Closing the confidence gap for women in the City

Carol Howle
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Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting In New York
It has been a pivotal year for women in leadership (Source: Getty)

"Be more confident, speak up” was the advice a female friend received during her performance review.

Later she was told she’d been “too aggressive” when challenging a point during a meeting. Perhaps she overdid it.

Either way, it makes you question whether contradictory advice and male stereotypes of success could be causing confidence erosion, particularly for women early in their financial services careers.

It has been a pivotal year for women in leadership. Those in top political roles are dominating headlines, and City firms are publicly committing to tackle gender imbalance. Despite progress at the top, talented women in their early-to-mid careers are opting out of management careers at an alarming rate.

Why? A sharp erosion in confidence seems to be at the core of the issue. Bain & Company found that despite starting their careers just as confident as men, women’s confidence falls by 50 per cent after just two years. Men’s stays the same. Clearly, the causes are varied and complex – and firms must tackle the problem head on.

From experience, both as a young woman on the trading floor, and now as a business leader, it’s clear that the onus for tackling this issue must be shared between the corporation and the individual.

Closing the gap

While quotas and goals have their place in increasing diversity, they don’t tackle the issue of eroding confidence. Career progression must be a meritocracy. Therefore, key to sustaining confidence is a blend of corporate initiatives which ensure a fair performance culture, and regular engagement between managers and employees.

As may have been the case with my friend labelled “too aggressive”, the assertive behaviours that people associate with leadership can be deemed less attractive in women. Moreover, they are not necessarily the right attributes for leaders of the future.

Female role models that embody the attributes and behaviours of a modern leader – such as connectivity, collaboration, empathy, and dealing with ambiguity – are key to increasing confidence in other women.

Unfortunately, in this industry there are not as many role models as we would like, adding to the perception that trading is ill-suited to women. In reality, trading is not a solo activity. To be effective, it requires a broad range of skills and numerous teams including analysts, traders, risk management specialists, operations and credit teams.

A recent study by Alexander Mann Solutions and Trading Hub on women in trading found that, while women made fewer trades than their male counterparts, their trades were generally of a higher quality. It also found that women took a different approach to risk.

Building career resilience

It is also crucial that women share the responsibility for building confidence, resilience and driving their own careers forward. For example, ask your managers “what success looks like?” Look for opportunities to challenge yourself, and request feedback from a broad set of peers, staff and leaders, to get a perspective on strengths and what needs to be worked on.

Seek to understand office politics by observing the dynamics and what motivates people. Networking is also integral to building confidence and gaining a true understanding of your industry.

But again, the old stereotypes of networking – late nights and vast bills – can put women off. The reality of modern networking is completely flexible; it can be as simple as grabbing a quick coffee with a colleague. It is crucial that corporations and women work together to close the confidence gap that is leading to so many talented individuals stalling or opting out of their careers.

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