Fraud investigation is a complex and multi-faceted field, involving international disputes and chasing assets into the billions for global corporations, high-net-worth individuals and sovereign states. It’s a stimulating and fast-paced environment to build a career in. It’s also traditionally male-dominated – but that part is changing, thanks to the dedication of a select few and the organization of many.

Phoebe Waters knew she wanted to be an investigator since she was 7 years old. Based in London, she currently works as a Director in the Global Investigations Department at J.S. Held, an international risk management firm. She is known for her strengths in managing worldwide asset tracing and recovery exercises, and developing international enforcement strategies with lawyers in a range of jurisdictions. She partners with law firms, serving clients that range from mining and oil and gas companies to family offices and national and international governmental bodies, seeking recovery in commercial litigation and arbitration proceedings. “In a nutshell, we find the money,” says Waters.

Since starting out in the intelligence field in 2015, following a master’s degree in International Security and Terrorism, Waters has been consistently struck by the lack of female representation (especially at the top) and the lack of gender equality. So, she decided to do something about it. Waters first came across The Female Fraud Forum (FFF) when it was a nascent networking group predominantly for barristers in the civil and criminal fraud sector – first formed due to the underrepresentation of women in Chambers. Waters saw the potential and, along with her team of 22 committee members, has since transformed the group into a powerful and active hub for individuals who identify as female (all genders are welcome as members). They are championed – personally and professionally.

“It’s my absolute mission in life to contribute to the elimination of inequality globally, to help individuals who identify as female recognize their rights and achieve their potential, and to clarify, across industry, the opportunities that those individuals should not only have access to, but should be supported to thrive within,” she says. In addition to being the Chair of the Board of The Female Fraud Forum, Waters is a delegate to the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women and is a guest lecturer on gender equality at universities. Waters is a winner of Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35, an award bestowed on the UK’s top female business talent.

Lawdragon: How did you get involved with The Female Fraud Forum?

Phoebe Waters: When I first heard about The FFF, I was, as is usual for me, curious. A former colleague had mentioned he’d heard the group being talked about and thought I’d be interested in attending so I got in touch with the then Membership Secretary. Quite amusingly, the only upcoming event at that time was the AGM. Along with one colleague at the time, I was the only non-current-committee person in attendance, but with the warmth and boldness of the females sitting around the table, and with the clarity of desired development for the community, I, without hesitation, volunteered to become involved in the leadership of the forum. The rest, as they say, is history. I was Membership Secretary for two years, and was first elected as Chair of the Board in February 2022. I think this illustrates the power of being inquisitive – I can’t imagine my life without The FFF now and it all started with me turning up to a board meeting not knowing who or what was going on behind those doors!

When I joined, I was one of – if not the only – investigators in the community. We now pride ourselves on being a diverse set of experts, covering the whole timeline of a dispute or legal proceeding: We have solicitors, barristers, asset tracers, forensic accountants and everything in between. It’s an incredibly influential group, a complete mix of ages and stages, and the only one in our industry that’s multidisciplinary. Whilst this is naturally positive for business development and referrals, what is more valuable in my eyes is the high levels of osmosis of knowledge and experiences. Women supporting women.

I am extraordinarily passionate about this group. Along with the 22 committee members I manage, I have been working really hard, putting love, juice, fire into it. We’ve honestly completely revamped the forum this last year. I have an amazing team and we’ve achieved a lot. We developed the mission statement, created our new website, launched a corporate partnership program and have developed our educational syllabus to include topics such as being an agent of change to achieve the future we want, and building confidence and developing your own leadership.

We want to provide the psychologically safe stage on which women can be supported to be themselves and achieve their full potential.

LD: That’s incredible. What change did you make to the mission statement?

PW: We developed it to: “We support and encourage the advancement of women.” I thought it was really important that we didn’t use the word “empower,” which is often utilized in the context of gender equality. Although I totally get the sentiment, and in some contexts would use it myself too, we wanted to be really clear that The FFF is about supporting women in finding their own fire – to identify and harness their own power. To empower themselves. We’re not trying to change anyone, we’re not trying to make all individuals who identify as female the same, and we are not trying to impose on anyone. We want to provide the psychologically safe stage on which women can be supported to be themselves and achieve their full potential.

Self-promotion is a fascinating concept and we try to support our members with it. It is a very complex and highly subjective thing to navigate, often intertwined with experiences of imposter syndrome and the lack of support to be authentic. We have introduced various initiatives this last year to encourage our community’s sense of confidence, including the Monthly Monday Member, where we choose an individual who identifies as female in the sector to spotlight. We publish a newsletter every quarter, for which we pick community members to write an article, write “Day in the life of” pieces, and more. It is so key to recognize female talent, and we will continue to work hard so to support women in increasing their confidence, visibility and career advancement – which will then feed into closing the gender gap, one step at a time. We also support and encourage the organizations within our sector to consider equality, diversity and inclusion matters, and take steps to tackle injustices at the meso level. There is still so much to be done, and The FFF and I are of course still learning about how we can achieve more for the better of humanity.

Quite astonishingly, we still get some serious pushback from people saying, “Well hey, why don’t you recognize male talent?”

LD: You’re kidding.

PW: I know. I am all for supporting men, I love men, sure. I want to be able to support women, men, all genders, and those who don’t identify with any gender at all. But actually there is a real and terrifying reason why we need to focus specifically on supporting and encouraging the advancement of women. Quite simply, it is going to take at least another 300 years for us to achieve gender equality globally. That’s the most recent estimate from the United Nations: 300 years. People have been recognizing male talent, promoting men, advancing men exclusively for centuries. We need to work actively to correct the imbalance.

So this is why it is my absolute passion: Gender equality – not only on individual and organizational levels, which are crucial to understand and fight for, but globally. International developmental goals are not being met, environmentally, socially, politically, economically because gender equality does not exist.

I put a lot of time and energy into the FFF because I can really see the difference it’s made to the women in our community. Their true confidence levels have been boosted from the core. They've been able to progress both professionally and personally. They've conquered public speaking for the first time. They've got promoted or they simply feel better within themselves, which is arguably the most important thing – happiness and welfare. And they're able to achieve all of this for themselves, but within a forum that is genuine and non-competitive.

LD: What sorts of programs and events is The FFF offering?

PW: We still offer industry educationals on subjects relating to different points in the lifecycle of an investigation or asset recovery exercise, but we are expanding into other issues that help women thrive. We had an educational recently for example about women’s wellbeing in the workplace. Not smoothies and yoga, but mental health, confidence, self-limiting beliefs. Confidence is a big one. Because so many people need support in that area. It’s not as easy as saying, “Just be confident.” They can’t. You need to understand why, and that confidence is very subjective, it’s a feeling.

I would recommend that firms have training on what it means to allow someone to be their authentic self, and what it means to support employees to be leaders not only in their own careers, but their lives.

It’s my belief that confidence comes from being able to be your authentic self. No matter your gender and how you express it, no matter what your expertise or how many connections you have or where (and indeed if) you went to university – fostering someone's authenticity will always lead into their confidence. And it becomes a positive cycle: The more you're accepted as your authentic self, the more confident you'll be, and the more confident you are, the more you can be yourself. We’re doing our best to help women grab hold of their damn power and ask for more.

LD: I love that. What’s your personal story with confidence as a woman? Did you have to find it or were you taught that as a child?

PW: I grew up in a household where the tenets valued the most were to work hard, be curious, be kind ­­­– and don’t be afraid to be a rebel. My mum always instilled – and continues to instill – a sense of self-worth in my sister and me. She taught us to harness our authentic, real personalities and experiences, to be proud of those (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and be strong because of them. This has led to us having high levels of resilience – a characteristic which for me is totally intertwined with confidence.

My mum is a feminist to the core and a huge reason why I have high levels of confidence as a woman specifically: From her I have learnt to back myself and to challenge the status quo. She didn’t go to university at first but was a social worker. Then in her 20s, she was one of the first directors setting up and establishing Childline, a national free phoneline for children in trouble or danger in the UK. It was really revolutionary. It gave children for the first time a voice, independent of their families, to reach out to someone to be heard. Because it’s a no-charge call, any child in the UK can reach out to get support and advice. She has continued for over 40 years now to have a steadfast commitment to the equality of rights, for children as well as women.

LD: That’s incredible.And how did you decide to become involved in investigations work?

PW: I wanted to be an investigator since I was about seven. My dad was a criminologist, focused on policing studies, and I've always been very academic. I loved politics, history, languages. Then, when I was choosing what to study at university, Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London. Litvinenko was a British-naturalized Russian defector and former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service. The case captivated me. I decided to learn Russian from scratch for my bachelor’s, which led me to be even more gripped by Russian culture and global relations. I ended up getting my master’s in International Security and Terrorism and focused my dissertation on assassination. Moving straight into private intelligence work after the MA, my career as an investigator started there. Whilst I have never wanted to sit on a ‘Russia desk’ as a lot of consultancy companies have in the sector, there is certainly not a shortage of investigations with a Russian focus – and it is still a region that totally fascinates me.

LD: And do you still love the work now that you’re in it?

PW: Absolutely. The matters that I find the most enthralling are investor/state disputes. We are regularly instructed by arbitration and/or enforcement counsel to identify the global assets of a sovereign state to support proceedings, usually in multiple jurisdictions concurrently. Not only do we build a thorough profile of the state’s assets, but understand local and international political and economic contexts, gather strategic intelligence that will help build legal arguments, and pinpoint pressure points of the adverse party that if pushed, may encourage it to pay monies owed to our client, or at least come to the negotiation table. State asset recovery exercises are complex and multi-faceted and require us as investigators to have sources on-the-ground in all the right places, and deep knowledge on concepts such as sovereign immunity.

LD: It sounds fascinating. Now, what are some steps companies and law firms can take to foster true gender equity and inclusiveness?

PW: Wow this is a huge question but I will provide a few nuggets of advice! First, it’s really important for firms and companies to understand their purpose. In order to build psychologically safe work environments, organizations need to wrap together that purpose, their strategy and their people. They can do this by not only fostering the right skills and behaviors in their teams, but having an effective and committed strategy to how they can help contribute to equality, diversity and inclusion of people of all genders. Tom Geraghty, founder of psychological safety training provider PsychSafety and host of the weekly Psychological Safety Newsletter, opines, “psychological safety can only truly exist in an inclusive culture, and a truly inclusive culture requires the psychological safety to speak up against non-inclusive behavior and speech.” You can harness your employees to be their authentic selves, for example, by practicing clean language, which is a form of questioning to find out how someone really feels.

It’s not as easy as saying, “Just be confident.” They can’t. You need to understand why, and that confidence is very subjective, it’s a feeling.

I would recommend that firms have training on what it means to allow someone to be their authentic self, and what it means to support employees to be leaders not only in their own careers, but their lives. The information, resources and people are there, we just need to use it and communicate.

We also need to truly comprehend that not only is creating a psychologically safe environment paramount for the people, but for performance. Delizonna offers that “we become more open-minded, resilient, motivated and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases, as does solution finding and divergent thinking – the cognitive process underlying creativity.” Can’t win business leaders' hearts? Well, win their minds.

We also need to pinpoint our stakeholders. I believe in multi-stakeholder collaboration between firms and organizations and forums. That's one of the reasons that we wanted to introduce The FFF Corporate Partnership, where we team up with companies for events and build valuable relationships long term. Because I believe in true alliance and allyship. If we want to achieve long-term sustainable change in terms of gender equality, we need to work together.

That's also why boys and men are part of the solution to gender equality and safe working environments. Men need to not shy away from discussing gender equality in the workplace, and outside of it, and taking actions to achieve it. The first step is to keep turning up! They need to be part of the conversations because they are the ones that are predominantly in power at the moment and are the traditional leaders. I know some incredible male allies. Some of my strongest allies and best friends are men – both professionally and personally. But some guys within the sector, including in major law firms, don't want to touch the gender issue with a bargepole. They’re either worried they’re going to mess it up, or they don’t believe in it. There are women who don’t believe in it, too. They think, “It’s going away. It’s got so much better.” Yes, of course we’ve made progress since women weren’t allowed to vote or own property. But there is still a lot of work to be done. And we need to work damn hard together to do it.