To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, Mortgage Solutions spoke to women working across the sector to find out what they have learnt along the way and their own journeys through the world of finance.

Collette Allen is the chief operating officer of anti-money laundering service provider, SmartSearch. She has worked for the firm for almost a decade. 

Have you always wanted to work in the finance sector? (if not, what job did you picture yourself doing?)  

CA: Does anyone really say yes to that? I certainly didn’t think I would be working in anti-money laundering (AML). These are often sectors people ‘stumble into’ but end up developing a passion for and finding purpose or fulfillment. I always pictured myself working as a vet because I love animals.  

 How did you get into the industry?  

CA: I joined the industry by chance. I took on a support role in my early twenties to follow on from my previous account management role in advertising – a completely different sector.   

Have you ever found it quite hard to fit in as a woman?  

CA: In general, I’ve found it hard to fit in. I’m an introvert so I think a lot of the role models when I was younger gave the impression they were extroverts and you had to be like that to succeed. I think that’s why I developed my love of learning and developing myself – it was kind of my safety blanket. Building knowledge meant I could have more confidence speaking to others. 

As I progressed in my career and became the first female director at SmartSearch, it was hard not to feel like the odd one out. Although the other directors were very supportive, as a female you do bring a new perspective and that can be challenging when your opinions aren’t aligned with the rest of the room. I was also younger than the rest of the board, so it was hard to balance being aware of my inexperience and knowing when not to doubt myself. 

I’m still very aware though of how I used to feel when I was younger and conscious about sharing that with colleagues and younger members of the team.  

Have you noticed a change in the number of women in the field since you’ve worked in it? 

CA: Yes and especially at SmartSearch where there is now an equal gender split across all levels of the business. In general, I love seeing the number of women CEOs of FTSE 100 and large financial firms growing, however there’s still a lot further to go. 


What are the greatest improvements the finance sector has made in relation to gender equality? 

CA: I find it difficult to relate women being appointed to senior roles to improvements in gender equality. It’s good for equality that it happens, but it should happen regardless. I feel it’s important to see the women in those roles as simply having worked hard and delivered strong results just like their male counterparts.  

Instead, I would say the greatest improvements have to be the enabling factors that have made it easier for more women to join and progress in the sector. 

What would you say to encourage other women to join the finance sector?  

CA: The finance sector is incredibly broad in the opportunities available. For those with ambition and aptitude, there’s plenty of scope for professional development and progression. 

If you want to work in any sector which is either male-dominated or where there aren’t many visible female leaders, don’t let that put you off. There are so many successful women in financial services now, it’s a great time to join the sector. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other people for support – both male and female. Be bold in sharing your views, the right organisation will value that.  

What skills or qualities do you believe you bring to the role?  

CA: In my role, I provide leadership, management and vision to not only grow SmartSearch, but deliver financial strength and operating efficiency. It’s all about driving performance and securing and retaining the best people to improve our product and customer experience. 

To do this, I nurture strong relationships with colleagues, investing time in getting to know them and supporting their ongoing development. I’ll always be frank and decisive, but sensitive. I’m driven and action-orientated and never try to rest on my laurels. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far, but I’m also aware there’s always more to learn. 

How does your role fit or benefit your lifestyle?  

CA: Staff wellbeing and fulfilment have long been key pillars. I am fortunate to not only enjoy the facilities of our head office in Ilkley, but to have the ability to work from home too. This is available to all staff at SmartSearch and is important in ensuring a happy and motivated team.  

What are your hobbies?  

CA: The gym helps me stay both mentally and physically healthy. I love to spend time with my husband Paul and my dog Red, a Hungarian Vizsla. I enjoy reading and nice long walks followed by a chilled evening in with good food, a glass of wine and dog cuddles. 

What improvements regarding gender equality would you like to see in the finance sector?  

CA: Supporting women’s progression and encouraging a better work life balance. It isn’t just a female thing though, it benefits everyone. All people of all backgrounds deserve to work to live not the other way around – and that’s coming from someone who loves working.  

Which women in the finance sector or corporate world inspire you most?  

CA: All women in business inspire me. Even now, I find I still have so much to learn from those around me.  

I recently read an article in The Times about Milena Mondini de Focatiis, CEO of Admiral Group. Maybe it’s because she is from Naples in Italy where my hard-working Nonna (Grandma) grew up, but I’ve always admired her rise to CEO and how under her leadership, Admiral continues to build a strong workplace culture – which I’d love to emulate.  

What is a life lesson or piece of advice that helped to shape who you are today?  

CA: Knowing your unique strengths and values and becoming comfortable with the type of person that makes you. It’s important to me that I’m honest, fair and work hard to stay grounded and content with what I have. 

How do you apply that to your working life?  

CA: I’m very clear on my values and align this to my decisions, even when that isn’t always the easy option. For example, it’s hard to share my personal shortcomings, but I know it’s important to be able to inspire others. I believe as a leader it’s your job to share your experiences, warts and all, to encourage others. Personally, it means a lot to be able to do this at every level, especially for other women in our business. 

These are my values: 

  • Honest – Be authentic, always act with integrity, genuine clear feedback. 
  • Humble – listen, question my perspective, continually learn and develop, be grateful for the moment. 
  • Inspiring – Share my passion, be persuasive, give others the opportunity to succeed, share knowledge and experiences, show you are fallible, can succeed despite mistakes.

Where do you see yourself in five years? 

CA: My aim is to continue learning and progressing to hopefully one day become a CEO. Above all though, I want to continue to lead others and serve as a positive role model for other females. I want young girls, women and colleagues to look at me and see there is space for them too.

Here you can also read Nicola Firth’s article for IWD 2023: