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After her best year trading currencies, a female trader on a large US investment bank’s foreign exchange desk was expecting good news at the bonus meeting. It was, after all, the late 1990s, the heyday of currency trading. But when her boss told her the sum, which was a fraction of what male members of the team were awarded, she stood up and went back to her desk in silence.
When she later told her boss she was disappointed, he turned around and snarled: “And how much does a nurse get?!”
Incidents such as this have hampered a growing push to get more women into senior trading roles.
In June this year, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, said “finance offers so much, but it still doesn’t offer enough for women”, calling the lack of female representation in senior roles “an enormous missed opportunity”.
Andrew Hauser, the BoE’s executive director for markets, said “diversity is not an option in FX — it’s an imperative”.
Despite those efforts, only 13 per cent of individuals approved by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority for trading roles last year were female.
Women foreign exchange traders have always been rare. Many have been put off by an aggressive and testosterone-fuelled atmosphere on the trading floor. As a result, few can boast careers that span decades. In trading and broking, fewer than 1 per cent of staff were historically female, according to an industry veteran.
The dangers of the overwhelmingly male culture in trading rooms have been exposed by the global probe into improper practices in currency markets, which focused on chat rooms with revealing names such as “Semi Grumpy Old Men”. None of the chat rooms had female members and not a single woman faced criminal charges for the alleged failings.
“Perhaps the most depressing aspect of past FX abuse was the light it threw on historic behaviour in parts of the market, called a ‘bro-culture’ by some,” said Mr Hauser.
An IMF study last year suggested that having more female traders “would foster greater stability in the banking system and enhance economic growth”. It called the fewer than 2 per cent female representation in chief executive positions “shocking”.
A paper by the University of Leicester suggests that female traders outperform males on average, and that more women on the trading floor would reduce crash events.
Companies say recruiting women is tough. In the UK last year fewer than 12 per cent of A-level candidates studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics were female. This is a huge restriction on the pool of talent that electronic trading groups look for, said Jessica Sohl, chair of Chicago-based computer trading specialist HC Technologies, where fewer than 5 per cent of employees are female.
There is also a “legacy problem in retaining female talent in trading roles”, said Simon Manwaring, global head of foreign exchange at NatWest Markets, who added that the industry is facing a supply-side problem.
“If I want to hire a senior options trader I would like them to have 15 years of experience. There are simply not many women around who have that,” he pointed out.
The culture in the 1990s was “pretty horrible” and “rife with sexism”, said Kevin Rodgers, a retired former Deutsche Bank currencies head, who noted that women “quite sensibly stayed away”. Those who went into trading often left after having a child, because the pressure of “having the seat empty” meant that six weeks’ maternity leave was seen as a luxury.
One trader said that while working in Oslo he sat next to a “brilliant” female peer for years, until one day she stood up and said that she was going on maternity leave. “We couldn’t believe it. She kept it a secret, wearing big jumpers because she was worried about her job,” he said. She never came back.
Worries over pay have not helped. Mr Manwaring said he was confident that in his business everyone was paid equally for equivalent jobs.
This has not always been the case in the industry. The anonymous female trader said that she used to sit next to a man who was paid multiples of her salary for the same role, which made him feel so guilty that every year he would splash out on a “really over-the-top Christmas gift” to compensate.
Lowballing female candidates is still rife, she said, noting that last year she rejected a job offer on pay grounds. A few months later, the same role was offered to a male peer at a significantly higher salary band.
The switch to electronic trading might have blunted the banter-driven boys’ club image, but foreign exchange is still male-dominated. One recruiter who specialises in currency trading said some companies pay extra commission if the shortlist for a job contains a woman, while others specify that a third of candidates need to be female. And yet few get hired.
“Yes, it’s difficult to find female talent for senior roles but, even when I show them a brilliant female candidate, they rarely ever get hired,” said the recruiter. “I’ve given up, to be honest.”
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