How Women Can Succeed In Finance Boys' Club

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I will never forget my first day on the trading floor 14 years ago. Two months before, I had graduated from college and now, after having completed a few weeks of training, I was filled with excitement over starting my first "real" job. Since my senior year of high school, I knew that I wanted to have a career in finance. So I went to college to be a business major and my classes only confirmed that inclination. This first day in the "real world" was the culmination of four years of hard work and five years of dreaming and fantasizing what my future would look like.

It took about three days before the honeymoon period wore off. First, I was yelled at by one of the bond traders. Then, within the first two months, I was told I was a "decoration" for the trading floor, asked to have an affair with a highly successful salesperson, and secured no less than a dozen inappropriate comments about the type of clothes that I chose to wear to work.

Pack of wild animals
Despite all of these potential HR violations, my passion for finance continued to grow and develop. I may have been surrounded by the equivalent of a pack of wild animals, but the work was constantly challenging and always interesting.

To me, there was nothing better in the world than a career in financial services. I have worked in the field for over 14 years, and I still believe this is the case.

However, what I have not liked witnessing throughout my career is the stagnant growth of the number of women working in finance. Despite my best efforts to mentor women into and through a career in finance, these efforts still fall short for a number of reasons.

In my opinion, the main reason for this stagnant growth is that the work environment is not what women expect.

Foreign country
Here is the best analogy I can use to describe this feeling: Imagine planning a move to France (or any other foreign country) for four years or more. You know that you love the food, the scenery, and the culture. Everything you research in your books leads you to believe that France is the country you should choose to reside. Then, after all of this careful planning and research, you move to France only to discover that 80 percent of the population is men and they all speak French.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with men and there is nothing wrong with the French language. Except as a woman, you speak English as a first language and you feel most comfortable communicating in English. After this realization of your surroundings, you are forced to choose one of three paths:

1) You start to speak French – It is not your primary language; however, you feel you must in order to communicate with the majority of the population. The women who "speak French" are typically those who appear to be overly aggressive and difficult to get along with in the work environment. They think they need to become like the boys to work with the boys.

I explain to my younger teammates that this result is a possibility if you are forced to compete for an ongoing basis with only male peers. The sad thing is that the women who adopt this path become less sympathetic to their female peers and they almost join the team of men. They will also deceive you, because while they look like they speak your language, you will be disappointed to find that speaking to them feels the same as speaking to their male counterparts.

2) You get frustrated and move – At some point, working in an environment with nothing but people who are different from you and don't speak the same language starts to wear on you. This is usually after two to three years, and you begin to have fantasies of living in another country or trying a different path.

You are convinced that the grass would be greener if you got an MBA or changed careers. You know that you will be appreciated and understood if you work somewhere else. So, you take your talent, your thoughts, and your voice and you leave. This is truly a huge loss for the company.

3) You build a colony and make it work – The fact is, many clients prefer working with women, or as I like to say, "Clients like to speak English." Not everyone is difficult to communicate with, so you develop your little community and surround yourself with it to make the rest of the environment bearable. The colony can seem isolating though, and it is not the perfect long-term solution for your work-life happiness. However, I have succeeded in my finance career by living in small colonies and finding like-minded people.

When I worked for a large financial services company, I was committed to building a colony that was a safe place for women to grow and develop.

I frequently extended an open invitation for conversation and understanding, usually in the bathroom (Funny side note: the women's restroom on a trading floor is about the only women's restroom on the planet that never has a line for a stall.) Every time I extended kindness or help, I was always taken aback by the gratitude and appreciation from my female peers.

If you are a female leader, I encourage you to create a colony for your fellow female teammates. Create a safe environment for them to communicate and share ideas. Teach them how to fish and survive in the company, and they will thrive and support you in return.

If you are just starting out, don't let initial frustrations sway you from a monetarily and intellectually rewarding career in finance. If you are not included in someone else's colony, build your own. You will be surprised at how many women will be looking for that community, even those who have been with the company much longer than you.

Building or joining a colony will not only give you a community of support in the company, but it will allow you to stay true to yourself.

When you stay true to who you are, you not only provide a great value for the company, but you are a happier employee. After years of education and planning for a career in finance, we women might find the environment is not what we expected, but that doesn't mean we can't make it a wonderful place to work and grow.
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