Having the right network is key to finding a job in the Swedish finance industry. This creates a more difficult path to employment for minorities. Finansliv has spoken to ten people with minority backgrounds, defined as being born abroad or having at least one parent born abroad, who all testify to a closed banking sector.
The Black Lives Matter movement was a wake-up call for diversity for many people, much like the Me Too movement was for equality. Inclusion and gender distribution is high up on the agenda, even though the finance industry is still far from equal. At the same time, we are beginning to highlight diversity, but there is much that still remains to be done. According to an OECD report from 2020, the finance industry is far down the list in terms of the proportion of employees with a foreign background, in 35th place out of 39 industries.
At the beginning of the year, around ten employees with a minority background, working in Sweden as well as abroad, contacted Finansliv. All of them are highly educated and have different backgrounds and levels of experience. The common denominator is that they were all born abroad or have foreign-born parents. They all testify to the difficulties getting interviews in the Swedish finance industry, and about the importance of networks to get your first job. Many of the people who contacted us wanted to tell their story, but anonymously, they are concerned about what the consequences might be for their work.
Max: Changed his name to get a job
Max is from a medium-sized Swedish town and currently works at a major bank. After graduating abroad, he returned home to apply for work within the finance sector. But the responses from employers failed to materialize. In order to improve his chances, Max continued studying and received his master’s degree from one of the higher ranked universities.
– I thought that it would at least enable me to compete with my peers. But I still got no interviews with any of the major banks, nor at the local bank branch, says Max who normally uses another name.
Instead, the jobs went to friends and acquaintances, whose parents either worked at the bank or were customers.
His first job was at a smaller consultancy firm. Max continued to apply for jobs during his time there, but still received no responses to his applications. This led to him deciding to change his name to a Swedish one.
– I really wanted to work in banking and finance. So, if there was anything that would increase the probability of getting an interview with one of the major banks, I was prepared to do it, he says.
About a month passed, then Max was called to an interview for a job that he had applied for earlier, under his old name, but to which he had not received a response. In the end, he did not get the job, but it made him wonder whether perhaps something was not right.
– What is so strange is that I have been called to interviews with some of the biggest banks in the world, but not to a single interview with any of the major Swedish banks, he says and adds that he will start using his old name again at some point.
On occasion, it has been difficult and frustrating, and Max believes that he would have been able to get into the industry earlier if his circumstances had been different. At the same time, he wants to keep looking forward and eventually take the next step.
– The fact that I am where I am today, is because I never gave up trying, but I have also had people around me who believed in me and who have recommended me to employers. Otherwise, I would not have got this job. It is very difficult to get in if you have no contacts, says Max.
Maria: »The door is closed«
Maria, not her real name, has a similar experience. She moved to Sweden a number of years ago as an exchange student, and currently works at one of the major banks. After completing her studies, she started working for a global company in her native country. Meanwhile, her boyfriend had remained in Sweden, and soon she wanted to move back here. Returning to Sweden was easy for Maria, as she could ask for a transfer within the company. At the same time, Maria is convinced that she would not have got a job if she had applied directly in Sweden.
I do not think it is about skills or know-how, it’s about the network you have.
– I already noticed during my training that the door was closed. I was just fortunate to work for a global company, which meant that I could switch countries.
– I do not think it is about skills or know-how, it’s about the network you have. Swedish is not my native tongue, but in spite of that I managed to complete an educational programme where almost half of the people drop out. Many of my foreign friends from university have tried to get in, but haven’t found jobs, says Maria.
Sara: »You cannot send an anonymous application, but I have thought about doings so«
Sara, who wishes to remain anonymous, is currently trying to get into the industry. She is backed by a good education, professional experience and a number of strong references from the business world, as well as from the legal sector, on her CV. After submitting around 100 applications, she has been called to a handful of interviews.
– I have been to 3–4 interviews. And they weren’t even for jobs that had been advertised. I got those interviews after I contacted them and asked to see someone in a senior position, says Sara and also points out that she has considered changing everything on her CV, such as languages, name and interests.
– You cannot send an anonymous application, but I have thought about doing so, she says
In spite of all that, Sara is hopeful about soon landing her first job in finance. Mostly because the companies she is currently talking to have come through introductions from her references.
– If they had been advertisements, I wouldn’t have applied, she says.
If it doesn’t work out, would you consider applying for work abroad?
– I think that there is a lot of potential in Sweden. We are generally quite open, and sustainability issues are being discussed more and more, which is something I am interested in. I want to be in this market, but I have definitely started looking elsewhere, unfortunately.
Josef: applied for 100 jobs in Sweden – got a job abroad immediately
We will call him Josef, and he is currently in his fourth year abroad. After university studies and an internship as a currency trader in London, his plan was to find a similar job in Sweden.
Josef thought it would be fairly easy, as he had good grades and experience. But it was not.
– I was unemployed for two years. During that time, I applied for approximately 100 jobs. About ten of them led to an interview, but no job offers.
– I don’t know how to explain it, but I applied everywhere. Recruitment agencies, directly to the major banks and to holding companies. It was frustrating. The problem was that I had no contacts in the industry, he says.
Josef started applying for work abroad instead. It did not take long before a headhunter contacted him, and today he works with AML at a major international bank on one of the Channel Islands. He enjoys it. The bank is global and I have colleagues from all over the world. At the same time, the drawbacks are considerable. He lives alone and his children remain in Sweden.
– I am only able to go to Sweden a couple of times a year, which means that I miss a lot of birthdays and time with my children. I would like to go home to Sweden. I want to see my children grow up there, he says.
Alex Mikaelsson: »I hope my story might be a wake-up call for employers«
Two of the people who contacted Finansliv are willing to disclose their names. Alex Mikaelsson is currently an associate with Goldman Sachs in London. His father is from Sweden and his mother from Guyana. He was born in Sweden but when he was five, his family moved to the U.S. First to New Jersey and subsequently to Florida, about 20 km outside Miami. Eight years later, he moved back to Sweden, but initially it did not feel natural to speak Swedish, says Alex Mikaelsson.
– I did not know much Swedish, so I had to learn and do a lot of catching up by myself, he says.
After upper-secondary school, he started studying economics in Uppsala and also got involved in a couple of financial societies. But he felt it was difficult to fit in, both at university in general but primarily with his peers, who were also interested in finance.
– I was not treated badly, but I felt I was treated differently and that nobody really took me seriously, he says.
After his time in Uppsala, Alex moved back to Stockholm to complete his degree and at the same time, he started looking for work. He contacted the major banks, but also several smaller stakeholders within corporate finance.
– I cannot even count the number of rejections I received, even when I was certain that I had met all the criteria and done everything, and even a bit extra. It was a really tough time for me, particularly when I saw how easy it was for all my friends.
Above all, it is convenient to employ someone who looks like you, who thinks like you and who has gone down the same path.
Alex Mikaelsson believes that, on the whole, it has nothing to do with skin colour.
– Rather, I think that it is about nepotism. Above all, it is convenient to employ someone who looks like you, who thinks like you and who has gone down the same path.
In the end, Alex Mikaelsson decided to continue his studies. A year later, he had completed two bachelor’s degrees and then moved to Lund for his master’s degree. In Lund, he met like-minded people in the Finance Society who believed in him, and who had good contacts in London and in Sweden. It led to a meeting with BNP Paribas in London, who shortly afterwards offered him an internship. That abrupt turnaround from a long series of rejections to immediate confirmation was difficult to take in, he says.
– For a while, I truly believed that I knew nothing and would be unable to get a job, says Alex Mikaelsson.
A couple of days after he completed his internship at BNP Paribas, Alex Mikaelsson started his first job at Goldman Sachs. In three years, he went from »impoverished student« and working in restaurants to the world of high finance in the City in London. He is happy and proud of how far he has come, but he points out that he has paid a high price.
– I have lost out on a lot of things as a young adult. It has cost me relationships, friends, and my own mental well-being. I hope that my story might be a wake-up call for employers, but that it will also show that it is possible for anyone who wants it to get into the industry.
Eva Olsson: »Being adopted, a job in Sweden felt like an impossibility«
Eva Olsson currently runs her own finance business in New York, and has about 20 years of experience from various banks in London. She decided early on that she did not want to work in Sweden.
– I felt fairly early on that you need to have studied at the Stockholm School of Economics, and also to know have contacts in order to stand a chance. With my accent, education and being adopted, it felt like an impossibility, she says.
Instead, Eva Olsson moved to Hong Kong and got her first job as an analyst at a hedge fund, before moving to London. She highlights the country’s view of education as an important factor behind the broad representation within the industry. In the OECD report on diversity, the financial sector in England ranks 14th out of 39 compared to other industries.
– What you studied is not important at all, as long as you went to a decent university and did well in your studies. As long as you are educated and have good grades and are willing to do the work, you will get an opportunity. It can be quite intense and you often have to work long hours, so your personality is much more important, she says and adds that the industry also has an international outlook when it comes to the top jobs.
A number of employees feel that a network is required to get a foot in the door, and that it is difficult to get an interview. What risks do you see with that?
– The risk is that the Swedish finance industry will lose a lot of talent. Partly because so many skilled candidates are being ignored, but also because a lot of people will not go into the industry. That is incredibly unfortunate, because the team will suffer. Somewhere there, the mindset must change, so that the issue is elevated to the higher levels, says Eva Olsson.
The statements to Finansliv do not only concern problems getting a foot in the door. Employees also talk about difficulties being promoted.
– I feel that it is very difficult. You are stuck at the same level all the time, says Maria.
She is frequently praised for what she knows and for her performance. But when the opportunity arises for advancement, the way ahead is barred.
I think it is about unconscious categorisation. You become invisible when the opportunity for promotion arises.
– I have always thought that if I just maintain my high performance and deliver, I will get the opportunity to advance to a more senior level. I do not want to accept that I don’t have a chance, but should I? It will never be my turn, she says.
Why do you think that is?
– I think it is about unconscious categorisation. You become invisible when the opportunity for promotion arises. I am not saying that I’m perfect, but I believe that a »typical Swedish girl« would have had a much better chance of promotion. They would have seen her potential, not her flaws, says Maria.
The pattern is repeated in the high-salaried positions in the banks. Employees working in the markets environment paint a picture of homogeneous trading floors with few employees that are minorities.
Markets employee: »Swedish minorities are not given a chance even at the junior levels«
One employee that Finansliv spoke to worked abroad for a long time before they made use of contacts to get into the Swedish markets environment.
– If you look at the trading floor in all banks, you will not see many minorities. They are exceedingly few in number. The banks claim that it is difficult to find minorities with the right skill set, but the problem is that they are not given a chance even at the junior levels.
The banks claim that it is difficult to find immigrants with the right skill set, but the problem is that they are not given a chance even at the junior levels.
Another markets employee paints the same picture of what the trading floors look like. The employee believes that one important aspect of having a career in markets is to have the right contacts.
– Partly because it is important in order to be able to get into the environment, but also in order to be able to act in that environment. You require a network to know who to call and to find out who knows who.
They also point to the importance of speaking the language flawlessly, and having the right education.
– It is not enough to speak middling Swedish in a markets environment. As long as you have mastered the language, you have every opportunity to advance, as soon as somebody opens the door for you. But somebody has to open that door. And that could be more difficult if you do not have the right contacts.
– It may be that it is more difficult for people with a minority background, whose parents are not members of the right club, who don’t go hunting with someone’s father, or go to Åre in the winter and Båstad in the summer.
Markets employee: »It is about nepotism«
Another markets employee that Finansliv spoke to presents a similar picture.
– It is about nepotism. You prefer something that is tried and tested, where you know what you are going to get, somebody that fits in. This means that the prestigious jobs often tend to go to somebody you know or to some employee’s daughter or son. On the whole, minorities do not have the same opportunities, because they do not have the network.
You prefer something that is tried and tested, where you know what you are going to get, somebody that fits in.
– I have a job that is considered to be highly paid within banking and finance. This is the kind of job where people employ their own children. It sounds awful, but that is the way it is.
On the whole, minorities do not have the same opportunities, because they do not have the network.
Amir: »It would be reasonable for the finance industry to employ the same proportion of minorities as there are minorities in Sweden«
At the same time, many employees highlight good examples of diversity initiatives from the banks, and managers who lead by example regarding this issue. Many employees are also careful to point out that they have not experienced racism or been openly discriminated against. Neither are their experiences directed at any particular employer or workplace. Everybody is also positive about the fact that the issue of gender equality in management teams and boards has been discussed a lot more over the past few years. But when it comes to diversity, we are lagging behind, says Amir, who is a senior manager at a medium-sized bank.
– I am convinced that the banks take the issue of an even gender distribution and sexual orientation very seriously. But if we look at the ten largest banks, there are very few minorities on boards and in management teams. Look at the pictures of senior management and do not try to tell me that there is no problem, says Amir, not his real name.
He points to the fact that the financial sector, as a major employer and an industry that is crucial to society, has a responsibility to be at the forefront.
– We have a responsibility not only to our employees, but to society as a whole and to our owners. It would be reasonable for the finance industry to employ the same proportion of minorities as there are minorities in Sweden. I do not think that we are being responsible in regard to this at the moment, he says.
Responses from the diversity managers of the banks
Maria Hamstedt is Diversity Manager at SEB. She recognises the comments about the importance of a network in order to get a foothold in the industry from her own conversations with Swedish minorities.
– What I hear and experience myself as a woman is similar to what they are describing, the fact that it is difficult to get a job in certain areas and that it is difficult to advance. I think that there some of our experiences overlap, as opposed to belonging to the majority.
This has also been shown in the data that SEB has produced, she continues.
– We can see that there is a homogeneous majority within certain areas that is too large, where we need to work with the minority perspective. It relates to foreign backgrounds, but also gender and other perspectives, she says and points to senior positions where the proportion of employees who are minorities and women is lower.
– We see and understand that there are definitely things we need to work on in order to change the situation. By those of us who are already in the industry, but also by people who want to get into it, she continues.
Åsa Nilsson Billme is Diversity Manager at Nordea Sverige and has worked with diversity in a number of places around the world. She says that there is a greater focus on a person’s network in Sweden than in other countries.
– We need to get better at eliminating the importance of that network. But also at seeing the value of other networks that we normally do not have. At the end of the day, it is a societal issue that needs to be part of the public discourse, she says.
Employees talk about having changed their name to a Swedish one, and subsequently getting interviews for jobs they had previously applied for using their old name. A number of people also say that they have considered changing their names. Should it have to be like that?
– In the best of worlds, it should not have to be like that. But I also know that this is precisely where our unconscious and conscious biases creep in. Sometimes they are good, and help us make decisions, and sometimes they are not as helpful as we would like, says Maria Hamstedt.
Åsa Nilsson Billme finds the issue »incredibly worrisome«. She points to the importance of having a better awareness within an organisation in order to reduce the risk of discrimination.
– We are only human, and must constantly work at improving our ability to filter out our unconscious biases. The more we try to talk about these issues, the better we will become at spotting bias.
The recruitment process is also very important, according to Maria Hamstedt. She says that SEB is working on implementing a new system for recruitment, where the bank is currently looking into anonymizing the process up to a certain point. The first part is based on a number of anonymized tests.
– We can anonymize up to a certain point in the process, but in the end there will be one or more people who have to decide on who will be offered the position, and that involves a risk of bias influencing their decision. The second part involves training our managers, and making them aware of how their biases can impact various decisions, says Maria Hamstedt.
Several employees feel that the banks do not take the issue seriously enough to act, in terms of the composition of management teams and boards. Add to that the OECD statistics and the experiences of the employees. Does the finance industry have a diversity problem?
– I have recently been talking to people with minority backgrounds, as well as reading a number of articles where people with foreign backgrounds describe that they find it difficult to gain a foothold in the finance industry. Of course, we need to take that on board.
– My impression is also that the debate about the issue of diversity in management teams and on boards focuses more on gender, and there I find that the description of the difficulties overlap quite extensively with how people with a minority background describe it, says Maria Hamstedt.
Both Åsa Nilsson Billme and Maria Hamstedt want to see the proportion of employees with a minority background reflecting the proportion of people in society who have a minority background. SEB’s data goes back to 2013 and the trend since then has been positive, according to Maria Hamstedt.
– We still have some ground to cover. Currently, it is around 25 percent in society as a whole, and we are just under 20 percent, if we look at Sweden overall, she says.
Åsa Nilsson Billme thinks that the bank reflects society relatively well overall and at the managerial level, but adds that the number of managers with a non-European background is lower.
– At Nordea, we speak 50 languages from all over the world, but when we look at the statistics we can see that we have more work to do. The challenge is that we cannot register people according to various diversity perspectives, such as ethnicity.
The banks are currently not permitted to register individual employees based on ethnic background, but can use Statistics Sweden to find out how large a proportion of their employees are minorities. According to Åsa Nilsson Billme this means they must measure diversity in a number of different ways, such as through so-called qualitative surveys.
– Among other things, we can look at how employees perceive their situation and if we have equal opportunities. Are employees being fairly treated irrespective of ethnicity, age or sexual orientation, for example. Based on that, we are then able to continue to work on improving and being more inclusive, she says.
When will we see a finance industry that better reflects the diversity in society? Åsa Nilsson Billme finds it difficult to say when the industry might reach that point. Maria Hamstedt thinks that it will take about ten years before the financial sector catches up.
– I do not believe that this will be a quick fix. It is a journey that will require stamina, says Maria Hamstedt.