Testosterone overkill: Is the Wolf of Wall Street still putting women off careers in finance?

06 Feb 2014

There's an excess of booze, sex and swearing in The Wolf of Wall St along with an avalanche of testosterone.

The scenes set in the trading room focus on how the Wolf (based on former stockbroker Jordan Belfort) built up a hugely successful business with a team of fiercely tribal and competitive blokes, who were often rewarded with prostitutes.

The female employees featured are only noticeable because there's hardly any – and most are secretaries.

Exposes of rampant sexism in stock broking, fund management and investment banking has a long pedigree. Hair raising accounts from women have featured in a range of articles and books, both fiction and non-fiction. Remember Alison Pearson's novel I don't know how she does it? which featured a frazzled fund manager in London?

The poor treatment of women in these aggressive and high octane environments may be exaggerated at times, but it's a real problem for those in the sector concerned with boosting the number of women employees.

Late last year Women in Banking and Finance, and the Australian Financial Markets Association released research designed to uncover why so few women graduates are putting their hands up for investment banking jobs.

While some banks have managed to keep up their recruitment ratio, many have found a noticeable decrease in applications from women graduates in the last few years.

The "Attracting women to financial services" research, conducted by Urbis, involved qualitative feedback from graduates, early career leavers and a group of HR managers from institutional banks in July 2013.

The vast majority of young women interviewed were 'uncertain about the industry, and unsure what a job would entail and, coupled with the underlying negative perception of the sector, were less likely to commit to a career in investment banking."

As one early career leaver put it: "I think I actually prefer working with men – but within investment banks, it's the level of arrogance I find that you don't find in other workplaces – it's the kind of boys club and you feel at times made to feel like you don't belong there."

This reluctance was reinforced by a lack of strong female leadership, the influence of popular culture, media noise about negative experiences of women in the industry and war stories from young employees, the study found.

"We have built our reputation on being elite, competitive, aggressive – all male type things. It's not surprising that this is how the industry is seen by people who don't know us," an HR manager said.

It was clear that the media reinforced stereotypical images of the industry, the research found, particularly in relation to a male dominant corporate work environment.

Although the story of Belfort is basically a salutary tale, and was set mainly in the 1980s, it certainly doesn't do many favours for the female-unfriendly image of the sector.

And even though there may be a gap between the media image and reality, clearly there are some barriers for women that need to be addressed.

This is also a chicken and egg problem – if you can't attract women into these jobs then there will be not enough of the female role models and shifts in the dominant culture that are needed as circuit breakers.

It's worth noting that the young women surveyed were not choosing less demanding careers either – many are joining law or accounting firms which are reaping the benefits in the talent war.

But in many respects young finance and economics women graduates who have choices about where they will work are simply being pragmatic. Why risk running into an Australian version of The Wolf of Wall Street when you can take your skills elsewhere?

The good news is that institutions which make genuine efforts to change the reality and image of their workplace will find it pays off with a much wider choice of talented graduates.

There's no excuse for failing to understand the problem with this kind of research available. If you still need convincing, you might like a trip to the movies.

Catherine Fox

Catherine Fox is a journalist, author and public speaker with a particular interest in women and the workforce, workforce trends, management and career. Catherine worked for the Australian Financial Review until November 2012, and has written three books. Her latest is Seven Myths about Women and Work. She is on several advisory boards, including the Defence Force Gender Equality Advisory Board.

Twitter: @corporatefox

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