Jihyun Lee is a Managing Director and Head of IT at Bank Julius Baer based in Singapore. She has been working in technology leadership roles in financial service for over 20 years, based primarily in Singapore and New York.
Perhaps we could start with an overview of your career and why you decided to take the route you took after graduating?
I began my career in South Korea after graduating from Ewha Womans University with a BA in French Literature, a very different space to where I have found myself in my career. It was a female-only college so I never had any of the exposure that one might have with gender inequality at an academic level. Social stigma didn’t really exist at school, we were all equals. After graduation, I joined one of the largest employers in South Korea, a firm who hires thousands into their graduate cohort every year, yet only 1% were female. It was then when I had my first experience being socially defined.
I didn’t want to grow up confined within that narrative, so I relocated to New York at a young age to develop my career. I joined CitiGroup and then moved to Dell where I spent 5 years as a Project Manager consulting to clients.
Afterwards, I spent 17 years in Credit Suisse and was lucky enough to lead technology teams across a number of business units, from Private Equity and Prime Services to Client Trading and Private Banking.
I joined BJB in 2016 as the Head of IT where I am responsible for a team in Singapore, a small team in Hong Kong and also an offshore team. We take care of all things Run-The-Bank for the APAC region and I report into Zurich.
Have you had any positive experiences working as a female technology leader working in banks?
When I moved to the US, I was not being seen primarily as a female but simply a high potential talent, which definitely helped make the experience better. I have also had female role models very early in my career – at Citi I had a female mentor and then at Dell I had a female boss.
I have experienced quite a lot of internal mobility, which I attribute to the strong support my managers have given me, encouraging me to take on new challenges and get out of my comfort zone.
Moving to BJB, it gives me great confidence that such an organisation is willing to hire a female Head of IT and I have in turn hired other senior females for positions like COO. It is great to see that there is a career path in IT for females here.
At what point in your career was it the toughest and how did you overcome those periods of time?
I noticed signs of gender inequality again when I relocated to Singapore. I felt that there was still a strong social stigma on how to look and act as a female. In the banking industry, for example, roles like Relationship Managers have always been a role for females.
My biggest challenge though was leading an IT team that supported the Prime Services business in Hong Kong. This was the biggest role I had been given and I was still quite junior in terms of experience. I was supporting the front office but did not actually have the thick skin I do now to support my traders and stakeholders. I told my boss I couldn’t do the job and advised them to hire someone else. I overcame the challenge by being proactive and thinking about the greater good. At the time, it felt like a big step back but it actually allowed me to better reflect and reposition myself.
Do you think that any of the challenges that you faced were because of your gender?
I do think that as a female I had obstacles to overcome just because of the innate differences between male and female. For example, men by nature, in my experience, tend to have a bigger network in the bank and the wider industry. Women are not always natural networkers or, have home commitments that make it harder to network outside of working hours, where most networking is done in the industry. I have seen a fair share of what I would call strong male networks which females just don’t get invited to.
As a senior female figure in Financial Services IT, what advice would you give to other leaders, male or female, on how to attract, retain and develop diverse candidates?
As a leader, it is important to create an environment that allows females to develop. This involves encouraging them to continuously learn, be curious, take ownership and have a strong core. We must go one step further and actively encourage these behaviours so that females believe in themselves and have high self-esteem. In technology and operations functions, leaders should be delivery-focused as nothing else matters.
Giving them access to female role models is also very important, so is male support. For example, I ran the IT Women’s Council at Credit Suisse and helped set up the same at BJB when I joined.
We are going through a very unique experience right now with a focus on defining the new normal. In your opinion, how do we take into account diversity & inclusion in the new normal and use this as an opportunity to take a step forward with providing a platform for future female leaders?
Firstly, genuine diversity & inclusion is really based on trust and I think that being forced to work from home and manage our own time has really increased trust levels between teams. Telecommuting has been great at removing barriers such as gender, nationality and location, putting everyone on a level playing field.
The increased flexibility that comes with working remotely also brings great benefits to working mothers which may in turn attract and retain a higher number of females in the industry. However, we should be mindful that no single home environment is the same and some mothers may find it even harder to “switch off” while working from home.
For more Inspiring Business Women in APAC interviews, please click here.Posted almost 2 years ago