From oil rig to boardroom: Mastercard's vice-chair Ann Cairns on her extraordinary rise to success

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

Ann Cairns took an unusual route to the top of some of the world’s biggest financial services companies.

She began her career as a research engineer for British Gas, becoming the first woman ever to work on offshore oil rigs in the UK.

In preparation for her role, Cairns had to undergo the notorious underwater helicopter escape training off the coast of Great Yarmouth in the North Sea.

Being the first woman to achieve such a feat presented an issue.

“The suit they had given me was the smallest size man’s suit — and I was about three-stone lighter at the time and had a pixie face — and so all of the water gushed into the back of my suit,” Cairns said on Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show.

“In fact, I wouldn’t have survived with that suit so they had to make me a special one when they realised that it wasn’t working,” she added.

Cairns also recalled she accidentally left the suit behind on a train — never to be recovered again.

“I went to the lost property office and I said, ‘I’ve left my bag on the 7.35 from Bexley Heath,’ and the chap says, what did you have in it? And I said, ‘Well, a total rubber enclosure suit and a tin of powdered milk.’ He was going to say, ‘What do you need the powdered milk for?!’”

Mastercard vice-chairman Ann Cairns (right) on the 'Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded' show. Photo: Yahoo Finance UK

Cairns switched to investment banking, another male-dominated industry, working at firms including Citibank and ABN AMRO Bank. She went on to help restructure Lehman’s Brothers’ international operations through its Chapter 11 process, and eventually joined Mastercard in 2011. She now serves as the company’s vice-chair.

Financial inclusion is one of Cairns’ key remits at Mastercard, with a particular focus on connecting women to financial products in developing countries. In June, Cairns became chair of the Financial Alliance for Women, which works to ensure women have better access to financial services.

Her focus on inclusion also extends to the corporate world. Cairns recently became co-chair of The 30% Club, a UK-based organisation that campaigns for greater representation of women across all levels of global businesses.

“I feel that I’ve been really trying to change things for women in the corporate world ... In later life, of course, as you become more powerful, you can influence and impact more women both internal to your company and external.” Cairns said on the Global Change Agents show.

Watch the full Ann Cairns Global Change Agents interview for:

  • Why Cairns became a research engineer

  • Her oil rig training and switch to finance

  • Cairns on the changing attitudes to parental leave during her career

  • Cairns’ lessons learned rising up the career ladder

  • Cairns’ advice on the importance of communication in a crisis

  • Cairns on restoring trust in the finance industry

  • Why Mastercard recently rebranded

  • Cairns on being mistaken for the “spouse” at Davos during a meeting with Joe Biden

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the stories of some of the most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.