International Women’s Day 2021: Where are we now?

Dr Manuela Pedio, Lecturer in Finance, discusses some of the greatest challenges facing women in finance today, and the role business schools can play in empowering female students.

This International Women’s Day, there is certainly a lot to celebrate and be proud of, given the incredible progress that the world has made towards gender equality since the event was first established. While the financial industry is often accused of being an area in which male leaders are seen mostly to be co-opting other males, it too has taken several steps in the direction of becoming more inclusive. Such developments have recently begun to show in occupational statistics. According to a report published by Oliver Wyman on a pool of 468 major financial service firms in 37 different countries, the percentage of women on their boards has increased from 11% in 2003 to 23% in 2019. Diony Lebot, deputy CEO of Société Générale recently stated that “This is the first time we can say that things are really changing. Yes, the progress in the numbers is too slow, but everyone is finally getting impatient”. In the UK, the Women in Finance Chart was launched in 2016, with several financial firms committing to take actions towards gender balance.

However, gender balance in the financial sector seems to be still a long way down the road. In the same panel of financial firms, only 6% of the CEOs were females so that – as an article in the New York Times sadly reported in 2015 – there are still “fewer large companies run by women than by men named John.” In the same vein, Morningstar has found that the percentage of women running mutual funds at the end of 2017 was barely 10% (and even worse, this percentage marked a step back considering that the figure was 11% in 2008). Furthermore, addressing unconscious biases in awarding promotions remains a challenge, and firms are struggling with finding ways to shift cultural expectations to embed flexible working schedules.

Notably, the Covid pandemic, which has dramatically affected our lives since early 2020, has imposed a tremendous toll on women, who have borne a disproportionate share of extra duties associated with child and elder care, as shown by recent academic research. Besides, as emphasised by Pavlos Mylonas, CEO of the National Bank of Greece, the Greek debt crisis has shown that an economic downturn may halt the current progress towards gender equality and even reverse it. If gender balance is not core to a firm’s business strategy, it risks being deprioritized in the event of a downturn.

Another major problem still lies with the fact that women themselves often shy away from financial professions and leadership roles within them. In July 2020, when the head of the Financial Conduct Authority (the UK financial market authority) was be replaced, only 7 out of 50 candidacies received were from female applicants! While people tend to think that this is a result of a lack of flexibility that exists in posts involving high responsibility, scores of academic papers have now shown that prejudice and stereotypes are so deep that women themselves are affected by them. Indeed, research has shown that while female students tend to have lower average grades in quantitative courses compared to their male peers, their performance significantly improves when their lecturer is female. Therefore, business schools have an important role to play in acting as game changers and truly helping to empower women by having more female lectures teaching quantitative courses. As stressed by the theme of this year’s International Women Day, we can (and have to) “choose to challenge”!

About the Author

Dr Manuela Pedio is a Lecturer in Finance at the University of Bristol where she teaches a bachelor course on Financial Crises and a master-level course in Quantitative Methods. Her research is mostly empirical and spans from financial econometrics and empirical finance to asset pricing and portfolio management. She has published in several international journals including the Journal of Banking and Finance, the European Journal of Operational Research and the Journal of Financial Markets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.