Millennial women in finance held back despite defying the stereotypes

Despite a common perception of millennials as entitled and vocal, many women from that generation who work in finance don’t seem to fit the stereotype. By asserting themselves less forcefully than their male counterparts, they see fewer promotion opportunities and, with a scarcity of mentors and long hours at work, are also facing issues that are in some ways similar to the experiences of prior generations of women in financial services.

In a 2015 global survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers of 8,000 millennial women (those born between 1980 and 1994) working in asset management, insurance, banking and capital markets, 50 per cent said the promotions process at their companies favours men. Only 35 per cent expected to reach senior levels at their firms.

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As president and chief executive officer of Canadian advocacy organization Women in Capital Markets, Jennifer Reynolds is aware of the challenges. “You can do it,” she says of the potential for moving up. But finance isn’t a level playing field, she concedes. “The glass ceiling certainly does exist in our industry.”

A sense of insecurity

One reason young women lose out on promotions is that, unlike men, they rarely express their aspirations, says Marlene Puffer, a Toronto-based partner at Alignvest Investment Management. “Women often believe, especially younger women . . . that if they keep their head down and they do their job well . . . their managers will notice them.”

That’s what Melissa (not her real name), 29, did when she started at her firm almost a decade ago. Melissa, who works at a large asset management firm in the United States, was logging 80 or more hours a week at her job without saying a word to her boss about her ambitions. “I literally just continued to ask for more work and, as more work came my way, I just delivered.”

In her case, her manager noticed her efforts and, two years later, she did get a promotion. But when it came to her second promotion — which brought her to her current management role — Melissa approached her boss about it.

Melissa doesn’t see her gender as a barrier. “I don’t necessarily feel I’m at a disadvantage because I’m simply a female. A lot of walls are coming down,” says Melissa, who nevertheless acknowledges the challenges, particularly around perceptions. “Oftentimes . . . we probably prevent ourselves from moving forward, thinking that it’s going to be a lot harder than maybe it is. And I don’t know if we have enough women on the other side to say, ‘Hey, it’s not that bad. Keep coming.’”

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While conducting performance reviews, Lucy (also not her real name), 29, has also noticed insecurity about promotions among the young women she manages. “Women in general . . . don’t feel entitled,” says Lucy, who works at a large investment consulting firm in the United States. “Over the last three years, I’ve been seeing consistently how women really do not sell themselves . . . while all the men on my team basically had that sense of entitlement. Even if they did a job that was certainly not better than the female colleagues of theirs, they would still try to sell themselves, kind of say, ‘I think I deserve this promotion’ . . . and emphasize their strengths.”

Melissa says her female staff, some of whom are millennials, also feel less secure than men. “The females that I manage on my team have a lot less confidence about what they’re doing even if they’re performing at . . . the highest level,” she says. “I’ll observe a conversation where . . . one of my guys will challenge one of the women on the team. Even if the guy is wrong, the woman will think that the guy is right when she’s actually right. It happens all the time. And . . . I have to jump in and correct it.”


Why did millennial women leave their last financial services employer?

34% Insufficient opportunities for career progression

29% Work wasn’t interesting or meaningful enough

29% Found another job that paid more

22% Insufficient opportunities for learning and development

20% Lack of fair balance between hard work and compensation

13% Lack of work-life balance

11% Senior role models didn’t resonate

11% Poor relationship with manager

8% Lack of sponsor

6% Senior positions were unattractive

4% Starting a family

Source: 2015 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey

Still, many managers are unaware of the gender confidence gap and assume women aren’t seeking a promotion if they haven’t said so, says Puffer. “That’s in many, many instances an incorrect perception.”

The role of mentors and sponsors

Another obstacle for young women is the fact that men still dominate the senior levels of finance. At Canadian investment dealers, studies have found women hold a small percentage of senior management roles. In the United States, less than 10 per cent of fund managers are women, according to a 2015 report by Morningstar.

It’s a situation that leaves women at the early stages of their careers with few role models. “I see how my [male] colleagues . . . get inspired by the accomplishments of their bosses and their directors who are accomplished investors. And there aren’t a lot of women that I could look up to,” says Lucy.

Read: Canadian women more likely than men to get a raise

The scarcity of women in senior roles also means young women are less likely to find the mentors and sponsors who are crucial in helping them move beyond middle management, says Reynolds.

That’s where Lucy finds herself. “I’ve obtained these few promotions that were not easy to obtain but they were mapped out for the early stages of your career. But now . . . there’s no clear path for me and there are very few women who can mentor me.”

It can be hard for women to find mentors and sponsors mainly because like attracts like, says Reynolds. “It’s easier for men to find someone who may remind them of themselves at that age and start to mentor and sponsor that person.”

To address the unconscious bias that can arise, companies need to hold leaders accountable for picking diverse people for high-level assignments and promotions, according to Reynolds.

Yet anther impediment is the fact that while more women work in finance, they’re often in the back or middle office while senior leaders typically come from the revenue-generating front office, says Puffer.

The flexibility conundrum

In the PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of female millennials in finance, a third of participants cited workplace flexibility as important. Almost half said their companies offered flexible working options in principle but noted it wasn’t readily available in practice as 53 per cent believed using such programs would hurt their careers.

The long hours and rigid schedules common in finance could pose a career obstacle as millennial women start to have families. Melissa, for example, works 12 hours a day on weekdays plus a few hours from home on weekends. “If I did exactly what I needed to do and no additional work, I could probably swing 52 hours a week. But in order to do some of the things that I need to do . . . to elevate myself, I need to swing 60 plus hours a week.”

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While flexible working options are available at her firm, she says few people use them because of the stigma. “I hear, whether it’s men or women, saying, ‘Oh, well, she has flexible work hours,’ in a condescending tone. And it’s always a woman who has it; it’s not a man.

Yaldaz Sadakova is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. Benefits Canada agreed to use pseudonyms for Melissa and Lucy in order to protect their identities.

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