If you believe everything you read, you might think that investment banks are about as pale, male and stale as you can get. That they're the embodiment of the misogynistic old boys' network and that the privately educated chaps who work there spend their evenings frequenting bars with clients. In the case of Goldman Sachs, this perception has been strengthened by the recent lewd headlines surrounding a Libyan deal in 2008.
As a woman who works for Goldman Sachs, I'd like to make it clear that this perception couldn't be more wrong. Finance is not an old boys' network, neither in terms of racial nor gender diversity.
Banking is a diverse and vibrant industry, but banks don't exist in a vacuum. The people they hire are dictated by the population at large and then by the population of the elite universities they recruit from and the people at those universities who want to work for them.
Goldman Sachs is actually very diverse. The US population is ~63% white and ~5% Asian, but Asians make up over 20% of Goldman's numbers in the U.S. There's a good reason for this: Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese are more likely to study STEM subjects at the universities that feed into banks like Goldman, Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan. This demographic is also visible in London, where the trading and quant roles on the trading floor are filled with East Asian and Indian men and women (British-born, as well as Asian nationals), who have literally beaten millions to the top in their year groups. French and Russian nationals are over-represented too, the former because of their excellent Grandes Ecoles which run strong quantitative programmes, the latter because of their focus on mathematics.
Sales roles in London are different - here you tend to find people who speak foreign languages covering European clients, while British clients are typically covered by the Oxbridge-educated elite.
In any sales or trading role, though, people won't be appointed because of their race or their gender; they'll be appointed because they're the best. Trading floors are about as close to a proper meritocracy as you can get. Performance is objective: your revenue or P&L is measured to the second decimal place.
And then there's women. Yes, only 25% of the MDs Goldman promoted last year were female, and yes there are issues retaining women at VP level. However, there's an obvious reason for this - and it's one that's not always clearly articulated. Sexual dimorphism means women are the ones who have babies. And having babies makes it hard for women to stay close to markets and to the deal flow. This often happens between the ages of 27 and 35 - the senior vice president to junior managing director ranks, which are just when you should be building rapport with clients and starting to make a name for yourself at the bank. When women take maternity leave, their male counterparts often mop up in their absence.
Evidently this isn't ideal and - believe me - banks like GS have done everything in their power to mitigate against it. There are creches, maternity returnships, very generous paid maternity leave policies, lactation rooms, everything you could conceive of to eliminate deliberate discrimination and unconscious biases, but women cannot escape biology. And, like it or not, neither can banks.
Emilia Pearson is a pseudonym
Photo credit: senscience is licensed under CC BY 2.0.