The gender equality penny is dropping

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Kate Grussing, a vice-president at JP Morgan, says: 'Banking is a fabulous job opportunity for women. There are more applying and being promoted every year. This trend is improving across the City of London and most firms have appointed diversity co-ordinators in senior roles.'

Julia Noakes, a business psychologist, works with investment banks including UBS Warburg and Schroder Salomon Smith Barney, helping them to organise 'women and leadership' events. These involve interviewing both men and women to identify gender issue obstacles in their business culture.

She says: 'There is a lot of evidence that mixed gender teams are part and parcel of having effective team functioning. Effective team functioning gets results.'

JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs have all recently won laurels for improved commitment to gender equality.

JP Morgan came up trumps recently at the sixth annual Opportunity Now awards, winning the category for new members, for its commitment to global diversity.

The three banks scored highly in an annual benchmarking survey conducted by Opportunity Now, an organisation committed to gender equality. It is run by Business in the Community, whose members include 75% of the FTSE 100 companies. The survey, Gender Equality in the Workplace, is the organisation's second benchmarking exercise. It looks at any changes over the past year in the treatment of gender equality and diversity issues across a range of employers including public sector bodies, retail finance companies and investment banks.

The survey was compiled via self-assessment questionnaires and incorporates 181 organisations, including eight City banks. The overall benchmark score for these eight was 45%, up from 31% last year. Criteria include whether companies have a formal gender diversity policy and allow flexitime working.

The highest scoring sector this year was IT and Communications, at 74%. The retail finance sector, which includes the high street banks, came third with 70%.

While the number of City of London banks participating looks pitiful, eight have made progress. Several now have board level responsibility for gender equality.

Of all the 181 organisations taking part, Merrill Lynch improved its score by the largest amount and Goldman Sachs was in 13th place.

Banks lament that while they offer great career opportunities for women, preconceptions of anti-social working hours and macho culture are still deterrents. Despite their efforts to recruit more female graduates, dispelling the image of old boy cronyism associated with the Square Mile is not easy.

Lawton Fitt, co-head of European high technology investment banking at Goldman Sachs, says: 'Recent graduates sometimes accept the stereotypes of the people, lifestyle and work content of investment banking without examining whether the career might suit them. This lack of detailed knowledge can cause women to miss out on a great opportunity.'

She says that Goldman Sachs takes this issue seriously and has grass root networks in place to discuss women employees' concerns.

'We put on presentations at universities which are sponsored by women's groups within the universities. We also have informal mentoring, creche facilities and emergency childcare.'

But a lot of banks and female bankers approached by Financial News were not as forthcoming about policies and commitment to gender equality, or whether the old boy culture is indeed a thing of the past.

Helena Dennison, chairwoman of the City Women's Network organisation, says: 'City pay rates are an incentive to silence. It is hard enough to reach a position of real influence as a woman in the Square Mile without compromising any hope of advancement by opening your mouth to criticise the culture.'

Some maintain that old habits die hard and the City of London has a long way to go before gender equality can be assumed rather than lobbied for.

One of the problems highlighted by the benchmarking report is that gender equality remains a marginal, not a core issue. Most of the City banks do not have formal policies to support it, whereas 88% of retail sector firms do.

Dr Gillian Shapiro, who helped compile the survey, says: 'They need to place more importance on monitoring progress. Unless they ask why certain policies may not be working effectively, it is very difficult to attain and sustain real improvement.'

The survey also shows that fewer than half of the investment banks have flexitime work policies, compared to 82% in the retail finance sector. Shapiro says: 'Identifying where women are in the workforce and comparing their promotion rates with those of men is a crucial measure.'

There are also cost issues. It seems pointless for banks to spend vast amounts training female recruits, only to lose them because they do not have effective equality policies.

But many people maintain that career-minded women seeking jobs in finance should not be put off by a few headline cases of sexism highlighted in the media.

So should women be more prepared to take on the challenges that banking demands? The long hours are arguably no longer a good excuse to opt out of a banking career, as most women can afford to pay for home help and childcare and some banks now offer creche facilities and flexitime.

Fitt of Goldman Sachs adds: 'Being a woman can be an advantage, as you get visibility because of your gender. The challenge of being a great investment banker far outweighs that of being a great female investment banker.'

Lani Bannoch, managing director, group insurance management, at UBS Warburg, says: 'The long hours are all about taking responsibility. I have had a housekeeper for eight years and have not ironed a shirt for that long. It is all about believing that you can make it happen. If you feel that you are on your back foot, then you project it consciously or subconsciously.'

Noakes, the psychologist, agrees that it is up to women to empower themselves. 'It too easily becomes a sad knitting party where everyone just complains. So I ask them what are they going to do about it.'

It seems that what is needed is a combination of an increase in critical mass of women in senior banking careers and a continued commitment by the banks themselves to step up efforts to recruit female graduates and to address gender equality as a core business issue in the workplace.