Is parity a pipe dream? Women in financial services

Why aren’t there more women in financial services? Is it a cultural or practical issue and how can we redress the imbalance for the next generation? These were the questions that occupied a panel which gathered at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills last week to discuss whether parity in financial services is a pipe dream, hosted by the Young Fabians Finance Network.

The panellists covered a range of ages, skills and experience which allowed the audience to understand how this problem has materialised: Pavita Cooper, co-founder of search firm Elliott Cooper and leader of the pipeline initiative for the 30% Club; Sue Langley, chief executive officer, Financial Services, UK Trade and Investment (also non-executive director of UK Asset Resolution);  Madison Marriage, reporter, FTfm and Marion Leslie, managing director, pricing and reference services, Thomson Reuters (and board member, London Women’s Forum).

Chairing the event, I wanted to get under the skin of why the problem of gender inequality in financial services persists and whether the ‘old boys’ club’ accusation is still justified.

In recent months, media coverage of women in business has focused on the role that greater flexibility in the workplace has played in improving women’s participation in the industry. As the panel agreed, the words ‘flexible working’ are anathema to those who want to be perceived as serious and committed to their professional life. But as finance has become more global, there is an increasing need for employees who can fit different time zones and working patterns. A better work/life balance, be it to look after children or enjoy other life pursuits, will benefit everyone. From a semantics perspective, the term ‘agile working’ is a much more accurate description of a professional approach that leverages the technology now available to create a work life that can accommodate other priorities.

As Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, argues, women need partners who are supportive and engaged, and willing to take on their fair share of household responsibilities – without it, women simply cannot move forward, and they cannot be shy about asking potential partners about the division of labour early on in a relationship.

One of the major concerns voiced by the panel was the lack of confidence suffered by many women which discourages them from putting themselves forward for promotion. There are many and complex reasons for this, and mentorship and sponsor schemes are two extremely effective ways of addressing it. But it is something everyone can contribute to – not least by telling talented junior female colleagues so, and encouraging them to apply for more senior roles.  

The statistics on how women in the fund management industry are treated were particularly shocking – with 30% having suffered sexual harassment at work and 50% enduring regular sexist behaviour, according to an FTfm survey. One respondent said women are labelled as either the ‘team tart’ or ‘ball-breaking ice maiden’ to get along. Dressing appealingly or discreetly appears to draw equal scorn. It was agreed that companies need to explain how they are addressing the issue, and anyone, male or female, has to call out this behaviour. To protect from fear of reprisals, some corporates are introducing new external whistleblowers to allow for truly anonymous complaints.

As the panel discussed, equally, men who have flexible working arrangements or extended paternity leave are loathe to tell colleagues what they are doing – but this will not become normal practice until male executives can be upfront, and even proud, about assuming these responsibilities without worrying about the impact on their career.

There are reasons to be optimistic however. At board level, executives are now hyper-sensitive to improving diversity and there are signs we may have reached an inflection point with both media coverage around flexible working and the disdain reserved for boards which cannot manage to appoint a single woman. Men are not born with board experience after all; women have to start somewhere. Broadly, there was confidence that this can be achieved without quotas, which it was agreed will not be the route we need to achieve genuine equality. However, the financial services industry still holds incredible opportunities for women. Only by participating in it and being successful within it can we hope to bring about change.

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