It’s a well-known fact that on the trading floors of investment banks, hedge funds or trading firms, there are hardly any women. Is it because not enough women are not attracted to these functions or is it a reflection of financial firms’ implicit bias in hiring practices to look for certain masculine traits? I think it’s a mix of both.

In a global survey on perceptions about various industries, financial services have been ranked among the bottom most over the last three years. And more so as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. Having worked in the industry for several years (with European and American banks), I can categorically say that the perception is far worse than the reality. Of course, there are several issues confronting women in this industry, but most of these are not very different from what women face elsewhere—late nights, business trips, constant juggling of professional and family commitments, the eternal dilemma of whether one is networking enough, and lack of adequate entry points after a career break.

There are no quick fixes for these. The deeply ingrained stereotypes demand a complete overhaul of the hiring practices. The good news is that recent events in the financial world are making managers rethink their hiring policies. Traits like proclivity towards reckless risk-taking and overt aggression are being questioned. Instead, hirers are focusing more on emotional intelligence. Research shows that women investors are better risk managers and tend to take a longer-term view instead of trading recklessly in volatile markets—traits that seem to be increasingly appreciated by hiring managers.

Another stark reality of the corporate world is that women remain under-represented in senior management positions and in board rooms. At 150 of the world’s major financial institutions, women form only 13% of executive committee members and 4% of chief executive officers. Women simply lack role models for leadership in corporate culture. This under-representation at the highest echelons is leading to homogeneous boards that tend to indulge in groupthink and easy consensus—an issue being strongly debated across the globe. Studies relate ‘presence of women on boards’ to ‘improved corporate performance and effective corporate culture’.

Women face far harder choices between professional success and personal priorities. Often, even high caliber women find it tough to get back in the thick of things after taking a break to raise a family. They are often left out of meaningful responsibilities and high-profile assignments and find themselves ‘mommy tracked’, i.e., not being taken seriously. Despite their ability and willingness to ‘lean in’—a sensible piece of advice by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, Facebook—these women find that the environment is just not conducive enough. Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and chief executive officer, New America, a think tank and civic enterprise, says that a much broader social, political and cultural change is necessary by adopting policies and practices that support women at every level. Bosses, partners... the whole corporate culture must ‘lean in’, too, to support these women.

The supply side issue needs to be addressed as well, especially in finance. More young girls must be encouraged to take up math and quant-based courses in school and college, and to attend business schools. This would facilitate more profit and loss (P&L)-based and fund management roles later in their careers. Data from HFR (a hedge fund research database) from 2007 to June 2015 shows that hedge funds run by women have returned 59% against average returns of 37%. Despite clearly differentiated performance, only a minuscule amount of money is being managed by women. A KPMG survey reveals that investors would like to put more money with women-managed funds, but they just can’t find many such funds.

According to a paper published in Harvard Business Review, even among Harvard Business School graduates working full time, men were significantly more likely than women to have direct reports, P&L responsibilities and positions in senior management.

Of course, there are plenty of hurdles to be crossed. But the ecosystem today is far more enabling for women to advance professionally. The deep-seated biases and stereotypes about what it takes to succeed in the corporate world are being questioned. The glass ceiling is gradually becoming more fragile. Several countries are mandating presence of women directors on corporate boards. This is not an act of charity. Frequent financial crises and corporate scandals have driven home the horrors of reckless risk-taking and groupthink. Higher risk-aversion—an attribute seen as detrimental in the past to hiring women managers—is now considered a must-have on boards and corner offices.

Sonia Gandhi is CFA and chair, membership committee, Indian Association of Investment Professionals.

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