Women Breaking Barriers in Finance
OnlineEducation.com interviewed three prominent female executives in finance. These women share their unique career trajectories and perceptions of the underrepresentation of women in their industry, paying thought to how they broke barriers in the field and offering advice to women considering related professions.
Suzann CablingSuzann Cabling is the CFO of Jackson Square Properties, a private real estate investment company in San Francisco. Prior to joining the company, she worked at eTrade Financial and earned her MBA through a joint program at UC Berkeley and Columbia University. With an estimated 20,000 residential units across nine states, the assets of Jackson Square Properties are worth more than $3.8 billion today.
Mary Beth KreisslerMary Beth Kreissler has served as the CFO and SVP of various startups throughout San Francisco and Washington DC. She assists growing companies with strategic planning, budgeting, tax management, international expansions, debt and equity financing, and many other services. With nine years of broad-based consulting experience across all types of companies, she aims to prepare her clients for IPOs and acquisitions. She holds an MBA from Columbia University.
Marguerite MoyetMarguerite Moyet is the Senior Vice President, Senior Banker, and Relationship Manager at KeyBank Real Estate Capital. Ms. Moyet started as a customer service representative in 1992, working her way up to accountant and, later, structured finance credit analyst. She now originates $300-500 million in loans annually, and actively manages a portfolio of loans worth between $200 and $300 million. She holds an MBA with a concentration in information systems.
The Demographics of Finance: Where Are All of the Women?
You have to figure out what you’re good at and what you like, and chase that as hard as you can regardless of who else is in the field. (Suzann Cabling)
There’s a long history of discrimination against women, but you wouldn’t realize it by speaking to Mary Beth Kreissler, Suzann Cabling, and Marguerite Moyet. These remarkable finance executives gently acknowledged historical injustices, but they stood firm in their belief that by working hard and refusing to play the victim, they had risen above one of the most entrenched prejudices in the United States: sexism. While these exceptional women considered themselves lucky for not being held back by their gender, a look at U.S. history and the current demographics of finance shows how far we are from achieving parity.
Ms. Kreissler, for example, pointed out that before the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), women could be fired simply for being pregnant. She added that prior to the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), women typically needed the permission of their husbands or fathers to get credit cards. Echoes of these laws and many others still affect women’s professional aspirations. For example, the PDA reminds us that U.S. corporate culture has never been family-friendly. Even today, the U.S. is one of three countries in the world without paid maternity leave, joined by Papua New Guinea and Lesotho. Also, the ECOA severely restricted women’s ability to control their own finances, let alone to pursue careers in financial leadership. The legacy of the concentration of wealth and privileges in the hands of “old boys’ clubs” is reflected in the current demographics of finance.
Women in Finance: The Numbers
Here on the west coast, I think there are more women at my same level, but we’re a national bank. Throughout the country, I think there are only three women out of 35 people in the role. (Marguerite Moyet)
All three interviewees acknowledged that they worked with predominantly men, which is not surprising given the data about women in finance. For example, Morningstar (June 2015) reported that only 10 percent of all U.S. fund managers were women, and men exclusively run 74 percent of the industry’s assets. The report pointed out a “leaky pipeline” issue, where women earn only 37 percent of MBAs, compared to 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Notably, Ms. Kreissler, Ms. Cabling, and Ms. Moyet all hold MBAs.
Women’s underrepresentation in finance is especially acute in leadership positions. Ms. Kreissler pointed out, “I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a female CFO my entire career. My past supervisors were never female, whether they were my accounting manager, my director of finance, my VP, my CFO—they were all men.” This observation is corroborated by the data. Catalyst (Sept. 2019 update), a nonprofit organization seeking to make workplaces more gender-inclusive, found that among S&P 500 companies, women made up only 5.4 percent of CEOs and 26.5 percent of executives and senior managers. Similarly, Korn Ferry (Aug. 2016) analyzed the top 1,000 U.S. companies by revenue and found that only 12 percent of the CFOs were women. Overall, women occupied less than one-quarter of the most prominent positions in the C-Suite (e.g., CEO, CFO, CIO) across these companies.
Even more disconcerting is the glaring pay gap in financial occupations. Drawing from data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Institute For Women’s Policy Research (IWPR April 2017) found that the profession with the largest gender wage gap was ‘personal financial advisor,’ where women earned only 55.6 percent of the median weekly earnings of men in the same position. In other words, the gender wage gap in that occupation is a stunning 44.4 percent. The IWPR added that in general, the top-paying occupations had the largest gender gaps; also, fields dominated by men (e.g., engineering, finance) tended to pay more than fields dominated by women at similar skill levels (e.g., education). The BLS (March 2017) reported the following glaring wage gaps in finance and sales:
- Insurance sales agents: 58 percent (women’s earnings relative to men’s, 2016)
- Real estate brokers and sales agents: 64 percent
- Securities, commodities, and financial services sales agents: 65 percent
- Marketing and sales managers: 65 percent
- Sales representatives (services): 69 percent
- Financial services: 69 percent
According to another account of the gender pay gap in finance, a Glassdoor study (March 2017) found that men in finance made 6.4 percent more than women, an “adjusted wage gap” holding constant experience, education, job title, and other factors.
Perhaps even more alarming than the pay disparities is a March 2017 paper from business professors at Stanford and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota; titled When Harry Fired Sally: The Double Standard in Punishing Misconduct, this research showed that while male financial advisors were three times as likely to be involved in professional misconduct; are twice as likely to be repeat offenders; and commit misdeeds which cost 20 percent more than women’s, women were more severely punished. Specifically, women were 20 percent more likely to lose their jobs following following misconduct, and 30 percent less likely to find new jobs compared to their male colleagues. The authors euphemistically stated that these differences were due to “taste-based discrimination.” Given that men make up three-quarters of the profession and it has the highest gender wage gap of any U.S. job, it’s fair to call this blatant sexism.
Career Advice for Women in Finance
I keep my head down; I don’t complain much; I don’t make excuses; and I don’t play the victim…I just work hard. (Mary Beth Kreissler)
Despite the grim realities of women’s underrepresentation, low pay, and tendency to be punished more than men (at least in financial advising), Mary Beth Kreissler, Suzann Cabling, and Marguerite Moyet were undaunted in their careers. Poised and confident, trusted and valued for their expertise, these three women have succeeded in joining the upper echelons of financial management. There were several themes that emerged in conversations with these exceptional professionals.
Distilled Advice for Women in Finance
Here’s a breakdown of our experts’ career advice for women working in finance.
- Don’t focus on the possibility of discrimination; work above it. All three interviewees were focused squarely on working hard, networking, and keeping their clients happy. Rather than seeking out evidence of sexism, they all put their focus on their careers, confident in their intelligence and experience. Ms. Cabling stated, “It’s mainly men in real estate and in finance…I don’t feel that I’ve been limited by that. Perhaps I’ve just ignored it or I was taught that I shouldn’t focus on what’s keeping you down; you just work harder to get where you want to be.” Ms. Moyet took it one step further and found that being a woman had a significant advantage: she found that, “A lot of clients prefer working with women because they find women are harder working than men.”
- Work as if there weren’t a glass ceiling. Related to the point above, the professional, gender-related equivalent of “fake it till you make it” has worked well for all three interviewees, who seemed beneficially blind to the existence of a glass ceiling. Ms. Cabling remarked, “I think some women are scared to set their sight on the highest positions and I would say don’t be; it’s self-limiting to do that.” She added, “Overall, playing the victim is useless. This is where women get limited. They believe that there is a glass ceiling, but if you just decide that there isn’t and work harder than everybody else, you’ll get there.” Echoing that philosophy, Ms. Kreissler said, “I keep my head down; I don’t complain much; I don’t make excuses; and I don’t play the victim…I just work hard.”
- Realize your strengths. Rather than construing their gender as a disadvantage, the interviewees chose to focus on the conscious (and unconscious) benefits. Ms. Cabling pointed out, “I use all of my strengths and sometimes the softness that a woman can bring to a meeting, or the compassionate side, can be a benefit.” Echoing the assumption that women may be more professionally approachable, Ms. Kreissler said, “A lot of clients I work with are CEOs of tech startups and they’ve never been CEOs before. They may be hesitant to ask their Board or VCs some basic questions about finance or accounting, but they can ask me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or because I try to not make them feel ignorant.”
- Make yourself invaluable through broad-based experiences and education. All three women served as accountants early in their careers and sought out various projects and positions, amplifying their understanding of finance as a whole. Ms. Kreissler mentioned, “I was always trying to get the broadest experience possible.” She emphasized the importance of working for a large company and finding opportunities in various sectors: “ I recommend for anyone coming out of school—especially with an accounting degree—to get into a very big firm early. You learn the fundamentals and the right way to do things. You also get exposed to a lot of different types of clients in manufacturing, financial services, high technology, retail, and other areas. At that stage of your career, a lot of people still don’t know what they want to do.” Ms. Cabling also discussed how despite her lack of interest in sports—a common topic of conversation at the office—actually pushed her to become better educated: “I’ve overcompensated with my education and knowledge. I’ve got the highest-level education of anyone in my office and most of the other men in my position.”
- Find mentors and tell them what you want. Ms. Moyet emphasized the importance of finding people to emulate—men and/or women. She remarked, “It’s just important to find your supporters in the organization and don’t let them guess; tell them what you want to do.” She also mentioned that mentees should have something to offer their mentors such as time or services.
- Keep your network close. Maintaining relationships, professionally and personally, can behoove anyone working in finance or other industries. Ms. Kreissler stated, “Something I wish I had done earlier in my career is to hold on to my network of accounting and finance professionals. As I’ve seen in Silicon Valley, something new is always going to be thrown at you…A CEO is going to ask whether something is in compliance with the IRS tax code or have another question. You waste a lot of time researching these situations. Inevitably, there’s someone out there who’s done it before and thought about it before. And as much as you can keep your network, you can quickly get answers from people you trust—as opposed to reading through the garbage in your Google search or paying expensive consultants to help you with a particular topic.”
- If you like playing golf and talking about sports, that’s fine; if you don’t, that’s fine, too. Two of the three interviewees mentioned that they didn’t particularly enjoy talking about sports or playing golf, common pastimes in male-dominated corporate environments. Ms. Cabling noted, “I’m horrible at golf and I don’t really like it. I did take some lessons once because being in business, you get invited to golf sometimes, but it’s not my thing, so then I’m left out.” For the men and women who don’t like golf or talking about sports, presenting alternative activities can be an effective strategy; Ms. Moyet mentioned, “I know nothing about sports. But as a salesperson, I need to entertain people, so I try to pick things that I actually like. For example, going to concerts. There are a lot of concerts here. Many clients are my age, so I take them out to concerts and they love it.”
- Never play the victim. Again, all three interviewees rose above the assumption that they were put at any disadvantage by being women. Ms. Cabling put it bluntly: “Playing the victim is useless.” Ms. Kreissler elaborated on the same feeling and stated, “Just own your own destiny. Don’t blame someone for holding you down. Expect to achieve it yourself. Don’t expect anyone to give you anything.”
- Shape culture. It’s easier transform the habits, assumptions, and actions of a company from the top. Ms. Cabling ended her interview notably: “Titles and egos don’t really matter here. We roll up our sleeves and just do work. In a medium-sized company, I’m able to shape the culture and I love that…If one firm or shop isn’t appreciating you, find a better cultural fit. Or if you don’t like the culture, get to the top and change it!”
Increasing Women’s Representation in Financial Leadership
Despite the wealth of evidence that women are still underpaid and underrepresented in finance—particularly at the upper rungs of companies—it’s important to note that this discrepancy isn’t predetermined; in fact, the demographics of the industry vary widely across the globe.
Bloomberg Reports (March 2017) found that Thailand has a greater share of women in top finance positions than the U.S., many of whom entered the sector by first becoming accountants, similar to the experience of all three interviewees. Thirty-one percent of board and executive committee members in Thailand’s financial industry are women, compared to only 20 percent in the U.S. Overall, women represent 57 percent of Thailand’s insurance and finance workforce.
Several prominent research organizations and think tanks have identified some major impediments to increasing women’s representation in finance. The most widely cited problems include:
- Occupation and industry sorting (i.e., the conscious and unconscious drivers of men and women into different college majors and later, jobs)
- Inadequate family leave policies for mothers and fathers
- Lack of transparency in hiring, promotions, and salary negotiations
- Persistence of the exclusive “old boys club” culture
- Stereotypes about men’s and women’s roles, capabilities, and characteristics
- Relative shortage of powerful role models and mentors for women
(Sources: Bloomberg’s Women in Finance: Where in the World is Gender Equality Gaining Ground? , Oliver Wyman’s Women in Financial Services )
The cultural biases are especially intractable in financial organizations with few female leaders; without women in power, some companies may not feel compelled to implement more inclusive, progressive policies. Furthermore, finance and business in general value traditionally masculine traits such as confidence, dominance, and ambition—qualities for which women can be punished for displaying; also referred to as the “backlash effect for disconfirming stereotypes,” women are sometimes assumed to be too pushy or aggressive when asserting themselves or simply behaving competently. While these effects seem to become diluted as more women enter financial leadership positions, there are still many initiatives and structural measures which can boost gender inclusivity.
Recruiting and Retaining Women in Finance
Drawing from the same sources above, here is a handful of measures to recruit and retain women in finance.
- Offer more flexible working options for women and men. As a greater share of men take on childcare responsibilities, both sexes would benefit from more family-friendly working policies. Also, employers need to make clear that there’s no stigma associated with opting in; these initiatives can include part-time options, job sharing, or working from home. Providing a better, more understanding work environment is to a business’s advantage, helping to attract top talent and creating happier employees overall.
- Create seamless returnship programs. Related to the above, women and men seeking time off for family or other commitments should be accommodated.
- Make hiring, promotions, commissions, and pay structures transparent. There should be a clear path to advancement with quantifiable, objective achievements; this helps to recognize the top performers in a financial organization, irrespective of gender or any biases. Ms. Moyet stated memorably, “Once they put the commission chart up, no matter who gets there, they get paid what they told you they would pay you or they’ll get sued.”
- Diversify the hiring and promotions committees. Rather than concentrating the power in the hands of (predominantly male) executives, broadening the pool of people influencing these important decisions can help shape a more fair evaluation process.
- Ensure that all employees have adequate networking opportunities, support, and mentorship. As Ms. Moyet pointed out, having adequate guidance at work is crucial for professional success. If possible, executives should try to set up mixed relations (i.e., senior women mentoring junior men and vice versa) to increase employee awareness, experience, and empathy.
Fortunately, governments around the world and various organizations are leading the way for women to take on leadership positions in finance. In 2016, the UK’s Treasury introduced the Women in Finance Charter, which “commits firms to supporting the progression of women into senior roles in the financial services sector by focusing on the executive pipeline and the mid-tier level,” helping various firms diversify their management and set their own targets. Since it was introduced a year ago, 122 firms employing 500,000 people—nearly 50 percent of the financial services industry—have signed on to the charter. Seventy-seven of the companies have committed to having at least 30 percent women in senior positions by 2021; another 23 firms committed to a 50/50 split within the same time period. Most importantly, this charter reflects the UK’s commitment to balance its workforce, projecting benefits not only for women, but also for investors and businesses.
The CFA Institute (Sept. 2016), a worldwide association for investment professionals, seeks to address the gender disparity in investments by providing young women with exposure to the industry; educating investors on the positive impact of gender diversity; and seeking to remedy the work-life balance issue that mainly affects women, especially working mothers. Another group, Girls Who Invest, seeks to make “30 percent of the world’s investable capital managed by women by 2030.” In the benchmark year (2014), less than 10 percent was managed by women.
Finally, 100 Women in Finance (100WF) is a nonprofit comprising more than 15,000 “alternative investors” and finance professionals. With 21 chapters, 100WF has offered over 600 educational events globally and raised over $40 million for women- and family-focused philanthropy.
In sum, while women are still underrepresented and underpaid in finance globally, individuals and organizations are evolving. With women such as Mary Beth Kreissler, Suzann Cabling, and Marguerite Moyet at the helm of leadership in finance, the old tired assumptions are dying out; ultimately, it’s up to governments and companies whether they want to help shape this new, more equitable era. And there’s convincing evidence that it’s economically advantageous to do so. By illustration, PwC (2017) estimated that closing the gender pay gap would add $810 billion in taxable income to the U.S. economy, a 23 percent increase; additionally, if the U.S. were to boost its rates of female employment to match that of Sweden’s (74 percent), it would add $1.8 trillion to the economy, boosting GDP 10 percent. Is the U.S. ready to unlock women’s potential?