May Chan (MBA’03) on Encouraging Women to Pursue Careers in Male-Dominated Industries
May Chan (MBA’03) grew up in Singapore before moving to Washington, D.C., to attend Georgetown. She has navigated the male-dominated world of investment banking at both Barclays and Deutsche Bank, where she feels women could help balance the work culture of the industry. She has been an advocate for women to join the banking industry and change the perception of women in banking.
What were your biggest challenges while working on your MBA?
It was exciting to meet and interact with people with diverse backgrounds from all over the world. Learning to adapt to different working styles and cultures was interesting, but also frustrating at times. Unlike many classmates who were focused during school on securing a good job post-MBA, I was expected to return to Singapore with my previous employer, who had given me a scholarship to attend Georgetown. I ended up tagging along with one of my friends to an internship test with Barclays. Up till then, I had not considered investment banking at all, but I eventually would land the internship and by the end of that internship, I was given a full-time offer. I decided to quit my old job in Singapore and move into this new career, which meant I had to repay all the money that was given to me in the form of my scholarship. This was my entire MBA costs and living expenses. That was a huge financial undertaking, but I bit the bullet, emptied all my savings, and borrowed the rest from my parents. I felt immense pressure to make this new path work.
What was the balance of women like at Barclays?
When I first started, the associates were about 30 to 40% female, which was a pretty decent ratio, but as I rose up through the ranks, I saw many women drop out along the way. The hours were brutal. I would jump on a plane from Hong Kong, land in Singapore at 8 p.m., go straight into the Singapore office and continue working until 4 a.m., go back to the hotel, nap and shower, and then go for a client meeting at 8 a.m. This kind of lifestyle seemed exciting and all, but it really takes a toll on you. When I started out as an associate, there were four or five women analysts working with me in Hong Kong, and none of them are still in banking. It was quite disheartening to see that many of them felt the need to drop out of banking because of family, work pressures, or even health concerns. It did seem to me that women, more so than men, had to make a choice of career or family. I was fortunate to have a supportive life partner and a family network to help with child care. Even so, I had very little social life outside of work and family. I worked as hard as I could and then rushed home as soon as I was able to.
What skills did you gain from Georgetown?
I came from a pretty sheltered background in Singapore, and investment banking is a rather aggressive environment with many “type A” people. It is challenging being Asian and female, as sometimes I had to stand up to superiors who often were white and male. I would say my time at Georgetown was critical in helping me learn to be more confident about my abilities and ensure that my voice is heard.
How would you define success?
I find that a lot of people get caught up in a giant hamster wheel, where they just keep running but have no idea where they are going. Success can be a trap if you get caught up in the superficial aspects, and then you will never get off the wheel because you constantly have to get the paycheck to sustain all of those things. Success helps you define what you really want so that you can achieve your goals. I have found that many people struggle to know what makes them truly happy, so they just keep on running. It took a surprising amount of courage for me to choose to step away from my banking career at its peak, but I made the decision to spend more time with my family.
What advice would you give to your younger self at the beginning of your career?
I would tell my younger self not to be so consumed by finding the next career or scoring that big job. Your journey is a long one, full of slow self-development, and it is important to take time to look inside and think about how you are changing or how you should change to get to where you want to be.
This story was originally featured in 60 Years of Alumnae: Memories, Milestones, & Momentum. In honor of Women’s History Month, purchase your copy for 50% off throughout the month of March.