Whenever a high-flying female manages to combine a career in the finance with raising a family she's invariably labelled a 'superwoman', as though having children and climbing the corporate ladder are entirely incompatible.
There's no shortage of high-profile women who have succeeded in doing both; notably Helen Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management who has nine children and long-time City superwoman and mother of six, Nicola Horlick.
However, it's fair to say that the financial sector has had its fair share of bad publicity from former female employees bringing maternity-related gender bias lawsuits, claiming they've been denied pay rises and promotion opportunities.
One of the key reasons cited for a lack of women in senior or client-facing positions are the problems of managing a demanding financial career with the pressures of raising a family and the difficulties encountered by women reintegrating into their job after maternity leave.
It's easy to assume, therefore, that women often face the stark choice of family or career. A 2011 study by headhunters Odgers Berndtson highlighted having children as a key obstacle to women's career progression in financial services. Women either have children early, before they're established in their career, or later when they have already reached a senior level, it suggested.
"It's still incredibly difficult to combine a family with a senior career in the City, especially if you're the main bread-winner. I don't have children, and many of my female managing director colleagues decided not to have a family," says Herta von Stiegal, chief executive of Ariya Capital and former MD at Citi, J.P Morgan and AIG Financial Products. "There's something of a sub-conscious prejudice in the industry that once you take time out, you lose your edge."
However, experts in this area suggest that banks attitudes are slowly starting to shift.
"There's a genuine business commitment to maternity transition programmes within the banks," says Jennifer Liston-Smith, head of coaching at My Family Care, who has worked with the likes of Citi and J.P. Morgan. "Some women have ten years' banking experience, key client relationships and the bank has invested hundreds of thousand of pounds in their development. Losing that pool of talent would be disastrous."
The importance of a support network
One of the key challenges when returning from maternity leave, particularly for front office roles, is trying to combine a new need for flexible working with realistically getting the job done. Some may find this transition relatively easy, but banks are increasingly rolling out programmes to ensure that women receive support and advice from those in a similar position.
"Banks have implemented group maternity coaching programmes, which offer a huge amount in terms of networking and sharing concerns with others in confidential atmosphere," says Liston-Smith. "They also see the way others are managing the process, new solutions and ways of influencing people in the business."
One of the biggest hurdles women returning from maternity leave often face are colleagues' preconceived assumptions that they will no longer be able to handle the demands of the job, says Liston-Smith, as well as often deliberate attempts from 'rivals' to highlight this fact in front of key managers.
"Sometimes, these group coaching events train women on preparing responses to these remarks, so they're seen as collected and influential, rather than reactionary and aggressive," says Liston-Smith. "It's important to tackle this rationally; who are the key people trying to sideline me? What are the main things I have to deliver and have to be seen to deliver? How do I make sure that right people notice that, and get the right message?"
Mentoring and coaching can only so far, and the banks themselves need to ensure that those in managerial positions have the know-how to provide adequate support to returning mothers.
"Banks have guidance in place to ensure for managing maternity transition, but increasingly managers being put through coaching and workshops to ensure best practice and promote peer pressure to do the right thing," says Liston-Smith.
Banks also offer help with child-care in emergency situations to stop employees being called away unexpectedly. My Family Care offers contingency childcare solutions – if, say, a nanny is unavailable or your child is unable to go to nursery because of illness. Not surprisingly, City firms are some of their most active clients.
Flexibility across the organisation
Flexible working arrangements have traditionally been frowned upon in banking, but they shouldn’t just be confined to women with child-rearing duties. As of last year, fathers also have the option of taking Additional Paternity Leave of up to 26 weeks and finance – along with other industries – is facing new demands for flexible working arrangements across the organisation.
"There's no homogenous attitude to work-life balance among the male and female population," says Liston-Smith. "Men want to be more involved in childcare more, and there needs to be a shift in attitude among the banks to accommodate it. Flexible working doesn’t have to be restricted to paternity issues – sometimes it's about working around an MBA, or triathlon training, for example. As long as people and teams are still able to deliver what they need to, banks should be more flexible about working arrangements."
Part of the reason that financial institutions are investing more in this area is not just for retention of the current workforce, but because they want to ensure that they remain attractive to Generation Y – which is more family-focused, team-oriented and demanding of flexible working.
"In light of recent negative publicity, banks are putting their money where their mouth is to remain attractive to both men and women either starting a family now or those who plan to in the future," adds Kate Grussing, a former senior banker at Morgan Stanley and J.P Morgan who now runs Sapphire Partners, a search firm that specialises in placing senior women into often flexible roles. "They want their current employees to return, but they're conscious of the need to remain appealing to the future talent pipeline."
These schemes have been relatively successful – the return rate at most banks now hovers between 85-95%, suggests Grussing, whereas in years gone by most firms would have struggled to hit 80%.
Is the 'mummy track' a reality?
As we point out elsewhere in this section, women are still under-represented in front office areas like trading and advisory functions, and there's a stark gender disparity in the senior ranks. In the past, banks have been accused of 'mummy tracking' women – overlooking them for promotion opportunities or ushering them away from client facing roles into more operational positions.
The reality, suggests Grussing, is that women often gravitate towards these operational functions themselves after starting a family, when career and life priorities shift.
"Some people view the 'mummy track' as a negative move, imposed by the banks," she says. "Women with children often move to senior operational roles because it gives them more flexibility and leverages a broader skill-set such as people management and communication. There's also more career optionality – if you've been a successful COO in fixed income, you could feasibly move that skill-set to equities, for example."
Women in Finance:
Can gender diversity drives survive as the financial sector contracts?
Five sectors still struggling to attract female candidates
Innovative strategies to address the gender imbalance
Q&A: Emma Murphy, advisor to the Financial Policy Committee at the Bank of England