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For the third straight year, many women working on Wall Street today don't believe there are more opportunities for women to advance to the most senior positions in the financial services industry, even as institutional investors advocate for greater gender diversity at American companies.

At the eighth annual RegentAtlantic Wall Street Women Forum® in ­­­­April, dozens of high-level women working in financial services gathered to discuss career and personal issues they face in the industry. During the event, speakers, including Elinor Hoover, global co-head of the consumer products group in Citigroup Inc.'s (C) corporate and investment banking division and Plum Alley founder and Chief Executive Officer Deborah Jackson, spoke about the ways women can stay relevant, advance gender diversity and hone their leadership skills.

Hoover, who was one of the keynote speakers, said that there have been tremendous opportunities for women on Wall Street in the past decade. She has noticed an increasing number of women serving on boards and executive teams but said there should still be more.

To get a reading on how females in the financial services industry currently feel about the general progress of gender diversity, the women attending the forum engaged in a live survey, answering several prompts, such as: Given the changes on Wall Street since 2008, do you think there are more, fewer or the same opportunities for women to advance to the most senior positions in the industry? About 36% of respondents said the opportunities are the same as they were nearly a decade ago; 34% said there are fewer opportunities and 31% said there are more opportunities.

While roughly a third of the attendees said that there are more opportunities for women to advance to some of the top jobs in the financial services industry, that is down 10 percentage points from a year prior.


Source: The RegentAtlantic Wall Street Women Forum®
Source: The RegentAtlantic Wall Street Women Forum®

The more masculine culture within the financial services industry could be one aspect that explains why women don't see as many opportunities for career advancement.

To understand the state of the industry as it pertains to women, global management consulting firm Oliver Wyman surveyed 850 financial services professionals from around the world, interviewed over 100 senior female and male leaders in the industry, and conducted focus groups as well as roundtables.

The firm found that most interviewees "identified the culture and image of asset management as a problem for attracting and retaining female staff," according to its 2016 Women in Financial Services report. Oliver Wyman said that women also face a less attractive career trade-off than men, and one of the factors leading to this difference is the "persistent sources of low inclusion in culture affecting women such as invisible unconscious biases and traditional assumptions."

"The overt sexism of earlier times may have been stamped out, but unconscious biases and gender-role expectations that disadvantage women have not," Astrid Jaekel and Elizabeth St-Onge of Oliver Wyman wrote for the Harvard Business Review in October 2016.

Because gender biases exist, consciously or unconsciously, more work still needs to be done to raise awareness, Hoover said. And that work begins with a discussion about inclusion.

Some major players in the industry have begun working on being more inclusive. JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s (JPM) Jamie Dimon said in August that 30% of the firm's top 200 people are women. According to BoardEx, a relationship mapping service of TheStreet Inc., women make up 16.67% of JPMorgan's board.

"We're doing great with women, we're doing great with Asians, we're doing great with Hispanics," Dimon said. "We've got to do better with African-Americans and we're going to."

"Today, you cannot get enough talent from one demographic pool, so banks that do a good job at diversity and inclusion will win because they will have better talent," Jenn LaClair, head of business banking at PNC Businesses, said in the Oliver Wyman report. "Talent comes from so many diverse sources, to be successful all of them need to be tapped."

The third annual Women in the Workplace report by non-profit organization LeanIn and McKinsey and Co. released on Monday found that the banking and consumer finance industry is struggling to advance women into middle management. The representation of women in the industry drops at every level in the pipeline: women represent 51% of entry-level positions; 42% of women fill manager roles; 36% of women make it to the senior manager/director; women make up 28% of vice presidents and 25% of senior vice presidents; and, women represent only 18% of C-suite positions.

According to BoardEx, the average female representation at financial services companies on S&P 500 boards is 23.5%. It slips to 19.2% for the S&P MidCap 400 and drops to 14% for the S&P SmallCap 600.

To help women further advance in their careers, they should have mentors and sponsors. There is a distinct difference between the two, yet they ultimately have the same end goal: to offer support in achieving career goals.

A mentor is "a counselor, someone who will lend a sympathetic ear, act as a sounding board, and offer advice and encouragement," Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of "Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor," wrote for Harvard Business Review. A sponsor, on the other hand, is a person who will advocate on another's behalf in the workplace.

But more than a third of the forum's attendees (37%) said that they had neither a mentor nor a sponsor. About 8% reported having a mentor through a formal company program; a quarter of the women surveyed said they had an informal mentor at work; and, 22% said they had an informal mentor outside of work. Only 9% of participants reported having a mentor and a sponsor -- the lowest percentage since the forum began in 2010.

Still, a number of women at the forum said that having a sponsor is key to professional advancement. About 38% said that their biggest barrier to success was the lack of sponsors to advocate for them and provide opportunities.

In fact, when asked what was the most successful thing done over the past year to advance a career, the women attending repeatedly mentioned mentoring and sponsoring in addition to networking, finding an advocate and becoming an advocate for themselves. 

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Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 11.

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