with an actuarial scholarship from AMP, I embarked on the path to qualifying as an actuary and embarking on my career in financial services.

When I went through university and then joined the actuarial profession and financial services industry, women were somewhat of a rarity – especially at senior levels. So it was a bit daunting for me at the time, as a young actuarial consultant advising senior people in various organisations about their superannuation and employee benefit arrangements. I was very fortunate, however, to have people within the firm who believed in and supported me, and gave me many opportunities to develop the skills and experience that would stand me in good stead as I advanced my career.  

While the diversity picture across the industry has changed today, it has not changed as much as I and others in the industry would like to see. Further progress is needed on gender diversity at senior levels in many organisations, as highlighted most recently by the Chief Executive Women (CEW) ASX200 Senior Executive Census 2018 results.

My move to APRA in 2002 was a real change of career direction, as the role was a much broader one across all APRA-regulated industries. It also involved joining a public sector organisation that at the time was the subject of significant public criticism and scrutiny, following the failure of HIH.

It was a difficult decision for me to make – indeed some of those closest to me advised me against taking the role! But the opportunity arose when I had been reflecting for some time on what I wanted to do with my career, and aligned well with my desire to be more directly and actively engaged in influencing policy and practices in the financial sector. So while the change pushed me well and truly outside of my comfort zone, and I needed to have confidence that my skills and capabilities could make a valuable contribution in such a different organisation, it just felt right.

There have been many challenges in my different roles at APRA over the past 16 years, the most significant probably being at the height of the global financial crisis, but I am very happy that I made the leap into a different career direction. At APRA, I have again been fortunate to have many individuals – men and women – at all levels of the organisation who have encouraged and supported me on a journey of incredible learning, and through many professional and personal challenges.

The support of many outside  APRA has also been critical throughout my career – family, friends and colleagues. I think we all know how important it is to have trusted people to rely on when needed – whether for advice and insights, listening when you want to download or to give you a hug to lift your spirits!

I am a strong believer in giving back – in helping others to grow and succeed in their chosen path. I have always tried to make the time to be available and provide support and encouragement to others, irrespective of their role or level, and even when they may have moved on to other organisations. And so I look with great pride at the career achievements of many of the fabulous women (and men!) that I have worked with at both Towers Perrin and APRA, and would like to think that I may have played some small part in their success.

There are two key things that I would encourage each of you to think about as you move through your careers.

The first is the importance of self-belief. You need to have confidence that your skills and experience can be used to take on and succeed in many different roles, and be prepared to take some risks and step outside your comfort zone, no matter how daunting that may seem. A few months into my new role at APRA back in 2002, and in a number of the different roles that I have had since at APRA , there were moments when my self-belief wavered and I wondered what on earth I was doing there. Those are the times when you need to take a deep breath, and look to your trusted supporters to provide encouragement and the confidence that you need to keep going.

The second is the importance of being authentic – particularly as a leader – and bringing your true self to everything that you do. That means being open and honest about your strengths and areas of opportunity; after all, we can all learn and improve and none of us have all the answers. I think it also means being open to showing your vulnerabilities and emotions at times. I regularly talk at work about my family and children, share my worries and personal challenges and often shed a tear at APRA events when I am acknowledging the achievements and contribution of our staff. To me, dropping the mask and showing the real “you” is a sign of strength and lets people know that you genuinely care.

I am looking forward to hearing the stories behind some of the awards tonight, and particularly those that recognise the uplifting of others. It is these contributions, some of which might appear relatively small, that can matter the most.    

Diversity of thought

I’d like to turn now and make some comments on the importance of promoting diversity of thought, perspectives and approaches and how, in my view, that supports better decision-making.

At the heart of some of the poor practices that have become public in recent times is organisational culture – indicated by a lack of openness to challenge, different perspectives or approaches and, perhaps more importantly, by not responding quickly to fully address poor practices and outcomes for consumers when identified. These attributes are reflective of a culture that is unlikely to be clearly putting the customers and communities that the institution serves at the forefront of business decision-making.

There is likely to be some correlation, in my view, between organisations that put high value on delivering good outcomes for their customers or members, and those that have a strong emphasis on embedding an internal culture that values diversity and inclusion. If an organisation doesn’t place importance on treating its employees fairly and equitably, then I’d suggest it is also less likely to treat its customers fairly and equitably.

I’d like to think that the case for diversity of thought improving decision-making and outcomes has been well made by many others, through a wide range of previously published research and analysis, and so I don’t propose to go into detail on that this evening. Certainly APRA sees significant benefits in fully harnessing the rich store of experience, skill and wisdom that exists within its workforce, to ensure that the many complex judgements and decisions that we need to make are well founded and reflect a diversity of perspectives.     

Let me give you some insights into what APRA is doing on inclusion and diversity within our organisation.

A few years ago, APRA reviewed how we faired on inclusion and diversity measures, including equality of treatment and opportunity and respect for others across the organisation.  We knew we had room to improve, and identified a number of areas where we had work to do. 

APRA’s executive team set about making changes. The three APRA Members, our Chairman Wayne Byres, APRA Member Geoff Summerhayes and I, conducted a series of Town Hall meetings with all staff where we talked about what needed to change and made a commitment to lead that change. We formed an Inclusion and Diversity Council to develop a clear strategy for tackling the issues we wanted to address. And we ensured the Council comprised a mix of senior executives and staff from across APRA that could represent the needs of the different groups we identified as requiring greater focus and attention. 

An early action was to develop a vision for inclusion and diversity that would resonate with our staff and key stakeholders, and clearly convey what we were seeking to achieve:

“We embrace differences and work together, to achieve great outcomes for APRA and the Australian community”. 

We also felt it was important to take a holistic approach, led from the top of the organisation and cascaded through all levels of management, which sought to ensure fairness and equity for all APRA staff in relation to recruitment and promotion, learning and development, performance management and career opportunities, and reward and recognition. Our focus has also been, and remains, on fostering an inclusive leadership culture across the organisation and strengthening our leadership capabilities.

Our Inclusion and Diversity (I&D) Strategy has involved actions under a number of different streams, including gender, age, multiculturalism, LGBTQI, disability and Indigenous reconciliation. We established short- and medium-term areas of focus with specific actions in each area, and were clear about the steps we would take, measures of success (through establishing measurable targets where possible) and who was accountable. Progress was regularly reported to the I&D Council, the APRA People Committee (which I chair), and our Executive board. We’ll always have more to do, but good progress has been made in many areas and the support and focus across the organisation continues.

We are currently updating our strategy, to reflect the progress made and priorities for the next 12 – 24 months. But the underpinning principles and approach – and our vision for I&D at APRA – remain the same.   

Turning to some of our specific actions on gender equity, we have placed greater emphasis on ensuring we achieve increased gender balance in senior leadership positions, and sought to create a more inclusive working environment for women. While APRA has always had a reasonably even gender balance across most of its workforce, the participation of women higher up through the ranks tapers off markedly, and reflects a similar pattern in peer regulators (and many other organisations) here and offshore. 

At the moment, the representation of women in senior levels at APRA is 28 per cent and we have an internal target of 40 per cent with an improvement year-on-year of 10 per cent as a key KPI. But the dial is proving hard to shift. 

In addition to setting and measuring progress against targets, we have also improved our recruitment and promotion practices for increased transparency and consistency, including a goal of at least half of applicants for senior executive positions being female, gender diverse interview panels and a multi-stage process to promote enhanced diversity of input into these important decisions. We have also undertaken remuneration equity reviews, with a particular focus on those staff that have taken career breaks.

APRA has also initiated a network for women, named Aspire, with its main purpose to create a workplace where women feel valued and empowered to reach their full potential, in an environment of equality, support, flexibility and development. The members of this group are women and men from across APRA, and it has been very active in running a series of events, lunchtime workshops and other awareness campaigns to influence change. (We have similar networks for each of our other I&D streams.)

We also made a seemingly small, but significant, change to our flexible work policy. APRA has always had very good flexible work arrangements but our review revealed some lack of consistency in take-up and perceived availability. Flexibility is a key enabler of career progression and inclusion, not only for women but for all people with different caring responsibilities or other needs that require greater flexibility in ways of working. By shifting the policy to an “if not, why not?” approach that made approval of flexible work arrangements the norm, and more widely promoting the availability of the many different types of flexible work arrangements that could be used, we have seen a significant increase in take up across the organisation – by both women and men.   

Our journey will be ongoing, and APRA is determined to continue down the path of embracing difference – which we believe will lead to positive outcomes for our people, and also better outcomes for the community.  We want to lead the way in this area, to ensure that our culture reflects the sort of culture that we would expect to see across the financial sector. 


As I said at the start, the recent public view on the financial sector has not been what any of us think it should be. It is clear that change is needed to decision-making in many organisations, to embrace openness to challenge and genuinely place customers at the centre of decision-making. It is time for the financial sector to step up, own its problems and address culture and diversity as important elements in the quest to regain the trust of the Australian community. 

That means continuing to recognise and uplift women – and indeed all those who are not achieving their full potential. As I said earlier, we all need to take concrete steps to tap into and leverage the ideas of all of those that make up our workforce and community – whether women or men; younger or older; Australian or from other cultures; and whatever their family structures and relationships.

What will you do to ensure everyone in the industry can contribute to their full potential and enable the financial sector to make better decisions and deliver better customer outcomes? 

Let me end by again congratulating the soon-to-be-revealed recipients of tonight’s awards and thank you for the opportunity to be with you.

And I’ll leave you with a saying that I really like, and that I hope may encourage and support you as you continue through your career: 

“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying I will try again tomorrow.”

Thank you.

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) is the prudential regulator of the financial services industry. It oversees banks, credit unions, building societies, general insurance and reinsurance companies, life insurance, private health insurers, friendly societies, and most members of the superannuation industry. APRA currently supervises institutions holding $6 trillion in assets for Australian depositors, policyholders and superannuation fund members.