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Stages for Change: Haas on why the industry can be harder for women

“The more people that look beyond the stereotypical type of person that ‘belongs’ in this industry, the more positivity and different perspectives will be brought into the industry.” TXF’s Aife Howse speaks to Natalia Haas, managing partner at Mercator Commodities, for this week’s Stages for Change interview.
3 min
( WORDS)

While the commodities industry is evolving with the wider employment sectors to become a more inclusive space, it remains a predominantly male-led business. A study by Catalyst shows that women make up nearly half of the financial services industry, but that less than 13% of women in finance make it to leadership roles such as CFO. Homing in on the commodities industry in particular, women in leadership roles across the world’s largest commodity traders sits at an even slighter fraction of around 5%, according to Bloomberg.  

As market observers at TXF, we are in the privileged position to take a broader look at who is making an impact in the industry, including the exceptionally talented women who are making trade happen. In this series, we highlight a range of female professionals – from junior to senior, representing different types of institutions, each with different drivers to excel in the industry.

Natalia has been with Mercator since the company was born 2015, having joined as one of its founding members. Her role is an incredibly varied one, comprising trading, client communication and marketing as well as general management. Due to her international background and experience she also takes up a part of client communication with international customers.

Natalia talks about not only her role and most pressing industry concerns, but also why she believes that there are less women in management roles in the commodities space, and how gender within a professional setting can differ between jurisdictions. 

Aife: Your role is unique in that it combines both trading and management. Could you talk a bit about what your day-to-day job entails? 

Natalia: In a sense, we all combine these roles because we try to be as close to the source as possible, which is why we have teams within our key regions, otherwise there's too much risk, there's too many farmers, and divisions are quite remote. 

We manage the back office here from Switzerland, so even the junior traders have a lot of contact with the origin. Therefore, experience with operations and trade finance are requirements at Mercator Commodities. Our staff are quite flexible and diverse because of this. It's partly a company culture, but also its the way we think the whole industry should be functioning, because the market is very complex.

In terms of day-to-day business, we get in touch with the teams to see where the opportunities are, how they're doing, and to identify any problems. Once we've spoken to them, we try to solve whatever issues there may be on the ground. 

The management side is more about speaking to the banks and planning the accounts, for example. The junior traders do most of the trading, as most of the decisions have to be taken on the ground. The sense of pricing comes from those on the ground, and the teams in the back-office trust those on the ground to make those decisions. 

My day is very diverse. I essentially keep the machine moving and maintain relationships with the regular buyers and suppliers. Additionally, we need to be in touch with partners and banks, to keep a feel of the markets. 

Aife: That sounds really interesting. Is this career something that you were always working towards?

Natalia: I don't think any girl grows up dreaming of becoming a commodities trader, but I come from an agricultural region in Siberia, so I knew how the production worked. That said, though, I was raised in England, and went to a private boarding school, so my education and training was more directed to finance and banking, and not commodity trade. It's a nice industry for the younger generation to end up in because it’s super agile, super international, and there is a demand for it to become quite digital. 

Aife: The industry is a male dominated space. Although this has gotten a lot better in recent years, and there are a lot of women coming into CFO or global head roles, the market is still majority male. Do you think there's more that could be done in the industry to level this out?

Natalia: It's difficult to say. I travel a lot, and if I were in Russia, Central Asia, or Africa right now, compared to in Switzerland, the scenario would potentially be very different. Here in Switzerland, there’s an abundance of opportunities for women to pursue their careers, and they can really benefit from the professional gender diversity we have here. 

At the same time, travelling can present certain challenges because your typical production owner is often a man in his mid-50s and sometimes will not take a woman seriously. We don't really see that as much here in Switzerland. In a sense, it depends how much you travel, and what jurisdiction you are working in. 

In Switzerland, there are plenty of female traders. What I feel is a big difference between male and female traders is that female traders tend to work for smaller companies. It can be much more difficult to push your way through a bigger corporation as a woman. I haven't had much experience with big corporations, so I can’t pinpoint exactly why that is. 

Within my own company, I find that if we employ a man, he will likely be likely be negotiating a pay raise in a years’ time. For a woman? Seldom. She'd probably hint at it in a few years’ time. I think men are naturally more comfortable to ask for more in a professional setting. 

The other thing is that regardless of what women have the potential to achieve, many can’t take on as much responsibility, especially with travel, due to typically playing a more hands-on role family role. The commodities industry is unpredictable, and it’s not the kind of job that you could easily do two days a week. It's something that you must be on 24/7. 

What I think the industry could do, at least here in the west, where we’re more talking about fine tuning improvements, is offer more flexibility to everybody. That way, many more women could plan their hours and to fit in with family responsibilities. 

Aife: In terms of the wider industry, what's your most pressing concern?

Natalia: I would talk about freight because that's what everybody’s talking about at the moment, but we don't feel it as much because it's only a fraction of our total cost. The two most prominent things in the industry are ESG and fraud. Freight is a pain now, but we know at some point it will level out. Fraud, however, is an endemic thing. We know the problems are there, but we still don't know exactly how to solve them.

With ESG, banks are not really supporting the move of the industry to more sustainability, but they're blocking some deals based on ESG. To me, it feels as if it is being used as an excuse to marginalize some deals and contracts as opposed to really drive change. 

And in terms of different countries, how can you not support coal or oil or gas? Those industries that are fundamental to certain regions, such as Africa, and taking them away would totally bankrupt them to the verge of collapse. But at the same time, China would benefit from more coal control. It’s a complex and international issue. 

There are very little guidelines and they have been generalized - I don't think they are achieving what they’re supposed to achieve. 

Coming back to fraud, in the past year we've seen how big of an impact it can have. It's not just one or two contracts being fraudulent, it's bankrupting big companies and traders. How do we go about protecting against this? Why are professionals and big banks not noticing the warning signs? 

Aife: What advice would you give to somebody who wants a job like yours?

Natalia: What has been an important realisation in this industry is that you must take your own character with you to work every morning. One of the problems with the commodities and trade industries is that it’s known as a serious, male dominated industry. As a woman, if you enter the industry and enjoy it, don't be put off by these certain ideas and stereotypes of what kind of people work in this industry, because it’s all changing. 

All the new industries, such as tech, are much more attractive to somebody looking for personal development or more flexibility. From my perspective, if you cast that aside and do what you like doing, it attracts more people to the industry and really helps to bring about some change. The more people that look beyond the stereotypical type of person that ‘belongs’ in this industry, the more positivity and different perspectives will be brought into the industry. 

 

 

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