415-729-5935

Closing the Gender Gap in Financial Services

This is a personal post. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer.

My friend Debi asked me the other day if I had experienced sexism when I was working in the financial service industry right out of college. While my answer was “no – it really wasn’t a factor”, I’ve been rolling over her question in my mind ever since.   What exactly were my feelings “then”? And how does the “now” in context of the new Lean In generation make us see these experiences in a new light?

It was ages ago, when I was a foreign exchange trader in Tokyo. I’d been working at a major West Coast bank first in technology and then in foreign exchange currency trading. I didn’t feel discriminated against. It was an exciting place to be and then the opportunity to work in Tokyo was offered and it was icing on the cake. I was young. It was great to be actually employing my degree (Economics) unlike many in my cohort of recent grads. I felt lucky.

Did I experience sexism in Japan? More like falling victim to funny gender bloopers. Being a female trader was an oddity. One year at New Year’s I was the recipient (along with my male colleagues) of a customer gift from a broker – a pair of men’s vests and socks. I was often called “sir” by brokers who associated “sir” with “san” thinking it was similarly unisex. Most of my female friends in the expat community in Japan were either banker’s wives or English teachers. (There was also fashion model contingent – another allowable career for a foreign woman in Tokyo — but I didn’t run in their crowd.) There were Japanese women working in banks and brokerages but mostly in back office roles. If there were other female traders or brokers I never met them. As for feeling discriminated against in Japan it was more about being “foreign” first then “younger” in a society that had a strong merit system based purely upon seniority and finally that I was female. So it wasn’t really the femaleness that they objected to.

But Debi wasn’t asking about being discriminated against as a woman in Asia she clarified, she was asking more about experiencing sexism or discrimination in banking in general.

I would have to say yes but in odd contexts.   When I moved with the bank, tasked with setting up their trading operation in Hong Kong, I did face some resistance – maybe sexism – again hard to separate from being foreign and new to the country.   Definitely got some patronizing advice.   Later when I was exploring other career options in Hong Kong, I interviewed with one man who asked why I wanted to work. I was so surprised by his obnoxious question that I think I blurted out “because I like to eat”.   Obviously he had not interviewed too many women for more senior positions. Jerk. But those odd bits of sexism I tended to attribute to culture. In those “colonial days” pre-1997, British men in Hong Kong tended to be more chauvinistic than their Chinese counterparts. Not all of them mind you – I had great bosses from the British Isle at Telerate. Some of the younger American men had their own chauvinism issues – but again I found it to be less of a pervasive attitude than (poor) personal upbringing. If there was one broad generalization to be found it was that the Chinese women I met tended to be powerhouses who ruled their households regardless of their employment position.

Anyway back to the question. In hindsight, maybe I am just an apologist for poor male behavior. Or maybe it really didn’t matter – by all accounts I was lucky and it did not hurt my career.  Certainly I was lucky that I was never a victim of blatant discrimination. Now that I am working in what is called FinTech (having been in Tech Tech for quite a while – which has its own challenges in gender gaps), and working again with global banks and brokers, I wonder what the women of today would say to Debi’s question?

In 2013 this kind of career was at #10 in the list of Most Sexist Jobs in America so has anything changed in the years since I’ve been a trader? What about all the research that says a diverse groups makes better decisions, changing male attitudes and Lean In, has any of this made a difference?  Is there sexism in banking specifically trading / capital markets today? Or are women treated more fairly? Is their voice encouraged? Are they paid as highly?  Are there more of us?

Let me know what you think.