NYtimes Special SectionWhen I interview C-Suite women working in financial services for my WE Interviews series, I always ask them why they think there aren’t more women in senior management positions within our industry. Their insightful answers vary. Some say that the main problem is the lack of a healthy pipeline of women coming up the ranks. Others believe that the punishing schedule required in this business makes it difficult for many women to balance the growth of their careers with starting a family.

A Lack of Women Mentors

Yet, amongst all those varied answers I have never heard any of these women put the primary blame on themselves. That’s why I was surprised to read that Irene Dorner, CEO of HSBC USA, believes that the majority of senior women are partially to blame for the dearth of women leaders in financial services.

The interview with Dorner was part of the lead story of a New York Times‘ Special Section solely devoted to investigating the state of the union for women working in financial services, law, and tech – three industries heavily dominated by men.

DealBook founder and editor Andrew Ross Sorkin writes:

“Ms. Dorner, 58, is one of the few women to have breached the upper levels of finance. But along the way, Ms. Dorner said, she didn’t push hard enough to change the “status quo” on male-dominated trading floors and executive suites. Rather, she said, she kept her head down, focusing on her own career.”

Dorner told Sorkin:

“The women at the top of organizations that I know will tell you that we think that we’ve made it because we were born the way we are and can play by these rules without feeling damaged by them. Or, we’ve learned how to play by these rules and use them to our own advantage.”

Women in a Man’s World

However, given that financial services still remains such a boy’s club, Dorner’s reticence to call attention to a biased atmosphere is understandable. Another article within the Special Section, specifically tackles the how, even today, the industry can create an atmosphere that is a far cry from women-friendly.

Joan C. Williams, a gender expert and law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, has found that women in fiance are dealing with “the kinds of problems that women in most industries experienced in the early 1970s.”

The article states:

“In her research, Ms. Williams said she learned that Wall Street women were operating in an atmosphere where the perception that women were not suited for the job was so acceptable that men often discussed it openly.”

A Step Backwards

Though it seems that the role of women in business has never been a hotter topic, it is clear that women leaders in financial services aren’t doing as well as they were before the 2008 economic crisis.

The New York Times writes:

“The layoffs on Wall Street have thinned the ranks of women substantially since the credit crisis of 2008. A report on workplace diversity circulated to members of a trade group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said that among its nine largest members, women as a percentage of total staff declined by four percentage points between 2007 and 2011, to 36 percent. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows an 11 percent decline in the number of women in the finance and insurance category since 2007, compared with a 1.6 percent decline in the number of men.”

Sallie Krawcheck, who is featured in the Special Section, agrees that women leaders were disproportionally let go in the aftermath of 2008.

Krawcheck said:

“Think about it. You’re going through this horrible downturn. You’re a C.E.O. You want people who you worked with for 10 years or 20 years who you can trust. These moves have led to more homogeneous leadership teams.”

What Krawcheck is focused on communicating is that, in the wake of the crisis which she believes can be partially explained by the dangers of group think, companies need to diversify more, not less. So, this move towards more homogeneity is the opposite of what is needed.

The Power of Sponsorship

For Krawcheck, in order for women in Wall Street to break into the executive offices, they must develop relationships with powerful allies that can act as their sponsors.

She said:

“A sponsor is someone who pulls people along. Very successful people have sponsors. In fact with Sheryl Sandberg, if you look at her, her sponsor was Larry Summers. So there were powerful people in her career, and in my career, who proactively supported and pulled us along.”

Moving Forward

Once I finished reading the Special Section, I had mixed feelings. One the one hand, I am thrilled that The New York Times recognized that the state of women in financial services is an issue very worthy of such attention. But it was discouraging that every article was further proof that there is so much work left to be done.

However, the positive news is that many of the industry’s top women are ready to lead the fight for better gender balance.

Taking responsibility for not working hard enough to challenge the status quo, Irene Dorner said:

“I suspect that [senior executive women] were simply not good role models. And there aren’t enough of us to be visible so that people can work out how to do what we did.”

Last year I founded WE – Women Executives, a new division focused on building the largest global database of women executives in financial services, because both my clients and I believe that hiring qualified women executives is just good business sense.

An important component of WE is the WE Interviews series. When C-Suite women share their stories, successes, and struggles, they inspire and inform the emerging executive who is navigating the growth of her career.

Though there is still so much improvement to be made for women working in financial services, there have never been more women leaders stepping up to the plate.

As Steven M. Davidoff, a professor at the Michael E. Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, wrote in The New York Times:

“For advocates of sex equality, there is reason for optimism. The rising numbers of women in the workplace will inevitably continue to chip away at the disadvantages that women face. And if women really do en masse change cultures and bring separate characteristics to bear, it could transform the way that Wall Street does business.”

Share this page!