Women in finance

How can more women reach the senior ranks of the industry? Hannah Langworth hears from some of those who've made it

Investment banks and other organisations in the finance sector have been making significant efforts for some years to encourage more women to enter the field, but women still remain in a minority in the senior ranks of the sector. So what's stopping more women in finance from reaching the top, and what advice do those who have reached senior positions in the industry have for women contemplating a career here?

The University of London Finance Network, a student-run organisation that aims to educate young people about the world of finance and careers in the sector, recently ran an evening event to discuss these questions. Over 70 female students interested in working in finance gathered to hear some thoughts on these issues from a panel of women in senior business and graduate recruitment positions at investment banks Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Rothschild, and Big Four professional services firms KPMG and PwC.

What obstacles to progression can women in finance face - and how can they overcome them?

  • Staying in the background: While none of the women on the panel had experienced conscious gender bias, Isabel Jenkins of PwC pointed out: "Sometimes men choosing someone for a job will subconsciously choose another man because they feel more comfortable working with them and understand how they act." The solution? Be prepared to get involved, promote yourself and your abilities, and make sure you're not forgotten.
  • Family commitments: The demands of parenthood can lead to women with potential leaving an organisation prematurely. But Veronica Bateman of Bank of America Merrill Lynch felt that opportunities for women to combine a job in finance with being a mum are increasing: "There are many things that the industry is doing on the issue. Going forward, things will only get better and we should see more women staying." Isabel Jenkins added that it's important to remember that childcare is not a specifically female responsibility: "Don't assume that you'll have to be the major carer. It's something you can share with your partner, as I do. I'd hate anyone here to think that they're going to have to be the one making all the sacrifices."

What advice do women already in the industry have for those embarking on careers in finance?

  • Remember that the industry needs you: Lucy Baldwin of Goldman Sachs emphasised that it's not just a desire to promote equality for its own sake that's leading investment banks and other employers in the finance sector to encourage women to join them: "If you look at a group of listed companies, those with a diverse workforce perform better."
  • Be ready for the unexpected: Isabel Jenkins reminded those attending that in finance - as in life in general - you have to be prepared to make the most of whatever is thrown at you: "It's important to plan and make informed decisions, but often the reason you end up somewhere is because of chance. You'll have sudden opportunities - be brave and take them. I've spent the last three years winding down Lehman Brothers and working to stabilise the UK and Irish banking sectors, and these are both things I had to make decisions about in thirty minutes."

What application tips would they give female students interested in working in finance?

  • Apply! The first step in winning any internship or graduate role is submitting an application form - and don't be afraid to do so. The panellists stressed that they're always delighted to receive good applications from female candidates. Women shouldn't be put off by high ratios of applications to places offered - many submitted forms are from unsuitable candidates, as Anne Charvonia of Bank of America Merrill Lynch pointed out: "In a pile of thousand applications that we receive, we quickly whittle out many because of silly mistakes." Her advice for female candidates who think they could make the grade? "Believe in yourself and the skills that you can bring to the table!"
  • Do your homework: More female than male students study for humanities and social science degrees and, while those with such qualifications are very welcome in the finance world, it's a fact that they need to do more technical preparation for their applications to a finance firm than those who have studied maths or economics. Said Anne Charvonia of Bank of America Merrill Lynch: "If you've got a genuine passion for the markets, you'll be doing it anyway."
  • Market yourself: Remember that interviewers want to hear about your abilities and relevant experiences - so don't be shy! Rachel Boyd of Goldman Sachs commented: "I think sometimes as women we don't sell ourselves as well as we potentially could. Our female candidates can be quieter and less forthcoming with information and how they brand themselves."