After #MeToo, leaders in finance see tough road ahead for young women

As a female managing director at a prominent investment firm in New York City, a professional I’ll call Amy is an anomaly. Fewer than 17 percent of senior leaders in investment banking are women and Amy said her 15-year road to the top, starting as an analyst in 2003, was quite challenging.

When working in Asia, she dealt with bosses who would force her to sit through client events held in brothels. She had uncomfortable meetings with colleagues who told her she needed to spend more time at the office than her male peers. She even is postponing having a second child out of fear that it will make it challenging for her to progress in her career.

The problems that Amy experienced on her way up the corporate ladder are by now almost the background noise of the “Me Too” movement — so common that talking about them elicits nods and similar tales from women in every industry. Yet despite this growing conversation, Amy still wanted to stay off the record: She is not confident that women starting out in finance today will have it much easier than she did.

“Even if you do the same amount of work as a guy, it’s like you have to work harder,” she said. “Then you have to talk about your work all the time and you have to talk about it with more people.”

The finance industry — for decades the prime example of an industry unable to recruit or retain women — has largely escaped the blaring harassment headlines, which have toppled leaders in entertainment, media, tech and more. But professionals in the industry say issues are still festering. Fewer than half of high-ranking women agree that men and women are equally likely to become leaders in finance, according to a recent LinkedIn survey of more than 1,000 members. Interviews with nearly two dozen women across levels in finance paint the picture of a sector that still struggles to provide adequate support for women trying to get to the top.

While the women’s roles within finance varied from managing partners to associates working in retail banking, capital markets, investment management and more, their stories were consistent: Glass ceilings still hover over Wall Street’s hallways and female mentors with the experience to help young women navigate it remain hard to come by.

“I’m the only woman,” said a 23-year-old analyst at an investment advisory firm in Newport Beach, Calif. in an interview. “Everyone used to stare at me, but I think they’ve gotten used to me being around so now they’ve stopped… it’s pretty clear to me that I’m just not a part of the boy’s club.”

‘The shock of my life’

When Veronica Bray entered the workforce in 2003, it was the first year that her North Carolina-based employer allowed women to wear pantsuits to work. For ten years, Bray worked her way up in financial sales until she was solidly in middle management, but then she stopped moving. She watched as her male colleagues get promoted to partner before she had a chance to even apply for the role. She sat through a meeting once where a client asked her if she wore a certain pair of shoes to “turn him on.”

Bray, now 43, finally decided to start her own retirement planning company to avoid working in a “male-dominated world.”

“There are just so many old school people in our industry,” she said. “They are not open to new ideas or doing something that is against what they have always done.”

Bray’s experiences mirror those of a vice president at Morgan Stanley who started her career in finance more than a decade later. After a stint working in consulting in New York City, the 31-year-old decided to go into finance and received “the shock of her life” when it came to culture, she said in an interview.

She watched as three of her male colleagues got promoted without any indication that a role was on the table to even consider. She then met with her managing director to discuss quarterly goals and assignments she’d like to lead. Yet the same men who she claims are not scheduling those separate meetings continue to get the choice assignments.

“I feel like I have to shine to get that promotion and they can just show up,” she said.

(A Morgan Stanley spokesperson said that the bank sponsors multiple division-specific and firm-wide programs designed to help female employees in their career. A six-month development program for female vice presidents and executive directors, for example, includes skill development courses, contact with senior leaders and peer-to-peer networking.)

Both male and female respondents to LinkedIn’s survey cited an unsupportive or biased corporate culture as the top obstacle preventing women from advancing in their careers. Ellen McCarthy, a managing director and the chief risk officer at New York-based consulting firm VMS, said that biased culture has been present throughout her nearly 30-year-long career. She recalls starting her career in finance in the late 1980s and getting asked by all-male interview committees if she planned to get married soon.

What they really wanted to know, she claims, is if she was going to get pregnant and leave.

“There was no such thing as work-life balance,” she said. “I still think today there is some of that residual mentality that if she is taking time off, she is not 100% focused on her job and just doesn’t deserve the choice assignments.”

The vice president at Morgan Stanley feels like she saw traces of the culture that McCarthy experienced where an inflexible work culture makes it challenging for her to feel comfortable being herself at work. She is afraid to eat away from her desk for fear of looking like a slacker and she won’t discuss any of her personal interests outside of work out of concern that her colleagues won’t think that she is working hard enough.

“I don’t want people to think that I have too much time out of work,” she said. “It has been hard to marry the two without that flexibility.”

‘Nothing that protects young women’

For young women just starting out in finance, one trend is clear: Finding a mentor early on can have a massive influence. Katherine Breiding, a 25-year-old associate for Goldman Sachs in Salt Lake City, shared that she has had several female mentors during the short two-year tenure of her career. These women have families and still have made it to higher levels within the firm, giving her confidence that she will be able to the same one day.

“I have been able to get promoted faster than my other peers that are male, so I can’t say that anything held me back,” she said. “[My managers] have caused me to have a lot of success because I had great relationships with them.”

The importance of mentorship isn’t something that is lost on most financial services firms. Investment banks like Goldman Sachs, retail ones like KeyBank and others have been organizing regional networks and career services programs for more than a decade. That doesn’t mean that some young women don’t fall through the cracks.

A former entry-level employee at a well-known investment firm based in New York City said she left after just one year because she couldn’t find women in senior management to support her. Instead, she was left with an intern class that was only 3 percent female and a manager who passed over her for key assignments.

She went to human relations, but said little changed.

“Instead of saying things like ‘I don’t think you can do this because you are a girl,’ he would just say ‘I don’t think you can do that’,” she said. “There is nothing that protects young women from guys like that.”

The now 24-year-old associate finds herself at a boutique firm where there are several female leaders in management that have taken her under the wing. Just being able to talk to senior leaders about things like going shopping and having dinner with her boyfriend is enough to give her confidence that she too can have a career in finance, she said.

‘Maybe it is a bit easier’

Despite the unequal treatment women across all levels say is still rampant across the industry, female respondents to LinkedIn’s survey believe that things are improving. In the next ten years, 66% agree that the finance industry will shift toward more equal representation. Some 70% of male respondents felt the same way.

Susana Vivares, a managing partner and founder of financial services firm Electa Partners, remembers what it was like to be an entry-level associate just starting out in finance. As a woman, as well as an immigrant, Vivares felt she had to stick her hand up for every opportunity and worked over the weekend, Christmas and New Year’s Eve holidays to prove her dedication.

The next wave of women working their way up in finance won’t have to go through that as much, she believes.

“The new generation has different priorities,” she said. “They believe that there is another way to do things. There is no black and white. There is grey.”

Jamie Ngo, a 22-year-old analyst at UBS, feels like she has seen traces of the bias culture that Vivares and others experienced in their career. She just started at UBS this month, but through her summer internships in college, she couldn’t help but notice that women further along in their careers were only in support roles to male leaders.

Yet despite seeing very few women making it all the way to the top, Ngo said she is grateful to the women that came before her. Referencing female leaders in finance by name like NYSE President Stacy Cunningham and Ellevest Founder Sallie Krawcheck, Ngo said the cracks these women put in the glass ceiling allow her to see enough light to push forward.

“They put women in a good light so maybe it is a bit easier,” she said. “I still feel the burden to get my foot in the door, but now that these women have gone through it, we can use that to our advantage.”

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