Naive or not, women still want to be bankers

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A new generation of intelligent, ambitious young women is aspiring to careers in investment banking. Despite the obvious facts.

If you’re a young woman preparing for a career in banking, there’s plenty to put you off. One of the most telling figures reflecting the paucity of women in investment banks is the fact that only 25% of the toilets in Nomura’s New York building are likely to be for women because they’re so heavily outnumbered by men. (At Goldman Sachs only 23% of the newly promoted managing directors (MD) last year were women, whilst at Credit Suisse, 90% of the people promoted to MD in 2012 were men.

Not that any of this seems to trouble up-and-coming young female bankers.

“I’m attracted to the financial services industry by the fact that’s a meritocratic and fast-paced environment,” said 28-year-old Fernanda Cunha, an MBA student at the London Business School who spent six years in fixed income at Citibank before studying for her business degree. Financial services is an “aggressive environment” added Cunha. This can put some women off, she admitted, but if you work hard you’ll succeed.

Varvara Pechurina, a 22-year-old Russian woman studying the MSc in Investment Management at Cass Business School, was equally insistent that she won’t be discouraged from working finance simply because previous generations of women have found life in the industry a challenge. “I’ve been passionate about financial markets ever since my first year at university,” she said. “The industry is very dynamic and fascinates me. I’m really looking forward to starting my financial services career.”

Other, more jaded, women who’ve worked in financial services might consider Cunha and Pechurina naive. Like it or not, the industry has a well-established reputation as a female career graveyard – particularly post-motherhood.

“I got to 35 and I didn't like what I saw up the ranks (women or men),” one female equities saleswoman-turned housewife said, speaking anonymously.  “No matter how much money I earned, I could see that I wasn’t going to get the life that I wanted to lead.  My kids were seven and nine years old, I had a husband that I missed having fun with.  I just felt there wasn't a way to have everything I wanted and be everything I wanted.”

Rebecca Jackson, a former UBS banker who worked in exchange traded derivatives, prime services and electronic trading at UBS who now runs a website ‘After Wall Street’, said she got out of banking not because she had children but because she felt that working in banking was a “misplaced search for happiness.”

“I realized I was stuck in a cycle of chasing money and titles for the sake of money and titles,” Jackson said. “I didn’t feel any deeper connection or purpose to what I was doing.”  There were few senior women with children to look up, Jackson added, and those there were had stay-at-home husbands: “I honestly don’t know how other women manage - it’s not a lifestyle I would choose for myself.”

Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at the London Business School and a former head of the (now defunct) Lehman Centre for Women in Business, said the real issue for women in banking is the hours, and consequent the difficulty of combining a long week with parenthood. “Jobs with extreme hours are very difficult for parents, and research shows that even where both spouses work, it’s the woman who does most of the childcare,” said Gratton.

The best way for banks to retain senior women would be for them to give parents more autonomy in the way they manage their hours, said Gratton: “Flexible working and the opportunity to work from home are both helpful for parents working long weeks.” However, Gratton said banks have been absolved of the need to make these necessary changes because they can always attract eager new staff: “There’s a constant supply of people who want to join banks and they all join on the understanding that they will have to work very long hours.”

For the moment, young female bankers say grueling work weeks won’t be a problem. “I have learned to juggle a million things at a time -whether by simultaneously pursuing a dual degree in law and finance in two separate universities or by pursuing my MBA studies here in London while managing my relationship with my husband who lives back in Cairo,” said Laila Hassan, another MBA student at the London Business School.  “I plan to take this skillset with me throughout my career and I can see myself juggling a family and a senior post in the financial services. I simply would not see it otherwise.”

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