„We Need a Greta for the Finance World”

by Natascha Zeljko

What one can learn from Americans about money attitude and why women should speak up and negotiate hard for equal pay. Meet the fabulous Sabia Schwarzer, Global Head of Communications and Responsibility, Allianz SE

The most common phrase heard from women on the subject of investing money is: “I need to take care of my finances”. So, we don’t only need female empowerment, but also female finance empowerment?

If I am honest, my husband also takes care of our finances at home. The issue is that the topic is very complex. Dealing with finances takes a lot of time and it can take even longer to then implement things. Today, women are much more involved in their jobs than they were 20 or 30 years ago and many of them have children. They have very busy schedules and then they have to take care of their finances, do their tax returns, take out life insurance or a home loan and savings contract. The amount of pages you have to read, endless text and disclosures alone! And then the complicated wording, which is very hard to understand. I think that is the biggest hurdle. The first thing I recommend is that every couple sit down to intentionally talk about finances. My husband and I do this once a year, at our own couple’s offsite. There we also talk about finances. We started to do this very early on – we married when we were 21 years old, we were students then and had very little money. Therefore, we had to do some financial planning. Since then, we’ve kept up this practice. The question we ask ourselves each year is: What do we actually want in life? What should our money be used for? How do we want to support others?

How can we motivate women in particular to take charge of their financial planning?

Women have to think holistically about how they want to live, what should life look like. By the way, I believe that none of us will suddenly stop working at the age of 67 and grow roses. Nevertheless, you definitely need a plan. It helps to visualize what you will look like in the future. There is a famous experiment by Richard H. Thaler, an American Behavioural Economist. We did a study with him in the USA many years ago. The question was how to get people – both men and women – to start saving at an early age. For this experiment, they were put into moon suits and hung with weights. An interesting learning was that when people see or feel what they would look like in 20 years’ time, when they feel their strength waning, they actually change their behaviour.

“Women have to think holistically about how they want to live, what should life look like”

According to the studies, Americans are more self-confident when it comes to finances. You have lived in the USA for a long time. Can you confirm this finding?

People in the US general have a different mentality. The story of the “dish washer to millionaire” is part of the American DNA. This starts with a general attitude towards life. Americans reflect much more about the question: What is my purpose in life? And the topic of finances is connected to it, people are used to being more active about taking control of their lives and finances. Even children start fundraising in neighbourhoods and communities and are used to managing the money accordingly. The ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ is practically put into their cradle. This principle of assuming responsibility – in the American language has a beautiful term called ‘stewardship’ – is written in capital letters in the USA. And it also means that women in families often take on the role of the steward and therefore make many financial decisions.

But there is also a dark side…

Absolutely. You can see very well what happens when people don’t take precautions; there is no social system to save you. Even people who are better off lose their homes because they don’t have adequate health insurance – this is the number one cause of private bankruptcies in the USA. Families who have just had a vacation on the Bahamas move into the basement with relatives because they have lost their houses. This is the reality. I know of such cases –a friend of ours was a lawyer at the SEC and when a year ago the American government was struggling with the budget and civil servants were not paid for three months, he started driving Uber to pay for his mortgage. At the same time, the lack of social security system means that people have to deal with the financial issues and livelihood on a daily basis – that applies to both women and men. You approach things more optimistically and hope that the next opportunity is awaiting around the corner. The positive thing about it is that it encourages you to deal with the topic of finance without much emotion. In Germany, finances are associated with a certain amount of drama – and also with fear.

How has this changed you, and how has it changed your view of Germany?

I have learned a lot. Because I grew up in a multicultural environment and in between worlds, I would say that I am a big picture person. What I appreciate for sure, is the German commitment and dedication. Nevertheless, we must simplify things. This morning, for example, I received my new credit card, which is actually totally trivial. But the amount of paperwork that came with it was ridiculous – what a waste of time!

“We need another version of Greta in the finance world – leading a group of financial activists and forcing insurance companies to rethink”

What has to happen?

I wish for a change, I wish that women would gain more confidence, step forward as a collective community and say to the banks: Do you know what our everyday life looks like? Or to say to the insurers: here are the three requests, this is the way in which we want to be addressed, period. Let’s not forget: If it works for women, it also works for men. It would be an enormous relief for everyone. At Allianz, we take this absolutely seriously and are working on new ways to engage with customers. Less complexity and more transparency – with the necessary regulatory framework. So that it is clear to customers: What am I really buying, without worrying about the famous small print.

I find the idea of a new women’s movement very interesting.

Yes, we need another version of Greta in the finance world – leading a group of financial activists and forcing insurance companies to rethink. Revise the policies and say: This is how it should look like so that it is doable for us. And then start the discussion. I think there’s a window of opportunity for women.

Are there certain people who impress you personally?

I admire many female CEOs in the US. Last time I was in Davos, I saw Meg Whitman. She’s a role model in terms of leadership. Leaders who are approachable, empathetic, down-to-earth while at the same time smart and confident are role models. Also, at the New York Times dinner I sat next to the head of marketing at Google. A modest, decisive and smart person who does not push herself into the foreground at all. When it comes to finance, there is one man who is my role model: Warren Buffet. I love his philosophy to keep a long-term perspective on investments.

We live in eventful and also very exciting times. What is it about your job in communications that appeals to you the most?

What I particularly enjoy – and it may not be what you expect – is encouraging others. In my life, I have had to face some challenging situations and I received a lot of support, encouragement- so I know what a little encouragement can do for you. It can give you the strength to see beyond the difficulties, it can infuse a new vision in you and it can make you go much further than you ever thought you would go. And that is what I would like to do for others, whether it is my kids or our CEO, who is driving a major transformation.

Do women change the corporate culture?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t know what it is, but mixed teams just have a different spirit. And, just so there’s no misunderstanding: I don’t think all women are perfect. There are also the ‘Cruella de Vils’ types, sure. But I think women are more courageous. Not in a loud way, but in a quiet way. And I am happy to see that this quiet courage is bearing fruit and leading to success.

Is it okay to cry at work?

I have had challenging situations at work. When someone’s words hurt me on a personal level. I always let the person know how I felt about what she/he said- but I didn’t cry. But there have been times, when in a workshop with my leadership team I was asked about my personal journey and when describing some of the difficult circumstances that made me who I am today, I did shed a tear. So the answer is: Yes.

“It’s about being fairly paid as a woman. And fair means getting the same as a man in a comparable position”

How do you assert yourself in an industry that is still dominated by men?

Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is your pay. Women unfortunately chronically underestimate to negotiate their salary properly. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about the money. For me personally, for example, it’s about being perceived as an equal. It’s about being fairly paid as a woman. And fair means getting the same as a man in a comparable position. It’s about having the respect you need from the beginning to do your job. It’s about being on equal footing. Unfortunately, women are still far too grateful to be given the opportunity to even do the job. But unfortunately in this context, gratefulness is not a currency. And above all, it is not a currency that will earn you respect.

Last question: What are the most important issues for the next few years?

The most important issue for corporations is for their employees to know why the actually come to work? So for me it would be: why do I come to Allianz? Two things come to mind: I come to work to help save the planet sustainability and climate protection are key topics at Allianz; and here we naturally have a major influence as one of the largest investors in Europe. And the other topic, which is extremely important to us as a company too, is being close to our clients and bringing value to their lives. Concretely this means having transparent and intuitive products that make their lives better and meet regulatory requirements. This is the journey that Allianz has been on for the past four years.



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