The art of being a woman in banking: Not too pretty, not too nice

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If you work in banking, you will know that the industry is not short of women. In the bottom ranks, we're everywhere. Research last year showed that women now make up 58% of the junior staff in finance firms. It's the career of choice for plenty of ambitious intelligent girls. However, that same research found that only 26% of the senior ranks are female.

Finance is an industry where middle aged male bankers manage bright young women.

This in itself is one reason why women drop out of the middle-ranks. Male bosses in their mid-40s or 50s can't handle them. Place an older man in a room with a beautiful, bright 24 year-old woman and he's incredibly awkward. His instinct is to avoid these situations altogether.

I had a boss, for example, who seemed to find it almost impossible to talk to me. He couldn't seem to communicate in my presence. It was easier for him to ignore me, so he wouldn't invite me to events. On team social occasions, it was him and the guys.

The higher you go on Wall Street, the more this is a problem. When you're junior - an analyst or an associate - you are promoted automatically. Beyond that, it's all about how much your boss rates you and how much visibility you've got. When your male bosses avoid you, this is a problem. You don't get much mentoring as an a young woman in banking.

For this reason, young women don't get promoted. Their input gets ignored. Their male bosses listen to the male juniors who they can more easily hang out with and relate to. It doesn't help that most of them are dating or married to women who are working or have worked in PR and fashion. Most male bankers like their women uncomplicated.

The higher you climb as a woman in finance, the more that the women around you are the secretaries and admins. Yes, there are some senior women in banking (the 26%), but they're such a small minority that you don't always come across them. I never had a female boss and although there were some great women who always went to bat for their juniors, some of the harshest feedback I ever received was from a female MD who said I needed to be more graceful and feminine.

If you want to get ahead in finance, therefore, you need to think about how present yourself.  You need to be "nice," but not so nice so you get railroaded. You need to be, "pretty," but not so pretty that it's threatening. You don't want to be sassy, bold or masculine. The sweet spot is nice and pretty without being challenging. If you can master that, you'll get ahead.  Men, meanwhile, get to be themselves.

And so, brilliant young women passed over for mediocre men. And eventually they get sick of it. These bright, beautiful, bold young women realize there are better things to do. This leaves all the non-threatening mediocre men for the MDs to invite out for drinks and take home to meet their uncomplicated stay-at-home wives. It's a vicious circle.

Amy Smith is a pseudonym 

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Contact: sbutcher@efinancialcareers.com

 

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