Glass ceilings were meant to be broken

In the mid-1970s a question on the entrance exam paper for a well-known investment firm’s trainee programme read: “When you meet a woman, what interests you most about her?” The correct answer was beauty. Those who answered intelligence, one of the other options available, were penalised .

A few years later, Women in Banking and Finance (WIBF) was founded in the UK, with the primary aim of encouraging more women to make a career in banking and to provide a support network for those that were already working in the sector.

In 2020, WIBF celebrates its 40th anniversary, and while the landscape of financial services has since changed dramatically, the challenges women often face have changed surprisingly little. Unconscious biases, gender-role expectations and poor management still have a damaging effect on women’s career prospects, with far-reaching consequences for the industry.

The financial services sector is facing a skills shortage crisis Against the backdrop of transformative technologies, regulatory change and a rapidly evolving market, the UK financial services sector is facing a skills shortage crisis, the cost of which is estimated to be c£90 billion by 2030. In response, organisations have invested in a range of recruitment attraction strategies to meet this shortfall. Meanwhile, a highly-skilled, high-calibre and experienced talent pool is leaving the industry in significant numbers.

Women at the mid-level are falling through the cracks

Women make up roughly half of entry-level staff in financial services, but their chances of progressing to senior management is worse than in any other sector. The attrition rate of women in the mid-part of their careers is also significantly higher than in other industries. The absence of this ‘missing middle’ is critical to workplace opportunity, as management experience offers the largest chance to achieve economic equality and influence access for other women.

But despite entering the industry with equal levels of ambition to their male counterparts, at the mid-point of their careers women are voting with their feet. Data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that the gap between male and female employment in financial services is now in the region of 150,000 and has been rising steadily since the 2008 crisis.

Barriers may be less visible, but they are no less acute

The barriers to progression may be less visible than they were four decades ago, but they appear to be no less acute. The ‘glass ceiling’ describes the invisible yet powerful institutional barriers to advancement for women, but to find the correct tools to overcome them, we need to identify the drivers.

This is the subject of new research into the ‘missing middle’ in financial services, commissioned by WIBF in conjunction with Lancaster University and the Work Foundation, a leading provider of analysis, evaluation, policy advice and know-how on ‘Good Work’ for over a century.

The aim is to gain a better understanding of what might be supporting or inhibiting women mid-career, investigate why women are leaving, and where women who leave the financial services sector are going instead. A key intention is to identify what can be done to support and retain female talent, with the benefit of informed, evidence-based recommendations.

The glass has been fractured, but there is more to be done before it is broken

WIBF has been at the forefront of female advancement since 1980, as the first UK-wide membership network supporting and inspiring women in financial services, offering the first dedicated mentoring programme for women in the industry, and holding the first awards recognising female talent in the sector. We have long championed both the women and organisations leading the way in the industry, with the support of research-based action and innovative thought-leadership, in the pursuit of breaking gender stereotypes and obstacles to progression.

As WIBF celebrates our ruby anniversary there is much to be proud of. But it’s also an opportunity to look back and reflect on what more can be done to advance gender equality of opportunity in the financial services sector.

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