The Authenticity Key – How genuine female leadership can unlock the future economy

The past year brought with it a myriad of changes and challenges – as well as opportunities. Working in the financial sector, Karen have seen how digitization, accelerated by the impact of the pandemic, has swept across the industry and boosted technological progress. Payments are turning digital and society’s going cashless – and leadership skills are evolving too. Our changing world calls for a new approach by those in charge of businesses and organisations. Now is the time for a more authentic, female leadership to make its mark. It’s time for more women to be at the helm.

Speaker Karen Penney

Vice President of Payment Products | Western Union Business Solutions, UK

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Over the past few years, digitization has become synonymous with progress. Our Global Services Trade Revolution report shows that this rapid digital growth – most notably across B2B, IT and financial services – will likely boost the value of international services trade by $2 trillion over the next five years. Fuelled by the need to trade remotely, digitization is set to drive the global economy during, and post, the COVID-19 pandemic.

And as this digital impact continues to change the face of numerous sectors, so too does it bring an opportunity for the women working in these industries. Because the new future of the economy and of our daily ways of working call for new perspectives. In a world that demands more physical distancing, long-term remote co-operation and personalized customer service, we need a fresh take on leadership that has the ability to unite employees, clients and partners.

Women have this innate ability. Their inherent talents enable them to be fully set up for the future digital economy. According to research by the Harvard Business Review, women are better leaders during a crisis than men. They display particular strengths across competencies including learning agility, taking the initiative, as well as inspiring and motivating others.

I’ve seen this first-hand through my female colleagues at Western Union. After all, the future economy requires a robust digital payments infrastructure – and so our employees have been working harder than ever to deliver innovative payments solutions.

Prior to the pandemic, but most certainly since its outbreak, I’ve seen women throughout the business push forward the payments revolution with their talent, dedication, expertise and knack for inspiring others.

Karen Penney, Vice President Payments Products UK, Western Union Business Solutions, UK

As the pandemic increased its pressure on women to co-operate remotely, they focused their attention on driving the business forward.


I’ve found that, often, women don’t value their own skillset – myself included. When I first became a leader, I tended to act very formally at all times and refrained from showing too much personality. I thought this was the right behaviour in a heavily male-dominated sector. I needed to ‘fit in’.

But then I soon realised that this approach was holding me back and stifled my natural means of dealing with both positive and negative issues. Openness – and bringing my whole self to work – has become central to my working philosophy. In fact, being a woman has inherently strengthened my communications-led leadership style. I’ve seen how authenticity and empathy succeed in helping boost employee confidence, creating a happier and healthier workforce.


Throughout the COVID-19 crisis in particular, putting communication and personal engagement at the heart of my leadership has been crucial. People want to know that you really understand and take on board the situations that they’re in. From childcare and holding a job to worrying about relatives infected by COVID-19 – these are all hurdles that members of our team have had to manage throughout the pandemic. Research has also shown that women in the UK spend more than twice as much time as men on their children’s home schooling and development during the UK’s coronavirus lockdown.

These situations have made us leaders acutely aware of how important it is to have a truly personal understanding of our colleagues’ experiences.

Karen Penney, Vice President Payments Products UK, Western Union Business Solutions, UK

To reflect this at Western Union, we introduced numerous virtual coffee catchups with cross-functional teams, on both an individual and group level. As a trained mental health first-aider, such valuable touch points have become the biggest focus of my week.

This personal touch has also been reflected in our client engagement, as we realised that they too are crying out for more communication. In addition to our regular business catchups, we always make sure to catch up with customers over a virtual coffee. This has been key to keeping our relationships strong and our service as tailored as ever.


In fact, with research showing time again that personalization is the strongest pillar in driving customer loyalty, it’s clear there remains a stark need for a fuller and diverse spectrum of insights. This is why it is vital for women to display their authentic selves in the workplace.

And by doing this, women can continue supporting the digital revolution and therefore unlock the potential of the digital economy. With only 20% representation of women on executive committees and 23% on boards, there is a stark imbalance of perspectives to be put right and an economic opportunity to be seized.

At Western Union, we are proud that our workforce has a 50:50 gender balance, with 40% of our executive team being female. But we recognize that there’s much more work to be done.

Women have shown time again that they are natural leaders, whatever their role or level, and the events of 2020 have highlighted just how key and indispensable they are.

As a big believer in saying yes to new challenges and seizing every opportunity, I therefore encourage all women to see today’s evolving work landscape as a chance to be themselves – always.

Karen Penney, Vice President Payments Products UK, Western Union Business Solutions, UK
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