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For Women in Finance, Challenges Remain at the In-Person Workplace

Along with the networking events and conferences comes a return of workplace challenges.

As the finance world moves back to in-person work, many of us are looking forward to seeing coworkers in person, collaborating with clients face-to-face, and resuming the spontaneous interactions and connections that come with in-person conferences and networking events.

But for many women in finance, the winding down of the virtual office brings back into focus the workplace challenges that can arise from those same in-person meetings, conferences, networking, and just plain-old being social with coworkers.

When I surveyed women for this piece, I heard a wide variety of overlooked challenges. The common thread was that each issue added mental weight, time, or expense--all of which create unnecessary barriers to success.

This is not meant to be an article of solutions. Back in March, I wrote about how men can be active allies. With this column, I invite men and all leaders to think of these issues through the prism of official company policies, less formal company culture settings, and individual and corporate communications.

Being the Boundaries Trailblazer

A variety of challenges come with being a trailblazer, especially when it comes to decision-making and having your voice be treated with respect. But there are other issues, as well.

Lindsey Swanson, CFP, says one of the challenges she has witnessed is “trying to create healthy boundaries when women (or other discriminated parties) before you have not openly objected to the status quo. Older female advisors have often chosen to endure inappropriate jokes, pet names, etc. for the higher goal of succeeding in the workplace (and potentially this was the only way for them to stay employed). So then if a new advisor comes into the workplace and raises concerns about their treatment, it's seen as overly sensitive or inaccurate because that culture had existed with previous women in the mix. I'd like to always respect the decisions others make in order to succeed amidst discrimination, but at times their approach has invalidated my requests for change.”

Networking in a Man’s World

The power of a good network is an unmatchable asset in finance, but building one as a woman requires constant calculations about personal safety, other people’s perceptions, and whether any one event or relationship is worth the potential risk.

For a woman building her network, many of the traditional networking avenues include a variety of challenges:

Happy hours and networking mixers. Going to an event with alcohol means taking a calculated risk about the possibilities of:

• Men at the event confusing your presence at a professional networking event that happens to be at a bar with seeking a romantic or sexual relationship.

• Someone drugging your drink or “joking” about drugging your drink. (The “joke” isn’t funny, and in fact it’s threatening and scary.)

• Coworkers getting the impression that you are fraternizing too much (for a woman) or that you’re using your identity as a woman to get ahead (the “sleep your way to the top” trope).

Golf. Golf is often seen as sport with close ties to doing business. But it has historically been and still is dominated by men, and it is often associated with clubs that don't admit women (and other discriminatory policies). Pine Valley, a century-old golf club that has the top-ranked golf course in the United States, only decided this year to admit women members to the club.

Dining out. When I was in a work position that included meeting with wholesalers and other sales representatives, I was always hesitant to accept offers from men sales reps to meet over a meal for fear they would consider the business engagement a date. There's also a fear that others will see you and determine that your relationship is "inappropriate." I once had a colleague report me to my boss because they saw me having lunch with a man who wasn't my husband. Other women have shared similar stories with me.

Texting. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a change in communications method must be approached carefully. Rachel Cameron noted, "Mentors of mine say the best way to build relationships is through iMessage vs. email. It can be awkward to text male counterparts in the same way men can with each other. I have trusted male relationships, but it's not something I can freely do with everyone. It takes a lot longer to build trust before moving to iMessage."

The Bodies We Live In

I could write an entire book about the various issues we have to consider in relationship to our physical bodies. I wish I could quantify the amount of mental energy these thoughts drain from our ability to do thoughtful and creative work. My guess is that it’s anywhere from 5%-25% of most women’s daily brainpower. The pressure has been much less in the last year, with such limited in-person interaction, but I can feel it creeping back now.

Age. When I was young, I knew I needed to look older to get the respect I deserved. I had fake glasses, wore suits, and did anything I could to look older in hopes of not having my young appearance work against me. On the flip side, older women often report feeling invisible or being dismissed as irrelevant, even as older men climb the corporate ladder. There's an "acceptable" window of not too young, yet not too old, and it feels very narrow. Of course, I don't agree that there should be an age window, but I know it is there.

Dress. At many finance offices, there's either a stated or understood dress code that means women should look professional but not manly, attractive but not sexy, nails polished but not with bright colors, heels always, but not too high, skirts preferable, but not too short. This is found even in smaller, more casual offices, but for women who spent the formative years of their careers in a big firm, we are trained to self-police our appearance for the benefit of other people. For example, on my first day at one job, a supervisor told me to dress nicely: Wear high heels. But not snakeskin heels. Never snakeskin. Also no open-toe shoes. And not too high of a heel because ... you know what that looks like. For reference, he mostly wore athletic shoes.

Weight. Like age, there is a narrow window of acceptability in body shape. There's constant pressure to be thin but not skinny and fit but not bulky. Obviously, this attention to women's body shapes is not exclusive to finance; it is a cultural norm in the U.S. But I would argue it's additionally pronounced in finance and even more so higher up on the executive ladder. Leanna Orr, former deputy editor of Institutional Investor, shared, "I once hosted a roundtable to interview five C-suite asset management women. Every single one was tiny and in wicked good shape, like top fifth percentile of women. Table stakes if you're female."

There are a variety of other categories that I didn’t cover here, but the common theme in all of these challenges is that they take away from our ability to do excellent work. Women want to be able to work and network safely, be able to be ourselves, have our voices and ideas celebrated, and be rewarded for our excellent work.

Sonya Dreizler is a speaker, author and consultant focused on fostering candid conversations about gender and race in financial services. She is also a subject matter expert in ESG and responsible investing, and a former chief executive officer for an independent broker-dealer/registered investment advisor. The author is a freelance contributor to Morningstar. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.

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