This article is part of a week of coverage by Responsible Investor to mark International Women’s Day 2023. 

international womens day 2023One month ahead of International Women’s Day 2023, Responsible Investor launched a call for responses to our first Women in Finance survey.

With the help of our readers and other market participants, we wanted to get a better understanding of why female representation in investment firms remains stubbornly low and what could be done to make the industry more inclusive.

We asked five questions:

The results are depressing, if not surprising (see below).

All but one of the 87 responses came from women, and they are not happy with the state of play. They are frustrated by the persistence of negative stereotypes, the failure to adapt workplaces to women’s needs, and above all by the lack of change in the senior echelons.

At the same time, they have plenty of constructive suggestions on how to address the issues raised.

Some issues may be tougher to address, particularly when they overlap with societal expectations of women or threaten established hierarchies.

In other cases, however, there would appear to be easier fixes – for example, addressing boys’ club culture, embracing flexible working, and educating men in being allies.

Family-work balance

Perhaps unsurprisingly, family, childcare and parental leave were key themes throughout the responses.

They were repeatedly flagged as the main barriers to achieving gender parity in the financial sector. Many respondents expressed their belief that women are penalised, get left behind or are excluded if they have children.

One noted that, on returning from maternity leave, many women are overlooked for big projects “under the assumption they can’t handle the workload any more”.

There were multiple complaints about a reluctance on the part of employers and colleagues to accept the need for work-life flexibility.

One woman reported being told: “The meeting is on Friday – we know you can’t be there due to childcare commitments, but we’re going ahead with it anyway.”

Another: “People should not be getting in at 9 am just because they fancy dropping their kids off at school in the morning.”

Yet another said they’ve been rejected for a position on the basis that could involve commitments outside standard working hours “so as a mum with a young child you aren’t suitable”.

As to how to address the situation – both in terms of the stereotypes associated with motherhood and the underlying issues – several respondents called for parity on parental leave. The normalisation of paternity leave was flagged as a priority, with some even suggesting it should be made mandatory.

“Make more public examples of successful women and men who are also looking after dependants,” said one respondent. “We need to show that success and valuable contribution to the industry should not just be judged in terms of number of hours available – working smart not just working hard.”

Other suggestions included better maternity pay and supporting women with children, for example by providing returning-to-work schemes. Greater flexibility on working hours and practices and working hours was also a key ask.

On Friday, RI will publish an in-depth feature on how maternity and childcare responsibilities inhibit women’s progress in the industry.

The old boys’ club

Another pervasive theme that cropped up in different ways was the continued presence in the investment industry of an “old boys club” and a lack of change – both physically and in attitudes – at the top.

As one respondent put it: “We are navigating a working environment that has been built by and for a homogenous demographic: white, cisgender, straight men from a privileged background. There needs to be acceptance that the system was built for you and that, without change, we will not have a diverse sector.”

A sobering response came in the answers to a request for advice for women starting out in the industry. “To succeed as a woman in finance you still have to act a lot like a man. Work all hours, put up with sexist pranks, and take the multitude of slings and arrows that come with unconscious bias without raising any fuss.”

The continued “pale and male” representation at the senior level was blamed for the failure to promote women into senior leadership – which as an issue in itself was mentioned many times as a barrier.

Even where there has been progress on policies and training at firms, respondents said it sometimes felt like box-ticking.

“There is a lot of we have to do this because otherwise it looks bad or if we do it then it’s good for our diversity stats,” said one.

Another noted: “The idea that having women in these positions is good for business and shareholder value is not filtering through.”

There were also plenty of examples of more egregious sexism in the industry.

One respondent was invited to join a panel with the words: “You don’t need to say much we just need a female face.”

‘Oh dear, there is a women present’

Again strengthening the impression that DE&I training has been less than effective, another reported a male colleague saying: “Oh dear, there is a women present now, so we can’t talk freely anymore.”

Hand-in-hand with this were issues concerning stereotypes about women and a male-centric “bro culture” when it came to company socialising.

Women complained of patronising and infantilising language – one was referred to as “my glamorous assistant” – and, in a similar vein, of being assumed to be or treated as if they were more junior.

One respondent summarised her experiences: “In meetings expecting me to be someone’s PA and not a rightful attendee. Going round the table doing introductions and ‘forgetting’ to let me introduce myself. Clients asking for ‘a man with grey hair’ instead of me to be their consultant before they even met me (just from pictures in pitch materials).”

General gender stereotyping was also a frequently mentioned issue.

One woman said she’d been told to put more make-up and look a bit more like another colleague. She also reported being called too emotional and being assumed to be a mother because she was a woman in her thirties.

Another was asked: “Why do you care so much about her career? In five years you’ll be married and shopping in Harrods every day.”

Some respondents also shared experiences of inappropriate behaviour, including one instance of a senior male consultant forcing a woman to host him at her flat after a night out, as well as wolf-whistling and demeaning or sexual language being used.

Earlier this week, RI investigated the extent to which the investment industry has addressed sexual harassment in the workplace and how asset owners are holding their managers to account.

Male allyship

For many respondents, a key tool for addressing these issues is education and training – particularly for management – on the issues women experience and how to support them, as well as male ally-ship.

“There has to be a mindset shift towards women by both women AND men,” said one. “Men have to start to become feminists, call out where non-inclusive behaviour is happening, be mindful of their language and go above and beyond to foster inclusive culture in organisations. It can’t only be driven by women and women’s networks.”

Other recommendations for changing work culture and tackling non-inclusive language included zero tolerance for poor behaviour and restrictions on alcohol-fuelled, late-night networking.

With regard to DE&I policies and training, respondents were split. A relatively small minority were confident that efforts so far had been effective.

“I think there is an absolutely palpable difference between what I experienced as a woman starting in finance in the early 2000s and where we are today,” one proponent commented.

“Just the raising of awareness on these issues, making sure that there is open dialogue, is really important. And policies have led to progress in the numbers, albeit more slowly than we might like.”

Nearly a third of respondents were unconvinced by DE&I strategies to date. The strategies were dismissed as “tick-boxing” exercises that failed to address “the real issues” such as actual representation or pay, and the need for them to be accompanied by other mechanisms like commitments, targets and incentives.

“The pandemic has probably helped to move things along a little bit more, but I can’t believe how glacial the improvement has been overall,” said one woman. “Things really don’t seem to have improved much in the 25 years I’ve been working in the City.”

A point of contention surrounded the visibility of other DE&I components in training and policies.

Three respondents said they felt gender had been side-lined. However, another said: “DE&I policies have been most successful (at least in the US/Western Europe) in advancing the careers of white, middle class women. Less successful in dealing with employees with (multiple) different identities, be they racial/ethnic differences, LGBTQ, disability, etc.”

The way forward

So what do women think will move the needle and finally address why finance continues to fail them?

Alongside the recommendations regarding families and work-life balance, as well as promoting more inclusive workplaces, ensuring more women are in senior positions, unsurprisingly, was flagged time and time again.

To achieve this – and generally help women move up the ladder – multiple respondents emphasised the need for women leadership or professional development programmes, as well as mentoring or sponsorships.

On mentoring, respondents said women earlier in their careers should seek it out and also pushed for senior women to champion and “help other women up the ladder” with advice, or sponsorship.

Senior women were also called on to encourage their firms to be a part of initiatives that encourage women to join the financial services industry, as well as calling out sexism and misogyny when they see it in people and processes.

“Please don’t fall for ‘I had to suffer, so you must go through it too’ mindset,” said one respondent. “Champion women in the business, be their representative and investigate behaviour which may harm women at work. Make it better for those who are starting/progressing.”

Not everyone was convinced, however, of the need for specific leadership training and development initiatives for women. “It makes it look like we need to develop skills we already often have,” said one respondent. “The issue is training the top.”

Other suggestions to ensuring more female representation across firms included changing recruitment practices as well as making leaders accountable for their diversity outcomes – for example, by penalising them for poor pay gap data and low diversity in their teams.

For some, however, the only way to achieve meaningful change is quotas for women in senior roles. “I am sorry to say, but I think there needs to be 10 years of positive discrimination to ensure this isn’t passed down through the generations.”