Alexander Harrison, presently the Country CEO for multinational bank Barclays in Singapore has held several leadership roles at the bank in his two decades of working with them. He also holds additional responsibilities as the Chief Operating Officer, Asia Pacific and Head of Corporate Banking for the Asia Pacific and Middle East regions.
An active supporter of Barclays’ regional citizenship and diversity agenda, he is a member of the Asia Pacific Citizenship Council and Co-Chair of the APAC Women’s Initiatives Network (Win APAC). He is also a former Co-Chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee for the British Chamber of Commerce Singapore, and a Male Champion at the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore.
In this conversation with the Women Icons Network, he talks of why it is important for industries to collaborate and for more men to step forward and be change agents.
Gender Equality at Workplace
Harrison believes that a society is balanced and fair when all your rights, responsibilities and opportunities are not determined by your gender. He finds it unacceptable that even today people cannot be their true selves and have their choices restricted or in some cases completely removed. Fighting for gender equality is the only reasonable and rational thing to do, he emphasizes.
“I think it’s imperative that we improve and enhance the collaboration across various industries; the more collective and aligned scale will be a key enabler to achieving a gender-balanced workforce. We also need to share best practices and ensure that the collaboration happens across all levels in all industries,” he suggests.
He says that global brands like Barclays must be more vocal about such changes within their organisations. Especially, when they identify an area that needs developing and come up with a plan found beneficial to their own employees. “All leaders authentically role model the need to have diversity, equality and parity in their teams,” he asserts. This, he adds, is actioned by making sure your hiring, promotion, rewards, sponsorship, mentoring and development priorities all have gender equality in mind.
Role of Male Allies
In order to achieve any semblance of gender balance, Harrison feels, cultivating supportive male allies in the workplace is important. “I’d strongly encourage men to take action as we should all come together to create positive change, and help to address gender bias in the workplace, becoming better champions and allies for equality,” he adds.
He acknowledges that he may have inadvertently slipped up in his journey of appreciating and understanding a female’s perspective in a work environment. However, once the problem is pointed out, a person must treat it as a learning opportunity where, even if the feedback is uncomfortable, one must absorb, learn and develop. This is the reason he believes that “understanding our own unconscious bias is critical to our personal and professional development.”
In recent years, an increased understanding of the powerful impact of male allies at work and at home has led many organisations to recognise male allies as a critical component of their diversity and inclusion efforts, he informs. “I believe males allies can be agents of change and take active roles in addressing gender inequality at the workplace and in society,” he says. As co-chair of Win APAC, the gender network of his company, attaining more male engagement is one of the key areas he’s working on.
As a strong supporter of diversity and Inclusion in the workplace, Barclays puts in a lot of effort to ensure the bank is a great place to work for women colleagues. Win APAC, for example, is dedicated towards enhancing the work environment with the goal of attracting, retaining and developing women at all levels and career trajectories. It aims to empower women, with the support of male allies, to develop to their fullest potential by helping them navigate and leverage available resources and networking opportunities. They have also done a lot of work externally, supporting the community but really engendering an environment that is supportive in Singapore.
Harrison proudly declares that in the most senior management committee in Singapore, the bank has a very diverse leadership group with a 50:50 gender split. The organisation, he informs, believes in creating an inclusive and supporting culture which it also recognises as being good for business. “It gives us a far better understanding of our people, how the employee landscape is evolving and developing, and what people want and expect from their employers. That understanding is rapidly evolving as we continue to focus on talent attraction and retention, creating an environment where people can bring all of themselves into their workplace,” he explains. He also thinks that it enables employees to really understand clients, customers, and the global communities.
Barclays is the only bank in the top ten among The Straits Times’ Singapore’s Best Employers list for 2021, with an overall sixth rank. The ranking acquires more relevance as it is determined on the basis of votes by employees, former employees and recommendations, which is testament of the supportive and inclusive framework that makes it a good place for employees to be. Harrison sees this as proof that the company is moving in the right direction.
Over the last 18 months, the challenge for most of us has been trying to balance work and personal commitments, believes Harrison. “However, due to women being the primary caregiver in the vast majority of home situations, the heavy burden and pressure has really fallen onto our female colleagues,” he points out.
The forced change in the working environment only seems to have exacerbated the pressure placed on them, he adds, as working expectations haven’t adapted quickly enough to the revised operating rhythm. Something seemingly as simple as a conference call organised during children’s meal times can put a spanner in the works for a working woman, he says.
It is during such times that the company’s commitment to strengthening a supportive and inclusive culture at the workplace comes into play, making concentrated efforts to ensure that the visibility they have enabled for their female talent is not dissipated in this virtual environment. “In fact, during the pandemic period, we saw increased membership in Win APAC, which shows how committed our employees are towards taking positive action in their own spheres of influence,” he informs.
Tackling Future Challenges
Over the years, the corporate world has made great strides towards achieving the goal of a gender balanced workplace, feels Harrison. He also admits the need to work even harder in this direction. In the next decade, he thinks, there will continue to be many issues to address such as awareness around health and wellbeing in the workplace, access to capital, pay equity and the challenges of removing traditional gender roles, to name a few.
A couple of areas that he plans to focus through Barclays Win APAC are intersectionality and broadening the access of STEM for increased women representation.
“I think we need to really recognise that intersectionality around how people identify themselves needs to be fully understood to be a better employer and support our communities,” he shares. When these issues become compounded, it means that some people can be hugely disadvantaged in society and in the workplace environment, he points out. Supporting every employee irrespective of such differences is important, he feels.
Harrison rues the fact that the STEM sector is significantly underweight with regards to female representation. He believes that we need to find a way to attract and build credible, meaningful career prospects in these critical areas. In fact, he adds, Barclays Win APAC has focused on a Women in Technology strategy for 2021 to attract and develop more female talent to their Technology businesses.