More Male Hosts at Santander Meeting Show Spain's Culture Change

(Bloomberg) -- When Santander shareholders descend on the bank’s home town for its annual general meeting, the red-liveried staff showing them to their seats will be both men and women.

Of the staff welcoming investors to the event in the seaside town of Santander on Friday, 60 percent will be female and the rest male, the lender said. It’s one way of showing how the bank’s attitudes to gender roles have evolved: a decade ago, 85 percent would have been hostesses, Santander said.

Banco Santander SA has for years hired hostesses -- typically attractive younger women -- to add elegance and glamour to its public events. Under pressure from the global #MeToo movement, companies everywhere are expected to show they don’t allocate roles based on appearance and gender -- and more so, if like Santander, their business has a global dimension.

“If there’s any role where someone’s appearance or gender is a primary consideration, that should be reviewed,” said Peter Hahn, a professor of banking at the London Institute of Banking and Finance. “If you are holding an event for international shareholders, their expectations have to be taken into account.”

More Male Hosts at Santander Meeting Show Spain's Culture Change

At the helm of the banking behemoth with more than 1.4 trillion euros ($1.7 trillion) of assets and active across 10 main markets from Spain to Brazil and the U.K., Ana Botin, 57, is one of the most powerful female executives in the world. Since taking over the chairmanship in 2014 on the death of her father Emilio, Botin, has championed the role of women in a bank that her family has been helping to manage since at least 1895.

More Male Hosts at Santander Meeting Show Spain's Culture Change

She has pledged to eliminate the gender pay gap in all the markets in which it operates by 2025. Santander said in a 2017 sustainability report that it is implementing a program for 400 Spanish employees to take part in mentoring processes to develop female talent. The bank said that 48 percent of promotions of staff in its home country went to women while half of junior staff joining were female.

The bank is applying the same even-handed criteria for the staff it deploys to help with events such as the annual meeting for its 4 million shareholders.

Santander has no specific policy for contracting host and hostess staff from agencies but seeks diversity as a general rule and sets no criteria for their physical appearance, the bank said. The hostesses will be dressed in the red of the Santander brand and the hosts will wear dark suits and red ties.

The evolution has been evident, said Aira Merayo, who for the past four or five years has worked as an azafata, as hostesses are called in Spanish -- for several banks including Santander at their events in Spain.

“When I began I only worked with girls and now it’s boys and girls,” Merayo said. “In Santander it’s always mixed.” Merayo, 26, studied biology at university and began working as a hostess after struggling to find employment in that industry.

The days of using women as “ornamental” features at events is gradually coming to an end in Western Europe even as the Mediterranean countries lag behind their Nordic peers, said Mireia Las Heras, director of the Center for Work and Family at IESE Business School in Madrid.

“The banks are making forward steps and companies such as Santander have implemented some innovative policies in flexibility in recent years,” Las Heras said by telephone. “That’s not to say that we’re at the end of the road.”

There’s still a long way to go in the fight for gender equality. The bank pays female staff at its U.K. unit 35 percent less than men on average, according to a report published this month.

That compares with a 37 percent and 38 percent pay gap at Royal Bank of Scotland and Virgin Money. Like other banks, Santander attributed the salary disparity to the high proportion of women working in part-time, junior roles compared to a higher proportion of men in senior positions.

Merayo, the hostess, said the treatment she receives depends on the culture within the bank that employs her for each event. Still, she’s confident that in spite of a change in attitudes, there will still be work for hostesses for years to come.

“I don’t think it will end because there are more and more events these days and they always need someone to hang up their coats,” she said.

The difference is that, increasingly, she will be competing with men for the work.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.