Michelle Sampson shares her experience as a woman in the finance industry

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Hitachi Energy FD Michelle Sampson talks about the advancement of women in finance.

It is the year 2023, but there is still a dearth of female workers among the upper ranks of financial management and investment services. Deloitte did a baseline analysis of women in leadership roles across financial services and found that within these institutions, women held 21 percent of board seats, 19 percent of C-suite roles, and five percent of CEO positions globally in 2021.

Their report showed how important the advancement of gender equity across the industry is. The gender gap is also not exclusive to finance. According to Women in Tech SA, only 23 percent of tech jobs are held by women in South Africa – out of 236,000 ICT (tech) roles, women occupy 56,000 of them.

One woman who does pave the way for other women in finance and technology and who has advanced to the top echelons, is Michelle Sampson, the finance director at Hitachi Energy South Africa and Southern Africa. She says that gender gaps are closing, but there are still challenges that need to be addressed.

“I work in the finance and technology industries, and both have made leaps and bounds from before. Most companies today have diversity, equity and inclusion programmes, but we need to monitor it carefully to see if we are improving and what we need to do to fill in those gaps.

“I think that finance has evolved a bit more than the technology sector, but there are still barriers of gender bias and stereotypes. There are not a lot of role models, or people that you can soundboard that look like you. It is getting better though and as a company, we recognise those barriers, and we try to mitigate them.”

Michelle herself has found the finance industry a tough place to ascend. “My first challenge was being a black female in the industry. When I started out and qualified as a chartered accountant, there weren’t many of us. It was difficult to be taken seriously and I always had to prove myself. There were many stereotypes about my race and gender, but of course, it is better now, and I have also become more agile in navigating it.”

Having a unique female perspective has shaped Michelle’s experience as a woman in the industry.

“Someone once gave me advice to lead from the heart. And I truly feel that being female has allowed me to do that. It’s about being authentic and to walk the talk and to be nurturing and empathetic. For me, it is important to be self-aware and to be strong enough to say no when I have to. I think being a woman, together with my upbringing, has allowed me to navigate my workplace a little bit differently than maybe my male counterparts do.”

Practising what you preach

Hitachi is contributing to UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls, by increasing its female diversity from 19 percent to 25 percent by 2025 and championing its Diversity 360 approach.

“We embrace the global Diversity 360 pillar locally as well. It makes diversity and inclusion the centre of everything we do, because we believe that diversity equals more collaboration and. ultimately, innovation. It is really enforced and touches on every other area from a strategic perspective in our business.

“As part of our Diversity 360 programme, I would say that we have a holistic approach. We have a women’s development programme, where we send talented women to Women in Business leadership courses. We also have soft programmes where we bring people in to talk about health and wellness. We follow a skills-based approach, do gap analysis and ensure that women are trained in areas that they previously had no access to. We have many initiatives for women, including a mentorship programme and education trust to assist with bursaries to females in the STEM sector.”

Michelle also hosts a Women in Finance quarterly breakfast. “It’s a place where we can all engage and talk about what is important to us. It doesn't matter which level of business you operate in. We brainstorm, and soundboard, and we usually find through these discussions that we actually have so much in common, and we can learn so much from each other.”

For women to succeed in finance, they need a growth-mindset, says Michelle. “You also need to be resilient, be confident and surround yourself with supportive people who can give you good feedback. You need to have some sort of soft landing. I also think just looking after yourself, knowing when to say no and knowing when to speak up. Gone are the days of burnout: people need to look after themselves. You should put your oxygen mask on first to really navigate all the issues that you will encounter.”

Michelle’s advice for future finance leaders

  • Be authentic, be yourself and know what you want.
  • Understand that your journey is very different to everybody else's. I often see people with self-esteem issues because they compare their journey to other’s.
  • Be a forever student.
  • Always have a great work-ethic.
  • Take on opportunities and do everything to the best of your ability.
  • Be patient and do the work.
  • Give back. I'm very passionate about giving a leg up to someone else. Always make sure that you are assisting other people to be empowered.

Work-life integration

“I gave a talk the other day and said that there is no balance,” mentions Michelle.

“I think work and life are intrinsically linked. It is not mutually exclusive, and the key is how to navigate that. If you are happy at work, you will be happy at home and vice versa. Flexibility is the key.

“I make time for tennis, running and being a class mom for my kids. When I am at work, I am present and when I am at home, I put my phone away and try to be present with my 10- and 13-year-old. Obviously, there are times that I must work when they go to bed. It is also important for me to find joy even when I’m travelling for work. It could be finding a lovely restaurant or going sightseeing.”

Michelle loves trail running, cooking, and travelling and she tries to do all of them on trips. “I will maybe do a trail run, see a beautiful place and try the local cuisine.” Her personal bucket list includes half marathons across the world.

She also has a bucket list for work. “I just want to do what I do best and have a global outlook. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do that within Hitachi. And, also, by doing that, I can still have a very good local impact. I also want to mentor more, to empower more women, and to use the opportunity to showcase South Africa in a positive light. Of course, there are many South Africans and southern Africans who, from a business perspective, have made strides overseas and I would also like to contribute to this positive narrative about South Africa.”

It may be part of her bucket list, but Michelle Sampson is already contributing to that positive narrative, and part of it is being a role model to future women leaders in finance and technology.

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