I don’t mean to sound prurient, but the men in banking are all on top. And as you’ll know if you’ve worked in the industry, the women in the industry are all below them.
I quit banking earlier this year because I was frustrated. I was fed up with being a “pretty” woman who was held back because finance has structural issues. Last week the Financial Times published research showing that women make up 58% of the junior staff in finance firms but only 26% of senior ones. Finance is an industry where old male bankers manage bright young women. Fact.
This has big implications for the dynamic in the industry. Male management is self-perpetuating and in itself is a big reason so many women drop out of the mid-ranks. The male bosses get kind of sweaty around the collar at the sight of all the young women. It’s not that they’re chasing after them – it’s the exact opposite. They want to avoid them. They’re scared of spending too much time in our company.
I had a boss, for example, who seemed to find it almost impossible to talk to me. We had all these problems because he couldn’t seem to communicate in my presence. It was easier for him to ignore me, so he wouldn’t invite me to things. He’d never ask me to drinks alone. He’d leave me out of team social occasions but invite all the guys. It was like I unsettled him.
The higher you go on Wall Street, the more this gets to be a problem. When you’re junior – an analyst or an associate – you pretty much get promoted automatically. You just have to be around a certain number of years. Once you get more senior, though, it’s all about how much your boss rates you and how much visibility you’ve got. This is a problem when your male boss clams up in your presence and all the other (mostly male) bosses avoid spending one-on-one time with you at all costs for fear of being accused of something salacious. You don’t get much mentoring as an attractive young woman in banking.
Because of this I don’t think any of my women colleagues at my level got promoted while I was there. Smart women’s input gets ignored while the male bosses listen to the junior males who they can more easily hang out with and relate to. Of course there are some senior women in banking (the 26%), but they’re such a small minority that you don’t always come across them. Personally I never had a female boss and although there were some great women who always went to bat for their juniors, some of the harshest feedback I ever received was from a female MD who said I needed to be more graceful and feminine.
This is the trouble. If you want to get ahead in finance as a woman you need to think about how you present yourself. You need to be “nice,” but not so nice so you get railroaded. You need to be, “pretty,” but not so pretty that it’s threatening. You don’t want to be sassy or bold or masculine, or it’s far harder. Nice and pretty without being challenging are the only way. If you can master that, you’ll get ahead. Men don’t have to do this. They get to be themselves.
I’s made worse by the fact that once you get beyond analyst level most of the women are the secretaries and admins. Nor does it help most of the guys are dating or married to women who are working or have worked in PR and fashion. Smart, attractive women are simply not something most finance guys know how to handle.
And so you see all these brilliant young women passed over for these mediocre men. At the big firm I worked for we once had an assistant who was really smart and wanted to move up. She’d passed the CFA exam and everything, but when we had a junior spot open up the team wouldn’t even consider her. They preferred to hire junior guys with no experience who couldn’t even answer basic accounting questions.
Eventually you get sick of it. Finance can be a pretty sh*tty industry and the bright, beautiful, bold young women who get hired in their hundreds soon figure that there are better things to do. This leaves all the non-threatening mediocre men for the MDs to invite out for drinks and have over to their houses for their Christmas parties. The men in Wall Street have to be on top. It’s kind of a shame. The funny thing is I don’t think they really even understand what they’re missing.
Amy Smith is a pseudonym