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Can Online Education Fix the Gender Diversity Problem in Finance?

Girls are often told that math is for boys—it’s an old way of thinking, but I think that to some extent, it is still out there.

Dr. Jana Sacks, Clinical Professor of Finance in the W.P. Carey School of Business

Now is a good time for college students to consider careers in finance. In the next decade, there is expected to be a healthy boost in the number of jobs available in the sector. For instance, the number of financial analyst positions is anticipated to grow by 6 percent, while personal financial advisor jobs are expected to increase by 7 percent between 2018 and 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019).

The individuals that will fill these positions, however, will be overwhelmingly male. Finance is still one of the most unequal sectors of the workforce with regards to gender. Women only make up less than one in five, or 18 percent, of finance professionals in the U.S. according to recent studies. For comparison, the female-to-male ratio in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)—another traditionally male-dominated area—has already hit 50 percent female in the U.S. by one measure from the Pew Research Center.

In certain areas of finance, the picture is even more bleak—and it tends to get worse higher up the company ladder. Within firms of alternative investments (e.g., hedge funds, private real estate funds and private equity, venture capital), women made up only 13 percent of CEOs according to a 2018 survey.

Gender disparity of this level would perhaps be less surprising in fields like masonry or construction, jobs that involve the operation of heavy equipment, but in a lucrative, white-collar field like finance, it’s somewhat baffling that the gap is this wide in 2020.

We talked to a finance professor to find out what could be hindering women from breaking into the field, potential solutions to the problem, and why it’s important that the gender gap in finance be reduced.

Meet the Expert: Professor Jana Sacks

Jana Sacks

Dr. Jana Sacks is a clinical professor of finance at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, where she teaches courses on the fundamentals of finance, derivatives, and portfolio management. She has worked in various areas of finance, both as a professional and within academia. After eight years as an associate professor of finance at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, she entered the professional world of finance, working for a year in equity research analysis at Patria Finance in Prague, as well as serving as the president of QuantStar Capital in New York. Dr. Sacks holds a doctorate in economics and finance from the New School in New York.

What’s Causing Gender Disparity in Finance?

As a woman in the industry, Dr. Sacks has witnessed gender disparity in finance first-hand, in both the academic and the professional contexts, throughout her 15 years in the industry.

The reality is that the finance world is still somewhat of a “boy’s club.” Dr. Sacks lightheartedly compared her days in professional finance to scenes from Mad Men— the TV drama that depicts the emulous workplace culture in advertising during the 1960s, when men dominated the board rooms on Madison Avenue. Yet, while marketing and advertising have made strides in gender equality—seeing a tidal wave of female entrants over the last 50 years—finance seems to have lagged behind.

“I had a professional finance experience, and there, I definitely experienced it quite a bit,” Dr. Sacks said. “For women, I would say it is challenging because we are very outnumbered, but it’s not impossible. . .Perhaps finance will catch up, but from my professional finance experience, the gender gap is still very much there,” she added. “It’s hard to say why finance is such a standout [compared to other industries], but it is.”

Dr. Sacks mentioned that the continued gender disparity can’t be boiled down to one source, but is likely the result of a few different subtle factors. Experts point to three main culprits.

Lack of Representation

Lack of representation is one aspect thought to be dissuading girls from pursuing careers in finance. While this factor is difficult to quantify, the absence of female faces in positions of power is widely thought to be a depressant in the progress of gender parity across industries.

Even when girls do see female characters portrayed in the media, it’s usually “with little to say, few career options, and even fewer aspirations,” according to See Jane, an organization which is dedicated to improving the representation of girls in media.

Female figures in positions of power are not only important for the sake of visibility, but also to help mentor young girls. The more female mentors and role models available to them, the more girls will consider careers in finance, initiating a snowball effect.

These kinds of breakthroughs have been observable in STEM, with more and more women pursuing engineering, computer science, and math-oriented careers over the last decade. More men breaking into traditionally female careers has also contributed, increasing the male ratios of nurses and flight attendants.

Failure to Promote Girls’ Self-Confidence in Math

It’s nice to imagine that we have superseded gender roles in our society, but studies show that girls still believe they aren’t as naturally good at math as boys are.

“A lot of it is maybe cultural,” Dr. Sacks said. “Girls are often told that math is for boys—it’s an old way of thinking, but I think that to some extent, it is still out there. Girls, in general, tend to focus on more creative fields, like marketing which is unusually heavy in female populations.”

Research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that this is true. “Even many high-achieving girls have low levels of confidence in their ability to solve science and mathematics problems and express high levels of anxiety towards mathematics,” the study reports.

This belief is usually internalized early on—as young as two years old—and can stay with them throughout higher education.

Candy Lee, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University wrote about the phenomenon in an article for TIME. She said she hears this narrative in comments from her female graduate students on a regular basis.

“When I probe about their reasons for taking my courses on leadership or when I ask what frightens them about becoming leaders, many will admit an aversion to math,” Lee wrote.

Asking the question of why girls are still holding this belief is uncomfortable, but needs to be addressed. Many think that the blame lies in a continued ineptitude within our education system to instill the belief in girls that they are just as capable at succeeding in math and pursuing math-based careers as boys.

Lifestyle Challenges

“Then, there are lifestyle differences that will challenge your own emotional bandwidth,” Dr. Sacks said. “Especially in the investment side of things.”

Investment banking and other finance jobs are notorious for their 80- to 100-hour workweeks, which oftentimes include working on Saturdays and Sundays. This is due to unpredictable work demands and the fact that the division of labor in this sector is difficult. Consequently, it’s challenging for organizations to simply add more employees to pick up the slack. For family-oriented people, especially women that plan to have children, this can be a dissuading factor.

McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm and research organization, found that the challenge of balancing work and family life was the number one reason senior-level women in finance do not strive to become top executives.

Who could forget the story of Blythe Masters, a former executive at JPMorgan who became the company’s youngest female managing director at the age of 28, who famously continued to evaluate financial numbers while checking into the hospital to give birth to her first child?

Institutions have taken some measures to accommodate their female employees with families: Morgan Stanley now has lactation rooms and Goldman Sachs offers daycare in its New York and New Jersey offices. These are commendable first steps on the part of employers.

Ninety percent of financial-services companies say they are “committed to gender diversity,” according to the same McKinsey study. But despite good intentions and some heartening HR policies, women still feel pressure to take as little leave time as possible, as staying engaged with clients is crucial to career success.

Now that we’ve explored some of the main causes of gender disparity in finance, let’s revisit the question of why it’s important to achieve more balance in the field.

Why Should We Strive for Gender Balance in Finance?

“From the point of view of gender equality, it’s important that we get women into jobs where they can take care of their families, they can achieve that financial safety factor—that they will be able to provide for their families,” Dr. Sacks said. “I think that it’s just an issue of balance and inequality in society.” This should go without saying.

But evening out the gender disparity problem in finance isn’t just about equality or feminism; it’s just good business sense. There is real financial value in creating teams in which both genders are represented.

“The field would greatly benefit from more balance,” Dr. Sacks said. “Women have a lot to offer—they’re hardworking and diligent. They can enrich the industry.”

McKinsey’s research supports Sacks’ sentiment. It found that organizations with greater gender diversity perform better. Finance companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability and 27 percent more likely to demonstrate superior value creation. Furthermore, companies that do not focus on gender diversity will find themselves at a disadvantage “in the war for talent,” McKinsey said.

“Anybody who doesn’t think about how to bring in more women won’t be able to compete, because they’re just cutting out half the talent from their opportunity set,” Jenny Johnson, president and COO at Franklin Templeton Investments stated in the survey.

Having more female leaders on finance companies’ legal teams also promotes “a more rounded view of customers,” meaning that companies can gain better insights into their client bases. “This is particularly critical in financial services, given that more than half of women now control their household finances and are responsible for household savings and investing,” the study said.

Could Online Education Help Fix This Problem?

Over the past decade, there are an increasing number of educational programs in finance being offered online. Some of the top finance schools in the country are offering distance-based bachelor’s and master’s degrees. With this new avenue of higher education gaining traction, we also sought to understand if this new trend could begin to even out the gender imbalance in finance.

In the world of digital learning, women dominate. According to a report from Aslanian Market Research and the Learning House from spring 2015, 70 percent of online undergraduate students were female and among graduate students, 72 percent of students were female.

Why? One main reason is that online learning allows students to more easily juggle school and family life. So, for mothers who may not be able to enroll in on-campus programs, the flexibility that online education affords is ideal.

“A lot of us have more responsibility, family responsibilities, kids, even grandkids,” Amanda Tutlewski, a nursing student, told U.S. News & World Report in 2015. “It’s more convenient for us, and it makes education more accessible.”

Some organizations are using online formats to target the matter closer to the root, addressing the aforementioned need to encourage the early development of financial literacy. Girls Who Invest, a non-profit headquartered in New York, aims to increase the number of women in portfolio management and executive leadership in the asset management industry. One of its initiatives, the GWI online intensive program (OIP), is a tuition-free, self-guided summer learning program designed to give students a foundation in core finance and investment concepts.

And the fact that online education enables students to learn independently gives women and girls an opportunity to pursue the subject in an environment that is not physically dominated by men, reducing the intimidation factor of the male-dominated classroom setting.

But do academics agree that online study is a good fit for finance?

“There are some drawbacks—that students can’t get the same kind of [classroom] synergy—but with finance being a more technical, math-oriented field, it would probably be easier to teach online than other creative fields,” Sacks said. “[With online study], students don’t have to be physically present and can manage their time more effectively. I think overall, it’s a good fit.”

Looking Forward

While Dr. Sacks acknowledges the gender disparity in finance, she says she has also witnessed improvement in the last ten years. “It will probably be slow, but there are definitely more and more female students in my classes,” she said.

Dr. Sacks encourages prospective female students to consider careers in finance. “I would say that it’s an exciting field. It’s rewarding, it’s challenging, and it provides a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “If you really set your mind and heart to it, it’s definitely possible to be very successful as a woman.”

Nina Chamlou

Nina Chamlou is an avid freelance writer from Portland, OR. She writes about economic trends, business, technology, digitization, supply chain, healthcare, education, aviation, and travel. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, or traveling abroad, studying the locale from behind her MacBook. Visit her website at www.ninachamlou.com.