International Women's Day

Holding her own in a man's world

Ms Woon, who champions diversity in the workplace, says that nowadays, people are more willing to share, and are more knowledgeable and understanding about what diversity means.
Ms Woon, who champions diversity in the workplace, says that nowadays, people are more willing to share, and are more knowledgeable and understanding about what diversity means.ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

Veteran banker says there are many advantages to being a woman and urges aspiring leaders to seek mentorship

Ms Tracey Woon has had to get used to being "one of the boys" over the course of her 34-year banking career.

But being a woman in a male- dominated industry has its advantages, said the vice-chairman of UBS wealth management in Asia.

"You have to be smarter than the guys," said the 60-year-old, who is also a mother of three, an avid sportswoman and former national squash champion.

"Investment banking has always been a man's world," said Ms Woon, who was an investment banker before moving into her current wealth management role.

"But there are also many advantages to being a woman - for example, it's harder for clients to scold a woman. I mean that in a nice way.

"Of course, you have to be substantive first. But you can also take a softer approach - show you're more caring. And that is an advantage, not a disadvantage."

Ms Woon, who practised law for a few years after graduating from the National University of Singapore, said she landed in banking "by accident" - she was offered a job after a friend introduced her to a banker from Wardley Limited, now known as HSBC Investments.

"I had no idea what I wanted to be. Initially I wanted to be an engineer but my father said girls don't grow up repairing colour TVs," she said with a chuckle. "Law didn't do much for me... But as soon as I got into banking, I thought, 'This is fun, this is what I want to do.'"

Ms Woon went on to hold top investment banking positions at Merrill Lynch Singapore and Citi before moving to UBS.

While climbing the corporate ladder, she had three children in four years. "Having them all together meant that it was a lot harder initially, but it got a lot easier after that," she said.

To juggle spending quality time with the children and a high-flying career, she "had to prioritise and made many personal sacrifices".

"I gave up golf, squash, everything for the kids... It was just work and family for many years until they grew up."

Her husband, who was also a banker, stopped working after his firm restructured in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Their son and two daughters are now aged 29 to 32.

Ms Woon is a champion of diversity in the workplace. "Women who make it to the top spend so much time working hard that they don't have as much time to share their experiences," she said.

"Guys have their boys' networks but women often also have to worry about family on top of work."

She urged women who aspire to be leaders to reach out to relevant organisations and networks for mentorship and help.

"Nowadays people are more willing to share, and are more knowledgeable and understanding about what diversity means.

"But (younger people) also need to listen more and understand that there's no substitute for hard work and patience," she noted. "With some things, you can't get there in a hurry. It's like trying to build muscles. Even if you're willing to work out every day, it takes time before the muscles actually come."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'Holding her own in a man's world'. Print Edition | Subscribe