With Aya Asanuma, Sales Representative, Japan, and Xia Yu, Dealer Sales Representative, Hong Kong, MarketAxess
Briefly discuss your background and education. How did you decide to go into financial services?
AYA ASANUMA: At the age of 12, I was enrolled in a very traditional all-girls school in Tokyo where we were taught good manners and etiquette. But our family structure was hardly traditional, with my mother being a business owner and my father spending most of his time pursuing his passion for fishing and cooking. In many ways, we were more resistant to social pressure than most traditional Japanese families, and that gave me the confidence to pursue a career in a male-dominated industry.
I was studying to become an architect when I took a part-time position in an investment bank in Tokyo. That experience gave me the opportunity to be exposed to such a dynamic environment and I found myself enjoying that, so when they offered me a full-time job, I took it. Looking back, that part-time position probably helped me be mentally prepared and excited for the challenges that came with my full-time career in financial services.
XIA YU: I studied English at a foreign language university in Shanghai, where I grew up. I am the type of person who constantly looks for new challenges, so after graduation I applied to pursue further studies in Germany, and my parents were very supportive of that. At that time, I didn’t speak a word of German which made daily life a bit difficult, so I completed a full-time crash course within four months before attending college there.
After college, I started my career with Commerzbank, the second largest bank in Germany. At one point, I got the chance to shadow a derivative sales team which got me very excited about the trading floor. The fast pace and the quick production of results really aligned to my personality, and this experience confirmed my desire to develop a career in finance.
Aya, what has been your experience as a successful woman in finance, working in the historically male-dominated culture of Japan?
AYA: Over the past two decades I have personally witnessed many positive changes in gender equality in Japan. In the past, women often weren’t able to apply for the same jobs as men, even if they had the same academic background or qualifications. On the job, we weren’t allowed to outperform our male peers, in order to maintain positive working relationships.
But today, I meet and deal with a lot more women in finance, and there are more of us leading projects or running teams. Our performance and results are evaluated more fairly, and there is more healthy competition between male and female colleagues. We still hardly see any women in senior management roles, but as a society, Japan has come a long way. I’m very excited about what has so far been a gradual shift.
Xia, what has been your experience as a successful woman in finance who has worked on three continents?
XIA: I worked in Germany for about eight years before moving with my family to Singapore, where we lived for the next one and a half years. We then relocated to New York and after that, South Korea and Hong Kong. These were all challenging yet highly rewarding experiences as I learned about different lifestyles and diverse working cultures within financial services across a number of countries. That has helped me greatly in my sales roles throughout the years, as I have had to face clients from different backgrounds.
In Asia, for example, it’s essential to spend time building relationships, and it may take a bit of time to see results. Whereas in the West, I can normally be straightforward about what I want to say from the first meetings, and clients are more direct.
What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?
AYA: Adapting to new jobs and new organizations has always been challenging, though mostly in positive ways. I have worked as a sales representative in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and I found that even in the same country, differences in culture and management style between organizations can be huge. When you are new to a place, it’s up to you to learn about and respect these differences. For example, when I moved to Hong Kong from Singapore, where I had lived for over 10 years, it took me quite a while to adapt to the fast-paced environment and high-performance culture in the city’s financial industry. In Hong Kong, everyone seems to hire coaches for everything, so as to maximize results from the limited time they have. Whereas in Singapore, the style is more relaxed with more emphasis on quality of life. In Japan, there is an interesting mix between the two.
What are the unique challenges / opportunities as a woman in finance in Asia?
XIA: In Asia there are still fewer women in senior positions in finance. One of the reasons for this is that many of us choose to step down or take a break from work after we have kids. In the U.S. and Europe, there is more flexibility, and many companies allow men to take extended paternity leave to look after their young children. The lack of such policies is one of the main barriers for women in Asia.
At the same time, I can see a lot of opportunities open to women, especially in financial technology. MarketAxess, for example, supports work-life balance for its Asian team by offering flexible hours, paternity leave and the option of working from different locations.
There are a lot of exciting companies including start-ups, and job markets in Asia also seem to be more liquid. So I can see why these new companies would want to create a more flexible working environment for women.
Is it easier for a young woman to break into the business now, compared with 20 years ago?
AYA: Absolutely, and it’s not only for young women! I know that in Asia, some global financial services companies now provide internships for women who wish to return to the industry after taking a few years away from work to look after their families. Also in Japan, childcare is very affordable, which gives many families the option of having both parents work.
In my case, I took a two-year break before joining MarketAxess, mainly driven by personal reasons, and I was able to come back to work without issues. These options will definitely be helpful for young women in finance when they are making decisions about their future.
What is the ‘secret of your success’, ie how do you maintain a standard of excellence day in and day out?
XIA: Networking is one of those secrets. I always believed that you should get to know as many people in the industry as possible. It’s fun to meet new people and understand who they are and what they are trying to accomplish. When you do that consistently, you’ll end up creating a support network you can rely on, both personally and professionally.
AYA: For me it is about setting clear objectives. Not just one big goal, but rather break it down into small goals that you can achieve daily. Once you make a habit of creating and getting these small goals done, everything will fall into place for you to achieve the big goal.
Another important thing is knowing when and how to change your communication style to adapt to different organizational cultures. For example, in Japan we are used to speaking in a very gentle manner, and to make humble and respectful comments in a business setting. When I joined a global company, I had to use more assertive communication skills to get my message across. I even had to take a course to develop this specific skillset!
Xia, what is your advice to a young woman just entering the field of financial services, who may aspire to be a global citizen like you are?
XIA: Be confident. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith. The new environment of your next job is always going to be different. A lot of people tend to let themselves get too comfortable in a job where they can keep doing the same thing over and over again.
I have moved around many different countries and have had different jobs, and every time it was another eye-opening experience. It’s always a good feeling when you realize that your skills are not limited to a single little area.