Should I dress like a woman and act like a man?

The highly successful 1982 film ‘Tootsie’ starring Dustin Hoffman, is about an unemployed actor who disguises himself as a woman to get a role in a soap opera.  As it is ‘Women in Financial Services’ month, this got me thinking, in a male-dominated industry, should us ladies dress like a woman but act like man in order to gain success?

I have worked within financial services for the last 15 years and over that time have noticed that in a male dominated industry, women only seem to be prevalent within administration, marketing or HR functions; the glass ceiling remains, with women extremely underrepresented in senior positions and currently not a single global financial institution is run by a woman.

Research by head-hunting firm Odgers Berndtson, published last year (2012), revealed that women occupy just 23% of board positions within private companies in the UK, and although the number of female board members has increased since 2009, the rate of growth is a pretty pathetic 2.1%.  These figures are for companies overall, and if you look at financial services specifically the number of women in positions of power falls even further.  Additionally, according to Touchstone Financial Analytics, only 17% of financial advisers in the UK are women.

The stats don’t lie and the fact remains that financial services is still a man’s world.

Some could argue that looking to employ more women within high powered positions equates to ‘positive’ discrimination.  Surely the ability to do the job is what counts and gender should not matter. So what is the case exactly?

In some areas, such as the front office, the explanation could be of a more physical nature.  An ex-broker friend of mind says:

“I started on a trading exchange 18 years ago and although there were several women working there, most were in “support” or client liaison roles. This was the end of the 90’s where ‘girl power’ and the whole ‘ladette’ culture was rife; a few strong willed women had crossed over the male-dominated division to become traders. Six years on there were exactly zero female traders left on the exchange. It was suggested that physical issues held women back; our voices were harder to be heard over the men and when trading the “kerb” our smaller frames allowed us to be pushed out.”

Would a more aggressive, larger-framed, louder female make the grade? And does this mean that women should become more aggressive to get ahead?

Did testosterone fuel the financial crisis?

According to a recent interview in the London Evening Standard economist Vicky Pryce believes:

“Studies about [these] traders find that — partly because of the hormones — they don’t actually think they are taking risks, they’re just optimistic. They think they’ll beat the market… and they think, ‘I’d better deal with someone else who also thinks this is a fantastic idea, rather than [someone] who thinks it’s really risky’.”

Pryce believes women are better at ‘collegiate behaviour and caring for the common good’.

However, this can only be the case when women are behaving naturally and not trying to compete with their more risk-averse, optimistic male colleagues by acting just like them.

The new ‘Old Boys’ Network

History has shown that when women work together, they are successful in their aims, from the Suffragette movement in the early 1900’s to World War II, where women made significant gains in the workplace, demonstrating they were capable of performing in the work place as well as men following.

In the modern world and with the rise of social networking, we have seen a number of dedicated forums and events set up specifically for women in business, and an increase in female-only social networking sites which gives them the ability to talk more freely – the modern day equivalent of men on the golf course. Men help each other, so why shouldn’t women.

Holly Mackay, MD of The Platforum is an inspiration to aspiring ladies in financial services – having evolved her business from, in her words, “typing on a laptop next to the ironing board in my 2nd bedroom” to building a profitable and successful company in five years with two children under five. Holly is so passionate about helping young women in the early stages of their financial services career, she holds an annual event for women-only to hear from senior female directors and build a network.

“I think it’s such a shame that financial services is still so blokey. I think it can be very intimidating for young women to stand up and join the conversation. We all talk about how we fail to engage with consumers, how we talk in jargon and alienate ‘real people’ – I genuinely believe this would be different if more women had a voice in financial services. The CEO of Procter and Gamble regularly talks about how teams of men and women perform better than teams of just one gender. I long for the day when the boss of a life company, an IFA firm or a fund manager acknowledges the problem we have – and does something about it. Once a year, we run an event which is principally designed to help women build a network, share ideas and find inspiration and mentors. Anyone who would like to come is most welcome to get in touch with me – if your boss is a bit mean or you won’t get approval for the £200 conference fee, I’ll invite you as my guest.”

In fact, according to a report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, created in 2008 to analyse trends expected to affect global markets, shares of companies with a market capitalization of more than $10 billion and with women board members outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26 percent worldwide over a period of six years.

Personally, it is my belief that to be hugely successful within financial services as a woman you are still expected to harp back to the 80’s ideal of the “Iron Lady” image – if you want to do the job of a man you have to think like a man and act like a man. In many cases you have to be more ruthless than a man to prove your worth. I have never been to a senior management meeting chaired by a woman and she has been dressed in anything less than a suit that wouldn’t have looked out of place on good old Maggie.

It was greed and over-lending that fuelled the financial crisis and a sense of “invincibility”. I believe that possibly women in the higher positions of the institutions that aided the crisis had just as much pseudo-testosterone as the men, so blame would fall at both sets of Gucci-clad feet.

However, in this changing world you have to play the long game. A career is built slowly and steadily. You work your way up through a much stricter hierarchy, earning respect, not as a sheep in wolfs clothing, but as an equal, with a different perspective, which can balance the business, confident in the knowledge you’d have the backing of other females colleagues, as men have always had.

If women think like women, act like women, support each other and stay true to themselves, in a male oriented environment, it can only be for the benefit of the industry as a whole and I for one will not be donning a pinstriped power suit any time soon.

Sarah Paul

Marketing Director



Useful Links

Women in finance: the past 50 years

BCG Women Want More (in Financial Services) Report

Women in Banking & Finance

City Women’s Network

Top 10 Professional Networks for Women in Finance

United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s