No longer just a token gesture: Reaping the rewards of diversity in financial services – Ani Filipova, former COO, Citi

Ani Filipova

We have all seen that the gender gap closes much more slowly when it is left to organic growth, driven only by the willingness of companies.

With a career spanning 25 years, four countries and two continents, for Ani Filipova, experience has truly defined both her character and purpose.

Notching up more than two decades across key Citi hubs in Europe, the UK and across the Asia-Pacific, Filipova proudly defines herself as one of the industry’s leading advocates for diversity, minority empowerment, and social inclusion, playing her part to nudge forward a once stubbornly traditional sector into one that now actively seeks to reflect and embrace wider social changes.

In the lead up to her forthcoming keynote at FST’s flagship Future of Financial Services, Sydney 2021 conference, we spoke with Filipova, the former Chief Operations Officer at Citi’s Treasury and Trade Solutions Asia Pacific division, exploring why diversity in the workplace and in leadership has real-world benefits for FSIs, persistent barriers to gender parity, and balancing the imperative to humanise services with the unremitting push to digitalise.

FST Media: You’ve worked across a number of markets in Europe and Asia, serving in risk, product and relationship management and operations roles.

How has this experience shaped your thinking as a patron of diversity and inclusion in financial services?

Filipova: I started my career in operations and then moved through many different areas of the bank; this gave me a very good end-to-end perspective of how various departments interact to create products and solutions for clients.

We all aim to deliver exceptional client experiences, and for that we have to view the client journey end-to-end; only then does it become very clear that each and every department plays a unique role that cannot be ignored.


In other words, there is no one person or department that knows it all. I’ve learned to not only respect this but to seek out and draw consensus from these unique perspectives: if one is not open to different opinions and approaches, then the end result will not be whole, and something will be missed, creating issues later down the line.

In addition, I have a genuine interest in people, regardless of their age, gender, nationality, and social status. I’ve always been interested in foreign countries and cultures – why people, for instance, think one way or another, what shaped their thinking, what is the best way to approach them, and what drives them. Working with people from other backgrounds exposes you to different working styles, forcing you to develop stronger communication skills. All this is very beneficial not only in work but in life.


FST Media: While the corporate world often trumpets its efforts to promote diversity, its objectives can seem a little opaque if not tokenistic.

What practical, real-world benefits does diversity of background – not just skillsets – bring to senior leadership in financial services, and how can it serve to create a profitable, efficient as well as more socially just business?

Filipova: If a team consists of members who are very similar in their ways of thinking, their experiences or their cultures then the chances of anything changing are slim. That is one of the reasons companies rotate people, send them to different locations or different countries to allow them to gain different experiences, which will change them and also the teams they meet.

Finance and banking have moved a long way in that direction. There are focused efforts to hire young management associates to bring a different perspective, adopt new approaches, and shape the culture of the organisation.

By working with people that have walked different paths and have different perspectives to your own, everyone benefits from a broader level of thinking. That makes projects more exciting, more inventive, and more successful as a result.


Multicultural working environments allow individuals to learn more from each other. As such, people will acquire a level of knowledge that will not only help them perform their jobs better but also provide the tools to expand their careers, or their businesses, internationally.

Not only does diversity improve the innovation and scope of the business, it also increases employee satisfaction. All this leads to better products and services and, ultimately, a better client experience.


FST Media: What do you feel are still the main barriers to creating more socially and skillset-diverse financial services businesses?

Filipova: Among some of the main barriers that I still feel exist today, include:

  • Barriers to entry. The selection of first job employees from top universities only; the idea that people with degrees are the only ones fit to become skilled employees; the subjective interview process; the very high workload/high salary environment means only a select group of people employed at a high burnout rate.
  • Attitude to women, childbearing, and the responsibilities of raising a child. This may not be the fault only of the employer. There are still many social norms pushing women to be the primary carer.
  • Good people can be held in a logjam because of a lack of critical appraisal of their (poor) performance.
  • Lack of continuous retraining of staff to ensure they’re adept in a fast-changing environment.


FST Media: While the last decade has seen considerable progress in achieving gender parity in the upper echelons of the corporate world, it is still a predominantly male-dominated space, particularly in the technology function.

How can financial services businesses ensure equitable opportunities for women within the senior ranks, and guarantee their voices are not just heard but also actioned? 

Filipova: Nowadays, at an early stage, young men and women are treated fairly evenly. In fact, at that level, women are creeping ahead as they are doing better in school, in university, and seem to mature earlier. The problem starts when these young people decide to start families or are even perceived to be likely to have children. In order to keep these people, it is necessary that flexibility is more widely accepted and that change around how work is done becomes a norm rather than an exception.

In my opinion, this can only be done if policymakers explicitly support gender equality at work, at home and in public.

We have all seen that the gender gap closes much more slowly when it is left to organic growth, driven only by the willingness of companies.


More focused policy requirements for companies, quotas, and other regulations will make sure that a critical mass of women will be hired. Then, they will finally have the chance to start shaping a new, different culture, which we have so far yet to experience. All this in turn will change social norms that are conducive for real change to happen.

A good example of how this may work is in the Nordic countries. According to the OECD, almost three out of four working-age women in Nordic countries are part of the paid labour force. Many women occupy jobs in countries such as Finland and Norway because there have been policies implemented, at a national level, that benefit women in the workforce. For example, in Finland a law was passed where both parents are guaranteed paid parental leave for at least 14 months. Following the principle of equal pay, Iceland implemented an effective law ensuring companies prove that they provide equal pay among its employees every three years.

The empowerment of women in all industries – not only in the finance sector – is of key importance. According to McKinsey research, if women participate equally in the economy, global GDP could increase by 26 per cent, or $12 trillion, by 2025.

There is a large body of research that shows how diverse organisations have higher rates of innovation, greater returns and stronger talent retention. Consumers also are more loyal to the companies they can identify with, and today the majority of consumers are women.


FST Media: FSIs are advancing digital transformation initiatives at pace, and notable in automation, to enhance both back-office operations and front-line services – potentially at the expense of human assets.

How can we embrace digitalisation without sacrificing high-value, but perhaps under-realised, human resources? 

Filipova: The high-value human resources tend not to be replaced – after all, someone needs to design, monitor and control the new systems and their continuing effectiveness in a changing environment. In addition, to creating a really exceptional system, you have to involve specialists from all departments to help developers create a digital asset that is intuitive and which will do the job perfectly. These most certainly will be people who need to be continuously trained because, as they excel, so will the new technologies. Each AI system is also “trained” by people.

It is often wrongly perceived that digitisation and transformation are “one-off” events; on the contrary, it is a continuous process to ensure that a company is changing in line with the environment.


FST Media: Risk management has become an increasingly important function within financial services, and critical for maintaining customer trust. With FSIs’ growing reliance on external partners and outsourced technology solutions, including cloud and X-as-a-Service platforms, and the influx of data, the management of risk has become infinitely more complex in recent years.

How can FSIs move to reduce operational risk without stifling innovation and data-led transformation?

Filipova: Risk management teams have an almost impossible job: they have to deal with huge volumes of new regulations, profound changes in how payments are executed (instant payments take three seconds now vs. only three days only, a change which has occurred in a relatively short space of time), and a large number of new technological advancements, to name a few. There is no other way to approach this but by focusing on innovation and data-led initiatives in the risk area too.

In fact, it is about creating innovative capabilities to support risk management teams in being one step ahead, ensuring the rest of the organisation can rely on their knowledge to anticipate and prevent risk events from happening.


It is a serious task. I see this as a combined effort of regulators and FSIs to find the best way forward. In some cases, regulations are really outdated and that adds another level of complexity.

Ani Filipova will be a featured keynote speaker at the Future of Financial Services, Sydney 2021 conference, exploring drivers and consequences of, and critical tips to succeed in, organisational transformation.