What it's like to be a woman in banking: the unspoken reality

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Women in banking

As  banks' claims to diversity are blown apart by the figures emerging from the UK's gender pay gap reporting requirements, how does it feel to be a woman in finance? Do you buy the Goldman story that men and women are paid equally for equal work and it's just a question of getting more women into senior slots, or do you get angry and point to more insidious issues?

We spoke to women working across U.S. and European investment banks about their reaction to the figures. Some were resigned and described them as as a fact of life. Others agreed with Goldman - that the UK government isn't comparing like with like because a high proportion of women in finance occupy non-front office jobs like personal assistants. Others, however, were angry. And the reasons for their anger weren't always those discussed in sanitized accounts of women's grievances.

One senior woman at a European bank argued that the push to promote more women is itself problematic. "The senior men have now got a cover for promoting the younger women who flirt with them," she said. "They know they have to promote X number of women each year, so they look around and they promote the women who kiss up to them most instead of the women who are the most competent. It's the same as the old boys' network, with flirtation instead of familiarity."

Partly because of this dynamic, she said there's often a career premium for women who are young and beautiful. "You get a lot of beautiful young women in banking who find themselves replaced by a new generation as they get older. - I've seen older women being made to hand their accounts to 22 year-olds. They complain, but they were in that position once - they were the 22 year-old who took another woman's clients. Women don't help each other."

It doesn't help that the clients are mostly men, particularly in London. A senior woman at a U.S. investment bank on Wall Street said that during a recent trip to London she was struck by the absence of women on the buy-side. Things won't change, "since the investor base is also dominated by men and aren't making these demands".

At the same time, women are losing out in the ongoing push towards juniorisation. As banks look for juniors to take on roles previously occupied by people at higher ranks, young women are stepping forwards. "You see a lot of women who are taking on roles that were previously done by VPs and even though they have the same responsibilities they'll only be an associate on lower pay," says another senior woman. "It's all under the guise of cost cutting."

Many women reserved their ire for the "F" word: family. Male bankers with families are feted as breadwinners, said one. "There's still the assumption - often made by senior bankers with stay at home wives -  that a woman's income is the secondary income," she said. In reality, this often isn't the case: "Almost all the senior women I know in finance have househusbands, but they're not going to broadcast that fact."

While female bankers with husbands and children to support keep quiet for fear of seeming uncommitted to their roles, she said male bankers are more likely to make their familial responsibilities widely known: "I used to work with a man who would shout about how he had four kids at home every year when it came to making redundancies or allocating bonuses."

One female VP in the investment banking division of a European bank, said that as male colleagues start families, they feel comfortable leveraging their new status to take additional time off, leaving her more overworked than before. "I'm being asked to cover for male bankers who are telling me they can't take on projects because of their families. I would like a family too, but the stress and overwork from compensating for colleagues' family time is killing my hormones."

Things will only change if senior male bankers start promoting women on the basis of their competency, said senior female banker on Wall Street. "Women lose the will to fight against the tide and get tired of putting in the hours and sacrificing family time." But women also need to ask for what they deserve: "I believe I am paid equal to men in the past few roles I have had, but that is because I have been proactive in finding out how much my peers make, and demanded that I be paid the same, if not more," she concluded.

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: sbutcher@efinancialcareers.com

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