Wanted: A woman’s touch in the financial industry

Emily Lambert | March 23, 2012 | Comments (2)

Emily Lambert is a former staff writer for Forbes, covering the topics of money and markets – mainly derivatives. Former copy kid for The New York Post, she wrote , an award-winning book on the history of Chicago’s futures business.

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This economic downturn has shifted the balance of power in some industries. Many men in dying jobs have been joining women in nursing, as the New York Times recently reported. On the world of Wall Street and in financial services, women have been “losing their jobs at a faster clip,” reported the LA Times last fall.

So it was particularly interesting recently to see members of the most macho industry on earth saying they want more women around.

On a recent Thursday evening in a downtown Chicago office tower, 100 people, mostly women, formed a standing-room-only crowd to drink, chat and hear speakers discuss the need to bring more women into derivatives. This, you may know or recall, is an industry that has been practically defined by men and machismo. It began in the 1880s with all-male futures exchanges. Even after admitting women to their clubs in the 1960s, members were reluctant to give up the Mad Men atmosphere. Women had to literally push their way into the business, fighting for space and to be heard in octagonal pits where hundreds of men competed for the best prices on corn, currencies and other contracts.

The futures business went electronic a decade ago, and that was supposed to be the great equalizer. When people traded with computers rather than face to face, trading was anonymous. Theoretically it made it far easier for women to trade their way in. But boys who grew up playing video games still dominated. And with the rise of entirely computerized trading, boys who grew up loving math and writing code became the rock stars. As for the risky derivatives trades that brought down the financial system, needless to say those trades weren’t made by women.

Speakers at the event seemed determined to change the demographics. A representative from the oil giant BP, which hosted and sponsored the evening, described a mentorship program women can participate in. It’s so good that it makes some men jealous, he confided. Industry veteran Mary McDonnell described her exciting career – which included stints in London and Bermuda – and recalled some women in the industry who have achieved near-mythic status. The event was organized by an industry networking group, Women In Listed Derivatives, whose website announces that its goal is “to promote the advancement of women in our industry.”

Women “self-selecting” out of the financial world was a theme of the night. McDonnell said her daughter seemed uninterested in most stocks other than Lululemon, which makes yoga and athletic gear. Christopher Hehmeyer, another industry vet as well as the National Futures Association chairman and the night’s headline speaker, said that when his daughter did a stint in the business, she seemed more captivated by her coworkers than the work itself.

But if this male bastion is serious about getting more women into the world of derivatives, it should quiz some women unaware of its cultural baggage. Hehmeyer mentioned that Kent State University, which has a financial engineering program, has been receiving a lot of applications from women, specifically Asian women. They may have some interesting insights. And in this all-electronic, globalized world, a woman’s touch can come from anywhere.

Tags: derivatives, economy, , men,

Category: Women in the World, Women on the Inside

About Emily Lambert: View author profile.

Comments (2)

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  1. @homesweethoobs says:

    Interesting and very true. Today I was at a fund investment strategy meeting (TSG Consumer Partners and Diversified Trust) in Nashville, TN. I actually did a head count, I often do. There were 39 men and 6 women. I’d bet there weren’t 4 women in that room a decade ago.

  2. Emily Lambert says:

    I love that you did a head count. And I’d love to know what finance jobs women pursue. At the derivatives event I attended, one of the speakers mentioned that women don’t have to become traders, they can work in clearing or in a regulatory function, etc. At first that rubbed me the wrong way, why shouldn’t women become traders? But on second thought, there are many paths forward.