While women have come a long way, we are still underpaid and underrepresented in the quantitative realms of financial services. What I am realising is that many of the obstacles that persist are barriers that women construct for themselves.
The solution is actually a bit simpler than people think. Redefining the physical images with which we see ourselves, nurturing positive support networks, and using our imagination, will raise us up past the fear of failure that is holding us back.
As I have grown, I’ve learned to be aware of when I find myself functioning with what I have termed a “female risk attitude.” I think that women are more likely to be risk averse because we find it difficult to cope with failure. Perhaps this is because we are simply the more sensitive gender. While this has merit, it is more plausible to acknowledge the impact that the physical has on the psychological.
Women are often taught that power comes only with achieving perfection in our looks. As soon as we look in the mirror in the morning, our confidence is potentially jolted. How can we take on gargantuan challenges without doubting ourselves when we are struck with the fear of ugliness, or a failure to realise the power of our beauty, every time that we look at our reflection? This distorted focus on perfection likely translates into the way we view our professional images as well, and it is disempowering.
Finding Positive Support Networks and Role Models
Although I was quantitatively inclined, I shied away from a maths or finance degree at Harvard. I just took the easiest subject so I could get the best grades because I couldn’t fail or take summer school. Harvard could be a tough place if you weren’t from a certain socioeconomic status. I let my obligation to work a heavy part time job interfere with my success. My downfall was that I didn’t find a mentor or a support network to tell me to be true to myself.
Only 19% of CFA charterholders are female. When I decided to take the CFA exam two years out of college, I had no maths or finance background. I remember telling a friend from work. His response: “Sara, this is a finance exam. You’re just a marketing girl.” He forgot to add, “And now put down that book and go bake me some cookies, please.”
When I passed Level One, another friend told me the results were wrong and that I should confirm with the CFA Institute before embarrassing myself by telling people I passed. When I took the CFA Level 2 exam, I’m pretty sure people bet against my passing. But I did pass. The more people told me I couldn’t, the more I was determined. I was going to become a CFA charterholder, or die doing it. I wanted those letters after my name so badly. If it took me 80 years, my tombstone was going to say, “Sara Grillo, CFA”.
Still, I’ve battled the worst resistance from other females. What I despised the most was the suggestions from well meaning people who had no clue what it meant to earn the right to use the CFA designation. When I was unemployed after Lehman crashed, I found myself overqualified for many jobs. Many women suggested, “Why don’t you become a kindergarten teacher? Or a home nurse? How about a bartender? You’d be great at that!”
These are noble professions, but not ones that I spent years of my life and thousands of dollars on post-graduate education to embrace. No matter how high you go, no matter how many degrees you have, the moment that business suit gets kicked off you, you’re “just a marketing girl.” If I were a tall, grey-haired, 50 year old man with the same credentials, nobody would have suggested that I take a job teaching first grade for one eighth of my salary. We need to create stronger female support networks and become role models.
When I mentor younger women, I make a point to suggest careers that exceed even their own expectations. I am endlessly telling women they can become doctors, computer programmers, CFA charterholders, even if they haven’t yet shown the potential.
Using Imagination to Combat Failure Fear
The words of my dissenters are those of one who does not use his imagination.
When we think of success or failure, we evaluate the success or failure of the things that we have done. If we took the Chem AP exam in high school and got a 5, we succeeded. But if we took the hard Chem classes in college and got bad grades, we would say we failed. We overlook the fact that we could have majored in Chemistry in college and become a doctor instead of taking an easier major.
Let’s flip it around: instead of asking ourselves, “What did I fail at doing”, ask, “What did I fail at by not doing? What is the best that I could ever imagine being? ” Then we can get a sense of what our real potential is, and how far we have fallen short. Absolute terms like how much money we have, where we work, what kind of cars we drive are irrelevant. Better to think about what percentage of our potential we have reached. Very few things that seem impossible really are, if we use our fullest potential.
Just imagine… what if the world looked like this?
- If the most successful and well known asset management company in the world were founded by a woman?
- If there were a woman sitting in the boardroom next to every man? If the average skin tone in the boardroom were a shade darker?
- If you could walk around your office and never be confused with a secretary when you’re the boss instead?
- If there were a female version of Warren Buffett?
- If there were more women successfully running companies?
- If there were girls on the subway dreaming about maths and stocks instead of arguing over the text messages that guys didn’t send them?
- If there were more black female CFA charterholders? What if more than 19% of CFA charterholders were female?
- If every divorced woman had donated the legal fees to financing a younger girls’ education instead?
- If teenage girls invested $50 per month in the stock market instead of buying fake nails?
- If Money magazine had a woman on the cover every other week?
- If the richest women in the world weren’t Oprah or singers or actresses, known for being beautiful, cool, or popular? If instead they were known for being self-made millionaires, tough, educated, shrewd, dynamic, leaders, who took on the world and won?
- If women weren’t taught that their goal in life was to find a man to marry them and support them financially?
Imagine what would happen if every woman on earth used every single brain cell they had to achieve things that seemed impossible.
Contrary to what many think, the financial meltdown provides a hidden opportunity for women to advance. If you think about it, many failed banks, companies, political entities, economic engines, etc., were headed by men. The time is ripe for the female entrepreneur who can strike out using her creativity and propose practical innovations that can serve investors better. Women are notorious fixers; it is our time now.
We could focus on what we have today and point to where we want to go. But let’s reverse it. Start thinking about your full potential and then work back. Think of where you want to be, and reverse your steps to find out what you would need to do to get there.
So I ask, how do we advance upwards? We move the woman at the top to her fullest potential.