Women in Financial IT – Career Advancement Update

Two and a half years has passed since I last wrote about career advancement for women in financial IT and I’d love to say that all is well – but sadly there is still a lot of work to do if the industry is going to attract and retain some of the very best talent.

However, we have had some progress. One of the issues we touched upon in the last piece was the high number of women leaving successful IT careers because of childcare commitments – and crucially, who do not return. It was gratifying therefore to hear Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pledging to allow couples to share maternity leave.

The current parental leave provisions are one of the most unequal in Europe and are a key contributing factor to the very low number of women that we see in senior positions. In the financial services sector particularly, the majority of women that do reach the top either do not have families, or have partners who stay at home. Programmes which help women returners – particularly in the area of confidence building and keeping skills updated after maternity leave are very important in terms of retention. Many women feel that they have suffered a ‘motherhood penalty’ and are overlooked for promotion and development because of their childcare responsibilities. In 2011 we shouldn’t have to choose between children and a career.

There has also been much debate over the past two years around quotas versus targets. Germany is proposing an introduction of mandatory quotas for women on boards; in addition France, Spain and Italy are also considering the idea. However, I’m not sure that gender quotas for the UK would be popular among British women – or men. The last thing the financial services sector needs is positive discrimination and the majority of female technologists that we speak to in the financial services sector want to achieve promotion on their own merit and ability – not just to make up numbers.

Instead, targets and the education of middle management, what is really needed to help drive change. The financial services sector has made some headway here and has recognised that in order to attract and retain the best – it needs to fish from the widest possible talent pool.

The Glass Ceiling Still Persists

However, our recent survey carried out in conjunction with Intellect, the trade association for the UK technology sector, has revealed that women are still facing a tough glass ceiling. The findings are worrying: over 60% of respondents have over a decade of experience and yet only just over a quarter (26%) have reached senior management level with many feeling that they are being passed over for promotion in favour of male colleagues. In fact, over a third of respondents said they had left their last position due to a lack of internal promotion.

While the financial services sector rated highly in the provision of progressive employment policies and facilities, the survey revealed a fear among women that taking up the options of part-time or flexible working would be detrimental to their careers, as highlighted by one respondent who said: “The company offers some flexibility, but women taking up options of part-time and flex-type working undoubtedly suffer in the promotion stakes. They simply don’t get recognition.” There was also a feeling that progressive policies were offered in theory but not in practice, and three quarters of women felt that there was a long hours culture: “While flexible hours are a possibility, it is not actively encouraged by management and is seen as quite career limiting.”

The business case for attracting and retaining female talent is pretty compelling. First of all, women could benefit your organisation financially – research from McKinsey highlighted that European organisations with the highest proportion of women in influential leadership roles showed better than average financial performance. But more generally, women tend to possess the softer skills, particularly around competencies such as communication – and having a more diverse team means having a wider range of ideas and viewpoints. It’s also crucial in today’s global financial market place for your workforce to reflect your customer base not just in terms of ethnicity and culture but also gender.

Not only that, the more women that enter the sector, the more role models there will be – which is crucial if the industry wants to encourage even more women to pursue technology careers . As Pete Cherasia, global head of IB technology and operations at JP Morgan, says: “We operate in a global environment against a truly diverse international business community. It’s important that our collective DNA reflects that diversity. Our strength is in creating an inclusive environment where innovation is cultivated and different opinions are valued.”

Identifying these women against a backdrop of fewer females entering the IT sector is a tough challenge – and obviously far more needs to be done to encourage technology in finance as a viable and sustainable career option. This has to be done at a very early stage and a programme of communicating with schools and colleges to showcase IT careers – and the rewards is crucial. As Jade West, a business analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BofA Merrill), says: “With the development of conversion master degrees, and the numerous events, the effort is slowly encouraging more women into technology. However, the issue may need to be resolved at a younger age, to encourage women to study the subject and want to aim to have a career in the industry. There are many preconceptions, and the main one is that IT is a man’s world and that women who work within it do not have the same ability, but my personal opinion is that people have different strengths and weaknesses for different types of roles.”

Recruitment and Retention

Accenture’s graduate recruitment activities are a good example of an organisation’s commitment to recruiting the best female as well as male talent on a practical level. They ensure that women are represented at all of campus events. They also ensure that women are present at interviews, and try to allocate female buddies to those at second round interviews. Where appropriate they advertise in women targeted career publications and sponsor various women’s clubs and societies across the country’s universities.

Other activities include women in business events, female specific marketing collateral/direct mail activities and female profiles on the website. As their careers site states: “Attracting women to work in a largely technical environment is an industry-wide challenge and we are looking at ways to encourage females at an early stage to consider technology as a viable career option. This involves activities at schools such as running technology workshops and presentations at all girls’ schools.”

It’s also a good idea for organisations to look at using diversity suppliers who help increase the flow of female candidates without any discriminatory practice. It helps to have more women involved in the recruitment decision making process to ensure a range of opinions are given and that people don’t fall into the trap of hiring in their own image. Networking groups and internal schemes for women can also help attract female talent to your organisation and retain it once it’s there. At Women in Technology, we regularly run events in conjunction with financial services organisations on a wide variety or topics aimed at helping women in their IT careers. Recent examples have included sessions on self belief in conjunction with BofA Merrill and internal networking in conjunction with RBS.

Conclusion

Breaking the glass ceiling is not about promoting gender equality for its own sake. There is an absolute business case – women are not a minority in a highly qualified tech talent pool and as we have mentioned there is compelling research to show that organisations with strong female representation at top management and board level perform better than those without. However, it is disappointing to still be having to have this debate in 2011.

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