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Breaking The Wall On Wall Street: Women in Finance

The more women who speak up and defend themselves, the more opportunities there will be for success.

The Me Too and Time’s Up movements have encouraged a rapid re-examination of women’s roles in various industries. It’s a process that is only just beginning; while many injustices have been brought to light in the entertainment industry, there are still many spheres of power where women’s roles deserve further examination. One such industry is finance.

Given the industry’s influence, I was surprised how little cultural conversation there was concerning women’s roles in finance. I was even more taken aback by the harshness and injustice women face in this industry—the lack of leadership roles, wage disparities, and the discrimination against building a family. This unfair treatment could easily deter young women from entering this field.

To better understand the reality of women’s roles in finance, I decided to contact direct sources, specifically Ms. Angela Posillico and Ms. Asha Soares.

Ms. Posillico is recently retired from a 30-year career in technology, supporting the regulatory side of the finance industry. She was Senior Vice President of Technology at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), and in both institutions her role was providing technology support for the regulatory organizations.

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Ms. Soares is currently a Director at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce’s Mid-Market Investment Banking group where she covers the technology innovation sectors.

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Listening to these two women’s experiences working in finance shed a different light on the industry compared to the broader overviews I had read. While they corroborated some of the discriminatory issues, they also described a positive and encouraging path forward for young women who want to pursue a career in finance.

Hindrances Women Face in Finance

Research shows there are many hindrances that women face in finance, such as limited accessibility to leadership positions, unequal pay, and sexual discrimination. In addition, many sources have described the work environment in this field as a competitive, high-stakes, testosterone-driven atmosphere where women must become “one of the guys” to survive and succeed.

According to a CNBC article by Julia Boorstin, Survey: It’s still tough to be a woman on Wall Street:

A Catalyst study reports that women account for less than 17 percent of senior leaders in investment banking. In private equity, women comprise only 9 percent of senior executives and only 18 percent of total employees, according to a 2017 report by Preqin. At hedge funds and private debt firms, the numbers are similarly low—women hold just 11 percent of leadership roles.

Ms. Soares agreed: “It’s been rare to work with women in senior roles, but they do exist.” However, Ms. Posillico—a woman who held a leadership position herself—said she had a mix of men and women in senior leadership roles.  

What has caused this gender gap? One possibility could be that men who currently hold power in the industry do not take women seriously enough in these roles.

In “What Stops Women in Finance? It’s Culture, Culture, Culture,” John Kador writes, “If a woman is very competent and authoritative, we may respect her, but we don’t tend to like her. And if we like her—especially when we unconsciously set her in the role of a caretaker—then we tend not to respect her.” Women in the industry seemingly must choose between being respected and being liked.

This mentality limits a woman’s ability to move up to a leadership position. Kador continues, “The double-bind comes into play at every turn of a woman’s career and presents career-limiting predicaments. The bias, for example, sets up hiring authorities (of both genders) who may think, ‘If I hire a man and he fails, that’s on him. But if I hire a woman and she fails, that’s on me.’”

My two interviewees did not specifically feel this limitation in their own careers. Ms. Posillico said, “Even though there weren’t a lot of us, I never really felt disrespected.” She described her coworkers as family, and she still keeps in touch with some of her colleagues and employees. Ms. Soares had a similar experience. “I’ve had great experiences with colleagues and formed some long lasting friendships along the way,” Soares says. “We work together in an open, team-oriented environment, which really cultivates friendships.”

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So, although cultural limitations might persist, there are ways for women to avoid the “liked or respected” choice proposed by Mr. Kador.

Discrimination

According to Marie Louise Roth’s book, Selling Women Short: Gender and Money on Wall Street, a major reason behind the lack of female leadership is the injustice women face when wanting to have a family. Roth interviewed several women who faced discrimination working on Wall Street. She shares a story of a woman, Emma, who decided to delay having children to take the promotion to Vice President.

Another woman, Tracey, left the industry because the company she worked for did not turn out to be family-friendly. When she returned from maternity leave, Tracey decided to work “20 percent fewer hours, with a corresponding 20 percent pay cut.” She also “argued that her bonus should reflect her productivity and should not have been 20 percent skimmed off the top.”

Roth writes in her book, “Pregnancy discrimination, discrimination against mothers, and difficulties using ‘family-friendly’ policies that were formally available pushed several women like Tracey off successful career paths and into smaller firms, lower-paying areas, or out of the labor force.”

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Women like Tracey who choose to have children often see an immediate backlash from their employers.

Ms. Posillico shared a story of similar discrimination. In 1988–1989, Ms. Posillico interviewed for and was offered a promotion to director in a different division of the NYSE. Shortly after the offer, Ms. Posillico found she was pregnant with her second child. She decided to contact the woman who would be her manager and offered to withdraw her candidacy for the position.

The woman responded, “You know what, Angela, I know what I have in you. I’ve worked with you, and I know your work ethic, I know that you will be back, and I could use someone right now.” However, as Ms. Posillico approached her due date, no one was taking action to transition her into the new role. She followed-up, and received a very different response; the job was “not going to happen” and that they’ve decided to “not hire anyone right now.”

This turned out to be untrue. “I found out then they were hiring somebody else from the outside,” Ms. Posillico said. When she returned from maternity leave, Ms. Posillico met the man who was given the director role.

“Oh, you’re the one,” he said to Ms. Posillico.  

“What do you mean I’m the one?” Ms. Posillico asked him.  

“Oh, I got the position and when I asked them ‘Are there any other candidates,’ they said, ‘Yeah, one other person, but she’s pregnant.’”

Clearly, someone had decided her pregnancy made her unqualified for the position. While Ms. Posillico was furious with this outcome, she was advised to not fight the decision. Her controller argued it would “make her a lot of enemies.” Fortunately, this discrimination did not deter Ms. Posillico from leaving the workforce, force her to a lesser-paid role, or hold her back from advancing in her career. She explained, “When I came back [from maternity leave], another position opened. I applied for the job—it was another directorship—within probably three months of being back, and I got the job.” After being director for three months, Ms. Posillico got her boss’s job when her boss left. “I jumped three or four levels within that, so it worked out to my advantage, just because of the timing and my experience.” Fortunately for Ms. Posillico, she was able to continue her career advancement, but doing so required her to accept discrimination without complaint.

Still, Ms. Posillico pursued her goals and had a successful career. She always knew she wanted to be a working mother, and she did not allow the way of the world dictate what she could or could not have.

She, along with her husband, was able to live the life she wanted to live—to be fulfilled in a career that was stressful, yes, but also invigorating and rewarding. She didn’t feel like her career aspirations limited her hopes for her family of four children, nor did she feel like she had to choose between her family and her work.

The finance industry is changing for women. During maternity leave, even for her other two children Ms. Posillico had later on, she said, “When I took maternity leave, we got no pay. At least today you can get paid for maternity leave. You couldn’t take off any more than two weeks before you’re due and you had six weeks off. They didn’t make it easy. Now, a lot of companies offer paid leave for at least three months, so I think things are changing and becoming easier to be a working mother. You just have to do your research on companies, especially if you want to have kids.”

It is evident that there is a lack of women in leadership due to hard sacrifices women have to make in their roles at work and at home. Ms. Soares states, “Going through resumes for hiring, less than one in 20 resumes are female. That gap only widens as you move in seniority, as people naturally exit banking to pursue other careers or to build a family. There are a lot of sacrifices involved in the capital market career and some people are just not willing to do that.” However, Ms. Soares argues that these sacrifices need not be exclusively expected of women.

“Men have to make sacrifices too when coming to family,” says Soares. “It’s not just women that have to make those sacrifices. As long as you have the right people around you and you go after what you want, that’s the important thing.”

Ms. Soares says she has not personally experienced any discrimination or harassment. “I’ve been lucky enough. I am not saying that it does not exist, but I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve never encountered any of those examples of harassment or communications that you might see and read about in the movies and books.”

Like, Ms. Posillico, Ms. Soares did not let existing discrimination stop her from pursuing her career in investment banking. She advises, “One of the suggestions I would have for someone trying to get into banking is to not be afraid to network and actually go after what you want, because what’s the worst that can happen? Someone does not respond to you.” She also advises, “When you’re pursuing a career in capital markets, find those people that are going to fight for you, that are going to help you move up within the organization.”

Mentorship

Both Ms. Posillico and Ms. Soares were surrounded by respectful and supporting mentors as they guided them through their careers. Some were women, but majority of their mentors were men.

“One of my mentors, Don, was such a wonderful, calm person,” Ms. Posillico reflects. “He taught me not to get aggravated about things that really don’t matter and to concentrate on the important things… He was somebody I trusted to always be looking out for the best of the company, but also for the best for his employees, and to try to guide them in the right direction. He was just terrific. He was a really great mentor.”

Ms. Soares shares, “I’ve had a lot of great mentors over the years, amongst them Daniel Lee who has been incredibly supportive throughout my Investment Banking career as I moved from Associate Director today.”

In Boostin’s article, “Fourteen percent of women say their biggest obstacle is lack of mentorship and sponsorship.” At one point in Ms. Posillico’s career, she became a mentor herself, guiding young women who had recently become managers. “I mentored probably about 15 women in a formal program. I learned from them just as much as they learned from me. It was a wonderful program. I loved and enjoyed it.”

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photo from:https://www.edutopia.org/article/case-mentors-grows-stronger-youki-terada

Statistics show that there is still a dearth of mentorship for women in finance, but the experiences of Ms. Posillico and Ms. Soares show that opportunities do exist. Hopefully, the success of these programs can encourage the development of other support systems.

Go After What You Want

Surveys, research, the media and entertainment industry have depicted the world of finance to be controlled by men. It’s easy to conclude that there is little hope for women to find success in finance. However, Ms. Soares says,

“There are definitely opportunities for young women. They just have to want those opportunities.”

Be aware of the obstacles and the hindrances that do exist, but, more importantly, develop the persistence to not let these obstacles knock us down or turn us away. Ms. Soares continues, “Reach out to people, find the type of people in the roles that you want to go after, send them emails, try and connect, ask for informational interviews. If you do not ask for those opportunities and you’re not not meeting the people in the industry, then it’s much harder.”

There are women role models out there, such as Ms. Posillico and Ms. Soares, who are excited to encourage and inspire those in a field where is mostly dominated by men. The more women who speak up and defend themselves, the harder it will be for discrimination to proliferate in the finance industry, and the more opportunities there will be for success. As Ms. Posillico said,

“You should always fight for what’s right. It’s okay to be a strong woman in the world.”

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Also published on Medium.

Megan Cahill-Assenza earned her Bachelor Arts and Science in English and...