What’s holding back women in finance?

Despite efforts to drive change, women are still underrepresented at the most senior levels of the finance profession. 

When will we achieve true gender parity in the workplace? Well, if the World Economic Forum has got it right, it won’t be in most of our life times.

It won’t be until 2095, in fact.

Clearly, that is too long to wait for women in every sector. But what is holding back women in finance, in particular?

1. Institutional barriers

At its highest levels, finance is still something of an ‘old boys club’. Since the human tendency is to recruit in our own image, this puts female finance professionals at an immediate disadvantage during the promotion process.

Furthermore, research by consultancy Talking Talent in 2014 found that nearly half (43%) of female accountants had experienced prejudice and discrimination in the workplace. Junior male colleagues were apparently the worst culprits for this, which Talking Talent’s CEO Chris Parke suggested was due to “a competitive culture where women can find themselves undermined based on their gender”.

Transparent recruitment processes and mentoring programs both go some way to overcoming these barriers. The 30% Club, a UK organisation with a goal to achieve 30% women on FTSE-100 boards by the end of 2015, launched a mentoring scheme in partnership with EY in 2014 which saw positive results. A survey after the pilot program found 95% of mentee respondents saw an improvement in their development areas and 86% believed that it had increased their confidence as a leader.

“Concerted efforts to tackle female executive progress will ensure that we get more women not just into business, but staying in business and reaching the top,” said Helena Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management and founder of the 30% Club.

2. Too much juggling

While many men in finance will reach senior roles in their thirties and forties, their female colleagues who have children will often find their career shifts into second gear at this stage.

Flexible working remains a challenging aspect of climbing the corporate ladder for women. A report conducted by the Institute of Public Policy Research found that the majority of part time workers were women, rather than men, and their main reason for being in part time work was so they could manage family and work commitments. The report also found that part-time roles were typically outside high-level positions increasing the tendency for women to work in occupations below their skill level.

Women juggling multiple responsibilities and working to flexible hours can be perceived as less ‘committed’ than their peers, which is an issue in a demanding sector like finance.

Women in finance are not alone in wrestling with this problem. The Meaning of Success, a book that explores the personal experiences of successful women working for the University of Cambridge, found that nearly all the women interviewed talked about the challenges of making sufficient time for both family and work.

One interviewee, Nicola Padfield, commented: “Childcare burdens still fall disproportionately on women and as a society we are not doing nearly enough to change this culture in either our private or public lives.”

 3. Lack of self-belief

Given how much women do, it is rather astonishing that they lack self-belief. Yet, that is the unfortunate reality.

In an essay for The Atlantic, the authors of  The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, found that, “success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence.”

From asking to pay rises to competing for positions, women ask for less than their male counterparts. They are also hampered by perfectionism and more averse to risk. Furthermore, women are inclined to give too much airtime to their inner critic and dwell on their mistakes. Invariably, this will be a problem if they work in the challenging world of finance, where they will be expected to take tough decisions and stand by them as they advance in their careers.

Lack of confidence was increased for women who had taken a maternity break. Research conducted by AAT found new mothers felt their confidence noticeably slip 11 months after being away from the working world, leading to doubts about their own professional capability. Lack of flexibility was cited as a big block to getting back on the ladder, while 40 per cent felt they were nowhere near as sharp as they used to be.

4. Absence of role models

 In 1954, athlete Roger Bannister achieved the four-minute mile. Until that point, experts had argued that it wasn’t possible to run a mile in less than four minutes. Within a year, however, someone else had run a four-minute mile.

What this teaches us is that role models are important. If a female finance professional can see another woman succeeding in her organisation, then she feels more confident that she can do the same. Yet while women and men enter the finance profession in equal numbers, there is still a noticeable lack of women at senior levels.

Just 10% of the current FTSE 100 CFOs are female, according to a study by the Cranfield School of Management – although this, it has to be said, actually represents a significant improvement on 2009, when they could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The small numbers of senior women in finance sends a very negative message to junior women who are rising through the ranks. Effectively, they are told: “This is a profession where women struggle to get to the top.”

A final thought

As a female finance professional, you can help to drive change by working with your employer to push the progression of talented women in your organisation. Some of the innovative strategies adopted by organisations to address the disparity include Credit Suisse’s Real Returns program which works with female professionals to re-enter the workforce after a long break and IBM uses a reverse mentoring program where rising stars mentor those in more senior positions to share knowledge and increase the visibility of high performing individuals.


Sally Percy is an experienced journalist and commentator, specialising in business and finance.

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