Gloria Feldt, a public speaker, educator, and national leader with a passion for advancing women’s equality, recently reached out to Women’s Voices’ Board Chair Catherine D. Wood with an age-old question: “Why have so few women—and fewer with time—made it to senior positions in the financial services industry . . . and other industries?”

Gloria, a former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is co-founder of Take the Lead, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to propel women “to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025.” Catherine has spent more than 30 years in the financial services industry, analyzing companies and managing equity portfolios, focused on disruptive themes that are going to change the world and, it’s hoped, make it a better place. —Ed.


3642179597_9df049f33f_oImage from Flickr via Matthew Knot

Back in the late seventies, as an intern in the financial services industry, I was one of the few women in meetings with top management, economists, and strategists . . . and I was there simply to take notes and write them up.

During the bull market of the eighties and nineties, though, women—including me—did advance and move into more senior positions in the financial services industry. We were standing on the shoulders of a number of courageous, hard-working women who had fought to open the doors through which we were walking. Jane Gould at Alliance Capital (a research analyst and portfolio manager) was an inspiration to many of us. So were Susan Byrne, of Westwood Holdings Group, and Muriel Siebert, of Muriel Siebert & Co. 

Now, however—ravaged during the last decade by the bear markets associated with the tech, telecom, and housing busts—women in the senior ranks of the financial services industry have almost disappeared.  Once again, typically, as a portfolio manager, I am the often the only woman in meetings with top management, economists, and strategists.  (The statistics bear out my sense of isolation. Melissa S. Fisher’s article in Bloomberg News notes that “women account for only 3 percent of chief executives of financial companies, according to the consulting group Catalyst. And a woman has yet to become CEO of a major Wall Street company.”

I am writing this answer to Gloria Feldt’s query because I would like to help women with daughters who are in this industry—or any other—understand one of the reasons we are losing the battle for “liberation,” the battle for which so many women fought in the sixties and seventies. (Fisher’s post, “How Women Rose and Took the Fall on Wall Street,” provides a fascinating look at the fortunes of women on Wall Street since 1958, when a New York Times article opined that “it is extremely unlikely that any [woman in financial services] will attain any notable financial position unless she is able to marry the boss, outlive him and inherit his share of the business.”

After Gloria asked me why so few women have leadership positions in finance, I thought about it for a few minutes. Then I mentioned my belief that one factor is the “arithmetic discussion” that so many couples in my industry, and perhaps others, seem to leave when times are tough.

Here’s how it goes: Having two young children, exhausted in the morning after the baby has kept them up all night, and more exhausted—perhaps depressed—after another unsuccessful, frustrating day during the bear market at the office, the higher-income earner [usually male] starts the discussion somewhat like this: “Honey, commissions have been cut in half, and now the nanny, the housekeeper, the transportation, and your wardrobe are costing more than you make . . . on an after-tax basis, much more than you make! Does this make any sense?” In that immediate situation, of course, the mother’s ambition to keep aiming for a top position seems to make no financial sense.

Whoa!  Stop right there! That discussion should have taken place BC—before children . . . before the day-to-day responsibilities of early-stage careers and parenthood overwhelm the senses! Before children, and perhaps before marriage, women must establish goals and ground rules to guide these important decisions. What kind of life do they want to have when they are 50 years old, the children are leaving home, and time frees up?

If they think that in a few decades they might want to use their education and move back into the professional world, then they must understand now that, thanks to technology and constant change, they have no choice but to invest in their careers . . . invest in themselves . . . for a good ten to fifteen years, with or without children. The “arithmetic discussion” raises an extremely important question, especially for women.  “Does this striving make any financial sense?” The right answer is, “You bet it does!  We are investing in my career and in your career.”  The more important question is, “We’re investing in our future together, aren’t we?”