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?”

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  • Catherine Wood August 4, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Thank you, Gloria, for asking the question in the way and at the time that you did. Hopefully, between your site and ours, with voices born out of wisdom and experience, we can help our daughters and younger “sisters” think more strategically as they dream and plan their lives. With our thanks to all of you who have responded to this posting with this goal in mind…!

  • Liz August 3, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Great article. Long term vision is key when women who have the option to leave the workforce or scale back wonder why they are working so hard just to get through the week. Also, couples need to stop thinking that women’s salaries go to childcare and housecare while men’s salaries go to mortgages and retirement funds.

  • Gloria Feldt August 1, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Cathie, thank you for writing this article. Your “arithmetic” is the most realistic way I have seen for women and men to think about their career trajectories. Defining life goals for the longer term makes so much sense and provides a better framework than the short term calculations most of us default to when faced with those work-life choices. I am going to use your example when I speak with women about defining their own terms for their careers and lives. I will also share it with participants in my upcoming women’s leadership certificate online course this fall.

    These are questions so many women lose sleep over because they are responsible parents as well as responsible workers. You have presented a fresh way to calculate the value of career building for the longer term. Perhaps then we can also talk about creating some mechanisms to allow both men and women to go on and off the track with less risk of losing careers entirely, if businesses will make their calculations with a longer term view as well.

  • David August 1, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Excellent article. I am so sick and tired of the sexism in business. I was appalled at reading how one shareholder made a sexist comment to Marissa Mayer with regard to her looks. People don’t do that to men. Why do they think it is okay to do that to a woman? When Hillary Clinton was running for president news articles talked about her clothing and her hair. We need to start making men responsible for their children as well. My sister was the wage earner and her husband stayed home and took care of the children and people made fun of him. We need to stop that. One can only imagine how far we could go in this world if we started realizing that we hold back more than half the population in the world because of some misguided notion that women are less than.

  • Roz Warren August 1, 2013 at 11:24 am

    Great topic. Great post. Thanks.

  • Judith A. Ross August 1, 2013 at 10:08 am

    Exactly. D.A., thank you for elaborating so eloquently the real issue, which I only hinted at.

  • D. A. Wolf August 1, 2013 at 9:49 am

    I couldn’t agree more with Judith. But I will add Finland to her list, and anyone who looks at OECD data, at availability of childcare options, paid maternity leave, differences in education for children, health as a human right (and therefore, healthcare) – would see that this discussion is both broad and deep.

    Without question, I agree that we fall victim not to what I would call “mommy math” but the complex formulas that don’t add up for so many families when children are added to the equation.

    While there is much that we (women) can do ourselves, in anticipating the future to the extent that’s possible, and there is much that men can do to support the reality that their sisters, their wives, their daughters, their mothers can dream, earn, and accomplish just as they do, as long as women bear the children and we do not have sufficient flexibility in our employment relationships or sufficient intelligence in our social framework to understand what families need, we’re screwed.

    This requires a concerted effort. The mindset that individuals alone can move us forward to greater equality is exactly the problem we’ve had for the past 40 years.

  • Judith A. Ross August 1, 2013 at 8:25 am

    This is great advice for women in any career path. But couples aren’t the only ones who should be “investing” in a woman’s career. So should our society in the form of parental leave and family support systems like they have in other advanced countries. Sweden, Norway, Denmark anyone?

    But as I am a U.S. citizen, I wish I’d had this advice as a young mother. I remember one job in particular that I turned down because the salary didn’t match the cost of day care. Instead, I didn’t go back to work full-time until my eldest was seven. That decision set me on a career continuum that I have never really recovered from.