City of London
© Nobuyuki Taguchi

When she was molested after a night out with colleagues, Penny Duncombe* felt a mix of numb shock and vindication. After a few years in investment banking, she had long realised that the environment was infused with sexist attitudes — though she never guessed it would extend to a colleague spiking her drink in readiness for a calculated assault.

Newly arrived at one of the City of London’s top banks, the equities specialist (who asked that her real name not be published) had quickly earned a reputation as an “ice queen”. “They thought I was antisocial,” she recalls. “But I just didn’t feel comfortable going out with them. My boss was a bully in the office so the last thing I wanted was to spend time with him after work.”

One springtime evening in 2011, Duncombe relented, agreeing to go for a glass of wine. The full story of how and whether her drink was doped and what happened next has never been told, due to minimal evidence and legal hurdles. She remembers little except that she ended up unconscious on the street outside her office, with only flash memories of the assault.

Such incidents appear rare. But a broader pattern of anti-female bias across the City is disturbingly insidious. One top financier, who won’t speak publicly for fear of endangering her position, has spent 20 years challenging chauvinism but feels increasingly isolated. In a café near the Bank of England she speaks candidly about women’s treatment. “The City is peppered with men who have fundamentally sexist attitudes,” she rails. “It’s a pretty bleak place for a senior woman.”

 . . . 

The Square Mile may no longer be the obviously hostile place that it was 20 years ago. But the shift away from bawdy banter and open discrimination has still left women in a small minority across the City’s senior ranks. “The pool just gets thinner and thinner as you go up the firm,” says a leading female investment banker. “There are huge institutional barriers to women in the City,” says another. “And if you think your career won’t advance, why would you stay?”

Some damning statistics reinforce such anecdotal analysis. An exclusive study by the Financial Times reveals that, despite a near 50-50 gender balance in overall staff numbers, just 19.5 per cent of senior roles across the top City employers are held by women. Over six months the FT gathered data from more than 30 of the City’s top employers in banking, insurance, asset management and the professional services and interviewed more than two dozen people, including many of Britain’s leading female financiers.

Of all the City professions, banking is the most notorious for its male bias. The FT data shows that just 16.2 per cent of City banks’ managing director level posts are held by women. (If you’re a homegrown British woman, the odds appear even more stacked against you — the handful of senior female bankers in the City are predominantly foreign. To thrive in the cut-throat world of investment banking requires a certain swagger that perhaps just isn’t synonymous with deferential Britishness.)

Even in City careers that are less male-dominated, there is a big gender imbalance in top positions. The FT found that at the big four accountancy firms, an average of only 16 per cent of partner positions are held by women. According to a McKinsey study for the 30% Club, a women’s lobby group, men are 10 times more likely than women to become a partner at a City law firm, and three times more likely at a large accountancy firm.

This contrasts with the upper echelons of British business as a whole. In 2011, a government-appointed commission, “Women on boards”, chaired by Lord Davies of Abersoch, urged FTSE 100 companies to ensure that a quarter of their boards were made up of women. The latest data show decent progress, with the tally up from 12.5 per cent four years ago to 23 per cent now. However, that picture is distorted by the number of female non-executive directors. Among executives — those responsible for actually running companies — the proportion of women has grown more slowly.

Sanaz Zaimi is one of the City of London’s most senior women. The global co-head of fixed income, currency and commodity sales at Bank of America Merrill Lynch is also one of the most driven bankers you are likely to meet. What sets her apart is a toughness born of a grim start in life. Growing up in the wake of Iran’s 1979 revolution, and losing family and friends, hardened her for a no-nonsense City existence.

Sanaz Zaimi, global co-head of fixed income, currency and commodity sales, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Sanaz Zaimi, global co-head of fixed income, currency and commodity sales, Bank of America Merrill Lynch: 'Quotas are seen as taboo. But everything the industry has tried for the last 20 years hasn’t really worked. So, in my opinion, why not try quotas?’ © Rick Pushinsky

But, she says, women shouldn’t have to go through her kind of childhood trauma to qualify them for a top-flight career. “A lot of women don’t naturally have the level of self-confidence you need to prosper in the City,” she says in an interview at BAML’s swish London HQ overlooking St Paul's Cathedral. “We need to help them grow that.”

Zaimi, who rose through the ranks at Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs, is proud of herself but dismayed by what she sees around her. Across the investment banking industry she reckons the tally of senior women is unchanged from 20 years ago.

It is not for lack of trying. City banks have some of the most proactive female employment policies around. There are women’s networks and mentoring programmes everywhere. (Despite her whistle-stop global job, Zaimi carves out time to organise motivational talks and help out junior colleagues.) Maternity and childcare schemes have improved enormously. And a range of institutions now have concrete targets to promote women. (The Bank of England has pledged to raise its proportion of senior female managers from 25 per cent to 35 per cent by 2017. Lloyds is set to boost its proportion from 28 per cent to 40 per cent by 2020. And Barclays has pledged to promote 350 more women into director or managing director level jobs by 2018, though that would still only take its tally of female mid-managers to 26 per cent.)

Across the City, few doubt the keenness of bosses to address an issue that is starting to be an embarrassment. But for many it is proving an uphill task.

Why it matters

There is a school of thought that just shrugs its shoulders, dismissing the topic as a modern feminist obsession. “Oh, it’s so boring,” says one senior Conservative politician, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There’s nothing stopping women from getting these jobs. Why is there this constant whingeing?”

That is a minority view these days. While some senior managers and HR directors are keen to tick boxes on diversity of hiring and fairness, there is also growing recognition that the argument for a better gender balance is a serious business issue.

The global financial crisis offered many lessons, including on the herd-like mentality of financial institutions. Though scientific proof is tricky to come by, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that identikit men engaged unwittingly in blinkered groupthink. Further down these organisations there was a fatal combination of testosterone-fuelled trading, macho attitudes to risk and a male greed for big bonuses.

A few years ago, when French finance minister Christine Lagarde, now head of the International Monetary Fund, was asked about women’s strength in times of crisis, she smiled and famously responded: “If Lehman Brothers had been ‘Lehman Sisters’, today’s economic crisis clearly would look quite different.”

Thalia Chryssikou, a partner in Goldman’s trading business who heads interest rate sales, is convinced that in everyday business relationships, as well as times of turmoil, a better male-female balance makes commercial sense. “I bring emotional intelligence to my job,” she says. “I’m not a British or American male. As a Greek woman, I bring diversity — sensitivity to different ways of operating. Different leadership styles are healthy — I listen more rather than talk more. That’s not only about internal management. Increasingly I’m dealing a lot with female clients in asset managers and hedge funds. In that context, it can be an advantage to be a woman.”

Even in lower-octane high-street banking, there are business benefits to be found, says Alison Brittain, head of retail banking at Lloyds and one of the City’s most senior women. “Women statistically tend to be better at conflict management, empathy, self-awareness, collegiateness, risk management,” she says. “And returns tend to be higher.”

A respected study by analysts at Credit Suisse across 3,000 global companies claimed to have found empirical evidence of this. Companies where more than 15 per cent of senior management were women generated profits in 2013 that were half as good again as those reported by companies with fewer than one in 10 women in the top team. Stock market valuations, share price performance and dividend payouts were also higher.

Why are things so bad?

Fiona Woolf, former lord mayor of London: ‘Girls don’t ask for flexible working because they think it’s career suicide’
Fiona Woolf, former lord mayor of London: ‘Girls don’t ask for flexible working because they think it’s career suicide’ © Rick Pushinsky

If both common decency and economics support the thesis, there should clearly be far more women running the City. So why aren’t there? Fiona Woolf, former lord mayor of London and only the second woman to hold the post since 1189, is convinced that one of the most hackneyed explanations — gender stereotyping in early life — is as valid as ever. “The impression is often given that some subjects are not for girls. Science isn’t available until secondary school and then youngsters don’t get good careers advice.”

Also key is self-belief, says Helen Fraser, chief executive of The Girls’ Day School Trust, a network of independent schools. “Girls need to have confidence regularly reinforced or re-estimated. It’s not a natural thing for young women, even if they look confident.”

Girls-only schools, in both the private and state sector, seem to help, tending to produce students who feel less inhibited by gender stereotypes and are less drawn to a “girly” subject mix.

One example of a girls-only school producing City high-flyers is St Mary’s School Ascot, a private, Catholic establishment. St Mary’s is tucked away behind a network of leafy residential streets on the edge of the well-to-do Berkshire town best known for its annual horseracing event and fancy hats on Ladies Day. But decorous headgear is far removed from the agenda. Self-fulfillment and empowerment are all-important, says Mary Breen, the head. “The key thing is that the girls achieve their full potential — that’s not just about exam results, it’s about spiritual fulfilment and the girls exploring who they are.”

It is also increasingly about preparation for a successful career. When Breen arrived at the school in the late 1990s, alumni gatherings were called “baby days”. Today they are about job opportunities and networking. “I don’t want to give the impression that we only want to see the girls again once they’ve had a baby,” she smiles. “We need more women running countries, running the army, running banks. Then the world wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.”

The “running banks” reference is no accident. One of St Mary’s best-known alumni is Ana Botín, who chairs Spanish bank Santander. The school has helped catapult more than its fair share of women into senior roles, particularly in the City. In addition to Botín, two other top financiers — Katherine Garrett-Cox, CEO of asset manager Alliance Trust, and Charlotte Hogg, chief operating officer at the Bank of England — are old girls.

Today, St Mary’s has expanded its efforts to promote job opportunities in the City, both through career initiatives and educational focus. All three of the school’s head girls are weighing careers in the Square Mile. “Maths and physics and engineering teach you to problem-solve, and that will prepare me for a career in the City,” says Cristina Amusategui, one of them. Breen is particularly proud that about two-thirds of sixth-formers take maths at A-level, compared with an 18 per cent national average for girls in state schools.

Yet shortcomings in schooling probably aren’t the main factor holding women back. In fact, women account for 40-50 per cent of the graduate intake at most big City employers. Instead, it is among thirtysomethings that the numbers fall off. A study published last year by women’s lobby group Opportunity Now reported that although top-earners were split evenly between men and women up to the age of 29, the proportion of women slumps to just 28 per cent over the following 14 years and then plateaus. Rita Dhut, a former fund manager who now works as a serial non-executive, says: “The real bugger is that men earn more than women for the same role.”

Many women blame the City’s stubbornly macho culture — long working hours and exuberant socialising. Every senior woman in finance seems to have a sexist tale to tell. One recalls her early days on a London trading floor. The chauvinism began on day one, when everyone assumed she was the new secretary. Though she quickly put them straight, she still ended up making coffee for the team for six months.

Other stories are more startling. One former corporate banker remembers a meeting with her all-male team in the late 1980s. She and the boss disagreed on a point, whereupon he unzipped his trousers and exposed his penis — apparently for dramatic effect. Only her quick-witted put-down (“Is that it?”) salvaged the situation. Another top City woman might have quit before she even started. At a team-building session for graduate trainees in the late 1990s, she took part in an improvised role play in which two fellow recruits acted out an attack on her that degenerated into a mock double rape.

Such incidents may be rarer these days but horror stories still emerge. A recent survey by FTfm, the Financial Times’s fund management supplement, found that one in five women in the global asset management industry had suffered sexual harassment at work. Duncombe, the City worker who was sexually assaulted after a night out with colleagues, recalls a persistently toxic atmosphere. “On one occasion I was talking to a male colleague who broke off a conversation with me to exclaim, ‘Look at the tits on that!’, as an attractive assistant walked past.”

A sexist culture is often dressed up as jokey “banter”, says Simon Collins, UK chairman and senior partner at KPMG. “It is the hidden, off-the-cuff remarks,” he says. “You have to set the tone where people have the courage to call that out. You have to have zero tolerance for anyone who still behaves like a dinosaur.”

But there is more than sexist quips stopping women from advancing at the same rate as men. Disruption caused by motherhood may be the most important explanation. Though plenty of women return to City careers after having children, many then drop out. “Many women in the City find it hard to return to work, especially after they’ve had children — what with the late nights and the punishing travel schedules, it all gets too much,” says Katherine Garrett-Cox.

Lord Davies of Abersoch
Lord Davies of Abersoch, chair, ‘Women on Boards’ Commission: ‘It’s the elephant in the room that has to be resolved. You should be able to get tax credits against the cost of childcare’ © Bloomberg

Lord Davies, author of that 2011 government report, urges employers to do a better job of accommodating new ways of working: “You have to bring [women] back — be more flexible as an employer,” he says.

Such facilities are now widely available — in theory. But too many women are worried that flexible working will be perceived as slack working, says Fiona Woolf: “Girls don’t ask for it because they think it’s career suicide.” Zaimi at Bank of America agrees. “There’s a stigma around it. You need to make it acceptable for men and women, for example, by encouraging men to take paternity leave.”

Citigroup, PwC and Deloitte are among those planning to push new fathers to take a large slug of paternity leave when new UK rules come into force in April. If employers see women and men as equally likely to go on parental leave that may help tackle what many acknowledge is an unconscious bias among male managers against hiring and promoting women.

Ana Botín, recently promoted from chief of Santander UK to head the entire Spanish bank in Madrid, says managers need to make more effort to counter such bias. “It’s a matter of pushing people harder to [create] the option of hiring a woman. There should be a woman on every shortlist.”

Manny Roman, chief executive of the UK’s biggest hedge fund manager, Man Group, blames the biased approach on managers’ innate tendency “to hire people who are similar to them”. “They think they have a better way of judging them, which in my view is a fallacy.”

A vicious circle results. A poll among 25,000 mostly female employees last year by Opportunity Now echoed a frequent complaint of ambitious women: there aren’t enough role models to aspire to; and those that do exist are too often seen as daunting “superwomen”.

The archetypal superwoman is Helena Morrissey, who chairs Opportunity Now, heads fund manager Newton and also fronts The Investment Association. Though she is lauded for her work in advancing women’s rights, particularly in the City, she does not reflect most working women’s experience — she has nine children and a househusband.

She admits as much: “I am conscious that mine or anyone else’s journey may not be much of a useful prototype — instead, it needs to be possible for everyone to find their own path.” But she adds: “I hope that some women might be encouraged that it’s possible to combine a large family with a career. And, of course, I haven’t always had nine children . . . When our first was born I was 25 and we were living in a tiny flat with negative equity . . . And in any case, every day brings both successes and failures — for me as well as for every other ‘unattainable’ role model.”

Morrissey continues: “What we’re ultimately trying to achieve through the many efforts to encourage women and other under-represented talent in the City is an environment where there are many different ways of fulfilling career potential — which would be good news not just for the women but the businesses they work in.”

For the time being, many senior career women feel more alienated than fulfilled. “As you rise up the ranks, you realise it’s a lonely place,” says one top fund manager. “A lot of the women I started out with have fallen by the wayside.” The grey area between socialising and schmoozing with contacts can compound the sense of being an outsider. Networks of old boys stick together. “In one of my first management jobs,” says Alison Brittain of Lloyds, “Mondays were all about the weekend’s football, rugby, cricket. So I learnt all about sport so I could talk about it like they did. It wasn’t about fitting in with men, it was about fitting in socially.”

What can be done?

Even critical senior women don’t doubt their bosses’ keenness to address the City’s poor progress in correcting the gender bias. But they insist much more can be done, starting with far better statistical disclosure. As the FT’s research shows, some employers are coy about their performance on the issue. Four of the 35 polled refused to disclose information and a further four made only partial disclosures, in part because they don’t gather the data.

“I believe that the publication of gender stats and rank data should be mandatory for annual company reports,” says Vanessa Vallely, managing director of, a networking group. “It is very easy for a company to say they have a 50/50 gender split, however it may well be that 50 per cent of the women are working in the back office or in support roles.”

Sanaz Zaimi agrees, arguing that managers should be incentivised to prioritise gender diversity for the good of the bottom line. “The key is not to look at it as a diversity issue, it has to be a business issue,” she says. “[You need] clear goals, a timeline, ownership, accountability, measurement and consequences for failure and success.”

Ana Botín, executive chair, Santander Group
Ana Botín, executive chair, Santander Group: ‘It’s a matter of pushing people harder to [create] the option of hiring a woman. There should be a woman on every shortlist’ © Shaun Curry

Some employers have begun embedding data on the career progress of women in the way they manage their operations. Lloyds is one. It also employs Alison Brittain. She is a rare exception among the preened public-school alumni who dominate the City. Born in Glossop near Manchester, she caught a daily bus to comprehensive school nine miles away, started as a local bank teller and worked her way up.

Over a meaty cooked breakfast at the bank’s glass-and-steel headquarters, her passion for her job is clear (she rises at 4am each day to ensure she can juggle family life and work effectively). She is just as ardent about boosting women’s career chances. Crucial to that, she says, is motivating managers to hit measurable targets. “If you don’t measure something, it won’t improve. We have 200 financial measures — revenue, cost, impairment, profit, funding, staff attrition. Why would we not measure diversity? It doesn’t half focus the mind!”

Barclays, similarly, has made the promotion of diversity one of eight performance criteria on which all staff — and their bonus entitlements — are judged. Across the City, though, there is scope to go further. A few dissenting voices even urge employers to consider the controversial concept of quotas. “Quotas are seen as taboo,” says Zaimi at BAML. “But everything the industry has tried for the last 20 years hasn’t really worked. So, in my opinion, why not try quotas?”

Even in the headhunting world, sometimes blamed for perpetuating the “male, stale and pale” make-up of City boardrooms, there is sympathy for quotas. Karina Robinson, chief executive at board search firm Robinson Hambro, says: “My 20-year-old self abhorred the very idea. My 30-year-old self didn’t believe in them. My 40-year-old self started having doubts. And my 50-year-old self is adamant that without them, progress is too slow.”

Former lord mayor Fiona Woolf has come to a similar view: “For a long time I sat on the fence [about] quotas. I am more interested in getting an organisation to address the underlying causes of a lack of women in senior executive positions. I didn’t think quotas would do much. I worried people would tick the box. [But] it’s all taking too long. Why not have quotas for a bit, just to move the needle? There’s an argument for quotas with sunset clauses.”

 . . . 

Of course, quotas and targets need substantial groundwork to underpin them. There is an increasing realisation that more should be done to enlarge the “pipeline” of women coming through. The 30% Club, which initially set out to get more women on company boards, is now also focusing on younger executives in an effort to stop talented candidates dropping out. In September it launched a cross-industry mentoring scheme, targeting women in the “danger zone” aged between 28 and 38.

Alison Brittain, head of retail banking, Lloyds: ‘If you don’t measure something, it won’t improve ... Why would we not measure diversity? It doesn’t half focus the mind’
Alison Brittain, head of retail banking, Lloyds: ‘If you don’t measure something, it won’t improve ... Why would we not measure diversity? It doesn’t half focus the mind’ © Rick Pushinsky

One 30-year-old who prefers to remain anonymous and who left a promising career at Goldman Sachs for private equity, has plenty of friends who quit the City in their late 20s and early 30s. “Many women in finance didn’t always envision a career in the industry — they were educated or convinced into it,” she says. “Banks then compound this by actively recruiting female hyper-achievers, who see a job in the industry as a stereotype to beat. They often excel for two to four years, then get slightly bored and want a new challenge.”

But she also backs the truism that the primary point of tension is motherhood. “The nature of the financial industry is such that in many cases being the primary child carer and leading a team is incompatible,” she says.

The consensus now seems to be that looking after working mothers is the most important reform agenda of all. “Better supporting women through the practicalities of motherhood and childcare is both the biggest challenge, and the one that may be the most straightforward to address,” says Katherine Garrett-Cox, of Alliance Trust, one of the City employers that has shown the way on the issue.

Today, Alliance Trust has a 60 per cent female board and a 40 per cent female top executive team, in part as a result of the generous maternity benefits introduced when Garrett-Cox became CEO in 2008. Staff who come back up to a year after having a baby and stay for at least six months get a 10 per cent cash bonus.

Citigroup is a far bigger and more complex global company — but it, too, has transformed its retention of women. Carolanne Minashi, in charge of diversity at Citi’s European operations, says the policy elevated the maternity leave return rate from 86 per cent, in line with peers, to 98 per cent. During pregnancy, groups of 20 women attend workshops, meet up midway through maternity leave and then gather again after they return to work. “It’s incredibly empowering,” says Minashi. “The main advantage that these women appreciate is that they get to meet other women from across the company who are in the same position.”

It is when the child arrives that the stress of a high-powered City job can pile up — a fact that has driven a clutch of City employers to sponsor nursery facilities. Goldman Sachs has gone a step further.

Beyond the sleek marble of the bank’s Fleet Street entrance hall, and through a set of double doors, peeps a very un-Goldman-like flash of colour. Only a stone’s throw from teams of derivatives traders and dealmakers, the blue-and-yellow logo of the Bright Horizons nursery invites mums and dads to deposit their children for hours of fun while they head upstairs for hours of work.

Every day up to 48 children are looked after by the centre’s 15 permanent staff. Most are toddlers, a few are babies and during school holidays, there is even the odd 12-year-old. There are also 40 back-up places for emergencies so that in total, 800 different children use the facility each year.

Darren Littlejohn, managing director in the bank’s legal department, whose two children have been regular attendees, found the centre invaluable when relocating to London from New York. “It was a great tool to help [me] do [my] job,” he says. For Inci Isikli, an MD who returned to her short-staffed securities team only five months after giving birth, having the nursery on-site was a great relief. “My son needed me [during the day] for feeding because he was allergic to formula milk,” she recalls. “The people here were so helpful for the transition.”

Katherine Garrett-Cox, CEO, Alliance Trust
Katherine Garrett-Cox, CEO, Alliance Trust: 'Many women find it hard to return to work after they’ve had children – with the late nights and the punishing travel schedules it all gets too much' © Rick Pushinsky

But employers can only do so much to fix a system that many feel is stacked against new mothers. Women need to help themselves, too, says Amanda Mackenzie, marketing chief at Aviva. “People struggle to talk about when is the best time to have children,” Mackenzie says. “My view is that it’s preferable to get as far as you can in your career. It’s easier to take a break and come back at a similar level when you’re more senior.” She cites the example of Carolyn McCall, the 53-year-old easyJet boss who has three young children.

For less well paid women, Lord Davies believes more needs to be done in terms of public policy. He admits his study failed to address the key issue of childcare costs — a vital one for many working mothers. “I think it’s the elephant in the room that has to be resolved. You should be able to get tax credits against the cost of childcare.”

Regardless of age or seniority, one thing that has been crucial for the advancement of women, especially post-motherhood, is technology. “The advent of the BlackBerry was most liberating for senior women,” says Brittain. “Men said, ‘Oh God, we’re going to be working day and night.’ But for me, it meant that I didn’t have to be in the office to work. I was liberated.” Minashi at Citi agrees. “Technology has been a game changer,” she says. “It’s the informal autonomy that is key — being flexible while working full-time.”

Efforts are under way to destigmatise that “flexible worker” label. Anne Richards, chief investment officer at Aberdeen Asset Management, is a founding supporter of Executive Shift, a charity that is trying to change the way bosses think about the topic. “Working flexibly should not be shorthand for not being ambitious,” she says. “[It] can be a good choice for people who are very ambitious as well as those who want to take their foot off the pedal.”

Even women who do choose to decelerate in their careers — or take lengthy breaks — should be able to pick up where they left off, says Antony Jenkins, chief executive of Barclays. “We’re looking at whether there are ways to pause careers while keeping [staff] connected to the organisation. Career breaks could be six months, they could be two years, they might conceivably be longer,” he says. Lord Davies is confident that mid-career breaks will become “a phenomenon of the next 20 years”.

That kind of thinking is informing initiatives pioneered on Wall Street and in India — and imported to the City — under the moniker of “returnship”. Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley in particular have been making efforts to bring experienced women back into the workforce via paid programmes, conceived as a blend of a mid-career internship and a fixed-term contract.

A second big priority is to improve access to business networks. To some extent, this is about replicating the traditional male way of doing things. One example relates back to the Davies initiative on getting more women into non-executive roles — something that a handful of senior men have been actively encouraging.

Lloyds’ Alison Brittain, who now also sits on the board of Marks and Spencer, recalls the exhortations of her former chairman, Sir Win Bischoff. “Win had been saying to me for two years, ‘You really should do a non-executive job.’ I said, ‘I’m too busy’, but he was right. It’s an absolutely important part of how a career develops.” In time, it is likely to strengthen Brittain’s credentials to move up to a chief executive role.

To further those types of cross-City appointments, better networking structures are vital, says Garrett-Cox at Alliance Trust. Many City employers now have internal women’s networks and there are a number of early-stage City-wide schemes. There are even moves afoot to ape the public school “old boy” fraternities that have greased City job moves for decades. Garrett-Cox recently aided the establishment of a new finance professionals network among the alumni of St Mary’s Ascot. “We had 24 at our first event in the autumn,” says Breen, the head. “People came together who didn’t necessarily know each other because they were from different year groups. They swapped phone numbers and now they’ll be there to help each other.”

Similarly, the Girls’ Day School Trust recently launched a mentoring scheme to pair up women in their early twenties or who have taken a career break with more experienced mentors. And The Artemis Network, a newly established charity backed by Credit Suisse, aims to draw more girls from schools outside London into the City.

 . . . 

If all goes to plan, the combination of smarter schmoozing and fairer employment policies could put women on a par with men across a range of City careers in the years to come.

Some, however, have a nagging worry. In creating a new female City elite, the next generation of financiers might be more gender balanced than this one. But if they are drawn from the privately educated, predominantly white middle and upper classes, they will not necessarily be much more diverse.

“What we really want is diversity of thought and experience, because you can get much better outcomes,” says Jo Place, executive director of human resources at the Bank of England. “Of course that means women and ethnic minorities, but it also means digging deeper — if they were all educated at Oxbridge, you haven’t got true diversity.”

As any good trader will tell you: a diverse portfolio of risk is always better than a concentrated portfolio.

*The real name of Penny Duncombe has been changed. Patrick Jenkins is the FT’s financial editor; Harriet Agnew is City correspondent. To see the full FT survey, go to


A global problem?

Globally, the proportion of women on financial services boards has been improving but there is still some distance to go. On average, women made up 20 per cent of financial services boards in 2013, compared to 15 per cent in 2008 and 12 per cent in 2003, according to a report by Oliver Wyman, published in December.

The management consultancy’s research analysed the boards of more than 150 of the world’s leading financial services firms, finding that only 13 per cent of executive committee members and 4 per cent of chief executives are women. More than a third of executive committees are still entirely male.

There is huge geographic disparity. Norway, which passed a law in 2003 requiring that women make up 40 per cent of the boards of public companies, was the only country to have more than 30 per cent women on executive committees — the point deemed to be critical mass.

Behind Norway is Sweden, where 29 per cent of the executive management team is female. Perhaps surprisingly, Russia was the fourth highest ranking country for executive committee gender diversity, just behind Canada: 16 per cent of board members of Russian banks and 20 per cent of executive committee members are women. Oliver Wyman attributes this to communist feminism and demographics.

Japan’s track record for women in senior positions is shocking: there are no women sitting on the executive committees of its major financial firms. The country has notoriously long work hours, which hurts the pool of potential female managers. This is set to change, as Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has a goal to fill 30 per cent of leadership positions in Japan with women by 2020.

Companies are increasingly using the controversial practice of mandatory targets to improve gender diversity, with Germany this month joining France, Italy and Nordic countries in doing so.

Have you ever experienced sexism in the financial sector? Please share your thoughts and views in the comments section below.

Portraits by Rick Pushinsky

Photographs: Neil Spence/Alamy; Bloomberg; Shaun Curry; Nobuyuki Taguchi


Letter in response to this article:

Now apply your own, FT / From Stephen Reynolds

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