A common question I receive from females looking to break into finance is what it is like to work in a predominately male-dominated industry. While I will say that the finance industry has made significant strides in promoting diversity over the last 5-10 years, representation is certainly not equitable. The challenges you may face will differ depending on where you are in your career, but many of the fundamental difficulties will remain consistent. A big reason why females face unique challenges through both the recruiting and the professional experience is simply because there is a lack of significant senior representation, making it difficult to find a mentor as naturally as a male may be able to. There are, however, a few tips to consider which can help better navigate these potential disadvantages and best position yourself as a female in a male-dominated office.
Prioritize finding mentors who care about your professional development.
Finding a mentor, and ideally a senior professional, is recommended for anyone joining the field – but even more so for females. Ideally, this mentor is a senior female at your firm – even if it’s not someone in your group. This gives you the opportunity to go to them with any challenges, concerns, or general questions you may be facing that could specifically use a women’s experience and opinions. The best approach here is to set up coffees or informational chats with senior women at your firm early on and work on building that relationship over time. If there’s no one at your firm you can create this mentorship relationship with, find someone externally! There are plenty of Women in Investing or Females in Finance networking events in most major cities. Try to attend as many of these as possible, get phone numbers, and make sure the follow-up to begin building a constructive relationship.
With this said, don’t underemphasize the importance of male mentors/allies as well. Some of the most incredible mentors I have had in my career, and both individuals who wrote my business school recommendations, were men. They believed in me, fully supported me, and were people I could entirely trust with any professional or even personal issues I was facing. It’s incredibly important to cast your mentorship net wide, building relationships with anyone who you connect with, and feel can support you and your future career aspirations.
Recognize inherent gender prejudice.
As sad as it is that we still live in a biased world in 2023, it, unfortunately, doesn’t make it less of a reality. Do your research and understand in what areas females tend to “fall short” compared to their male counterparts. One example of this is salary negotiation. Research has shown that females are significantly less likely to negotiate job salaries than men – a study conducted by the American Psychology Association found that half of the men graduating with MBA full-time job offers negotiated their salary, in comparison to only one-eighth of the women. There are numerous psychological theories as to why, and I would encourage you to spend the time to read about these inherent differences in behavior so that you can utilize this knowledge to your advantage. A large driver of this reluctance to negotiate is the perceived social cost that females feel in doing so. The Harvard Kennedy School, as well as numerous educational and professional organizations, offer advice and tips as to how to bridge this gap. There’s a plethora of great resources out there – educate yourself and use these to your advantage.
Some resources I have personally utilized to learn more:
Another common struggle faced by females in male-dominated industries, particularly if you are just starting out your career, is a lack of confidence in speaking up. One of the best pieces of advice I was given here is to make sure you say something, anything, within the first 5 minutes of a meeting. This will designate that you are a voice in the room, and one with an opinion. More importantly, it will make it so much easier to continue contributing throughout the remainder of the meeting time. 5-years into my career, this is a rule I still make every effort to follow.
Navigating a “boy’s club”
I remember struggling with this a lot early on in my career. My colleagues were fantastic, and I had no fundamental gender-related issues professionally, but so many of the social activities the team planned seemed to be centered around predominately “male” activities. Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and plenty of females are more than happy to engage in a game of golf for team bonding through a company football tournament. Personally, these were not activities I was good at nor enjoyed. What bothered me more was that it felt like more traditional “female” activities were never even considered team excursions. The best thing you can do here is to voice how you feel and why you believe this may impact your ability to form close relationships with your colleagues. There’s no reason to feel forced to engage in an activity that you have no interest in participating in! Don’t approach this by complaining, but instead point out that it would be great to include more inclusive outings when brainstorming team activities. In my experience, more often than not, your male colleagues will not even have considered that their interests perhaps do not align with yours. By expressing your opinion and your thoughts on these things, you will be surprised by how open teams will be to considering different alternatives.
Start a Women’s Network
Many larger firms may already have something like this, but if your firm does not, take the initiative to start one! Even if it’s initially only a few of you, the network can grow over time and can also send a powerful message that gender equality should be a firm priority. Implement unique approaches such as bringing in successful female speakers from the industry, taking the initiative to plan team events, and having an outlet to discuss any concerns or challenges you or others may be feeling. This is also a great way to get tips from women who are further along in their careers, as well as form life-long professional and personal relationships with women who have similar interests as yours! You could either keep the network internal within your firm or expand it and offer membership to other local women in the industry.
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