“A Thousand Times Harder”: The Obstacles Women Face Climbing The Corporate Ladder in Financial Institutions

When you think of Wall Street what do you see? Men in suits running around checking stocks? Bankers carrying briefcases down the street? Or the Charging Bull statue that stands as a landmark to the financial district in New York City? What about the Fearless Girl – a statue of a young girl standing up to that large bull in front of her, trying to block her way?

The Fearless Girl statue went up in 2017 with a plaque underneath her saying, “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.” However, when it comes to leadership in large financial institutions in the New York area, women go largely unrepresented.

The “Fearless Girl” stands up to the “Charging Bull” Photo by Associated Press

According to a 2017 study by Preqin, less than 17% of senior leaders in investment banks are women and less than 11% of women have leadership roles at hedge funds and private debt firms. In addition to all of this, all top banks are still run by men – one of the last major industries that still holds an obvious gender gap.

Things seem to be looking up, though, as Stacey Cunningham was named president of the New York Stock Exchange in May of this year, followed by the election of Betty Liu to executive vice chairman in June.
These positions mark the progression of gender equality into the male-oriented industry of banking and investments – Cunningham being the first female president of the NYSE in the 226 years that it has been running for.

As I walked around the financial district with my fellow student reporters, we attempted to find the truth about women on Wall Street and other big banks in the area.

When I got to the Oculus, a famous center for high-end shopping and food, I noticed many people with suits and professional attire in the food court taking their lunch breaks and decided to go up to some of them to see if they worked at financial institutions in the area and get their take on the issue.

The newly built train station and shopping center: The Oculus. (Photo by Shuttershock)

The first table I walked up to featured a perfect representation of what the industry should look like: a 50/50 divide between the two women on one side and the two men on the other. Anika Rarchid was the first to speak up when I questioned them about the equality they witnessed as interns at Merrill Lynch.

“It’s pretty even…” Rarchid explained, “it’s really changing. It’s not that male dominant anymore.”

This contrast from the statistics confused me initially, as all of her friends nodded their heads in agreement, one even saying that there were more women than men in her group, but as we moved on to our next interviews,we saw a different perspective from more experienced bankers.

Samantha and Grace sat on one side while Johnny and David sat on the other side of a table just across the room from the other group, appearing almost exactly the same. Instead of interns, though, they were employees at KPMG as consumer bankers with a little more experience and a different point of view. At first, they seemed to agree with the other group, saying that there is an even amount of both men and women entering the industry. However, when I asked the women if they felt any bias while trying to obtain higher positions at their institutions, they first eyed each other and then shook their heads up and down furiously. Oddly enough, to their reaction the men seemed shocked, one of them even questioning their assertion, “As you go up it gets harder?”

Although the men were seemingly unaware, the women could feel the bias and even witness it at their own bank, pointing out that all of the executives are male. Agreeing, reluctantly, the other woman at the table sighed, “Yeah, moving up is a thousand times harder.”

From these two tables of young professionals the problem comes to light: there may be equal representation of both genders entering the field, but it is much more difficult for women to rise up in the ranks at their jobs.As we looked at the testimonies and statistics they all seemed to line up, further proving the divide, but there was no evidence as to why it would be so much harder for women to obtain management and leadership positions. To answer this, we asked one of the few women who was able to beat the statistics: Bhoomica Reddy.

Jefferies Bank (Photo by Keith Williams)

Reddy is a Senior VP at Jefferies and Company, who noticed that the obstacle is oftentimes more of an internal one. She explained how, amid stereotypes and social bias, women can be afraid to enter a traditionally male-dominated industry and even then, they face insecurities like being scared to talk or speak-up, which men don’t have to deal with as much.

And then, as the number of women in finance starts to trickle off the higher they climb up the ranks, Reddy believes that a big reason for this is the pressure for women to have children and be stay at home moms.

She says the stereotype often is, “If women have children [and don’t leave their jobs] they don’t take care of them, but if men leave children [for their jobs] they are looked at as bringing home the money.” She calls this a “social stigma” towards women, making it harder for them to overcome as they move higher up on the corporate ladder. On the other hand, she is witnessing changes being made in the industry. From the time she entered she was one of the small fraction of women ( 11%) at her first banking job.

Now, though, there seems to be an even number of men and women entering the industry, like the interns from Merrill Lynch explained. As these interns move up in the workforce, Reddy is optimistic that things will change and hopes that, even facing adversity, women will fight through it like she did for the reason that, “We owe it to future generations.”

So just like the Fearless Girl statue stands up to the Charging Bull, she urges women to stand up to the stereotypes and social stigma they face. In the end, Reddy doesn’t regret all of the sacrifices she had to make to get to where she is now, and to all the men who look at her differently she says, “You can’t deny the fact that I‘m a woman!”

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