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Women in finance: the state of play today

Posted by
23 Jun 2015
This is the first in a series of blog posts on the topic of Women in Finance. View the second blog post, a Q&A session with Sellick Partnership's own Finance Director Nives Feely, here.

The finance industry has experienced a period of significant change over the last few years, as the country slowly emerges from the one of the worst economic declines in history. The recent upturn has had a knock-on effect in terms of employment, as companies become increasingly confident about their financial futures, and place emphasis on recruiting the best talent.

The role of women in the finance sector continues to be of great importance to the development of the industry as a whole, but with the number of females employed at senior levels in financial businesses still lower than it should be, there is still a long way to go until men and women can compete on an even playing ground for job opportunities.
What's more, the increasing importance of technology within the financial sector, along with the evolving working day - through the introduction of flexible hours and remote working - has played a significant role in attracting more women, particularly those with families, to a previously male-dominated arena.

At Sellick Partnership, we understand that the current state of play within the financial sector, and believe women have a huge role to play in the future of the industry. So, over the next few months we will put together a blog series focusing on the theme 'women in finance'.

So, let's take a closer look at the current situation for women in finance.

Boardroom problems

While the number of females employed by top accountancy firms is on the rise, research has highlighted a stark difference when it comes to the gender gap in the top positions. An exclusive study by the Financial Times earlier this year revealed that, while there is a near 50-50 split in overall staff numbers in the City, just 19.5 per cent of senior roles across top employers are held by women. The study saw the publication gather data from more than 30 of the City's top banking, insurance, asset management and professional services companies over a six month period, and revealed - perhaps unsurprisingly - that banking is the most notorious for so-called male bias.

Research has also pointed to a gender imbalance in top positions. At the Big Four accountancy firms in the UK, there is an average of only 16 per cent of partner positions held by women - and this statistic is backed up by previous research. A McKinsey Study for the 30% Club revealed that men are three times more likely to become a partner at a City accountancy firm, and while this is considerably better than the legal sector (where men are ten times more likely), it proves there is still a long way to go.

Nives Feely, Finance Director at Sellick Partnership, agrees that it appears to be more difficult for women to achieve senior positions in finance: "I think there are the same number of women now as before at entry level, in my experience. It is when you get further up that it becomes a completely different field. At entry, it is probably about a 50/50 or 60/40 men to women split, but the further up the ladder you go, then you start getting to 70/30, or 80/20.”


Yes, the current situation for women who want to break into the finance sector remains challenging, but significant progress has been made in recent years. Elaine Masters, Licensed Insolvency Practitioner for Altrincham-based ClearDebt, who joined a national firm as a graduate trainee in December 1987 has noticed a lot of change in the role of women over the past 25 years.

"When I joined the Insolvency profession, it was almost entirely male dominated; I remember going out on sites to foundries in the Black Country where they didn't even have a woman's toilet on site! It was also hard to be taken seriously and there were occasions when older men resented authority conferred by the role,” Ms Masters remarked.

She added: "There have been changes in the last 25-plus years in that there are now more women in key positions, plus the fact that the industry has changed too due to changes in the law and in the industry in the UK - very little of the work is now done on site and is more office based.”

What's more, the industry has come on in leaps and bounds when it comes to challenging the stereotype that a successful senior financial services executive is someone who is willing to work long hours, and is "dominating and hierarchical towards employees”. According to international management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, most finance companies have invested time, money and senior management energy in changing perceptions about gender in the finance industry. Nowadays, many firms have well-established women's networks, provide targeted training and mentoring to female employees, as well as providing maternity and flexible working options that sometimes exceed statutory requirements.

The creation of the 30% Club - which aims to ensure 30 per cent of jobs at boardroom level are made up by women - has also signalled progress within the financial services sector. While the success of introducing quotas is still questioned by many critics, there is one thing for certain: employers that offer flexible working conditions are generally rewarded by loyalty among women.

A long way to go

One of the major factors proving there is still an undeniable need for progress for women in finance is the existing pay gap, particularly within the accountancy profession. The latest salary survey from the ICAEW and Stott & May revealed that male chartered accountants in business earn an average salary of £100,900, compared with women who earn an average of £63,900 - a gap that has increased by 5.4 per cent since 2014. According to the survey, women over 45 saw their salaries drop by £6,500 from last year, despite men in the same age group reporting a rise of up to £4,200.

While there is undeniable proof that conditions for women in finance are improving, it would be over optimistic to suggest that there isn't still a long way to go. The issue of changing attitudes is one of the most prevalent here, as research has pointed out that very often women do not feel as if they are suited to more senior roles. Last year, McKinsey's 'Moving mindsets on gender diversity' survey of global managers found that only 69 per cent of women, compared with 83 per cent of men, were confident in believing they could achieve top management positions.

So, why does this issue of self-belief still exist? Many would argue it is down to education. An article published by the Daily Telegraph argued that in order to get women into these roles, more needs to be done in schools and universities. Of the UK graduates who applied to large international firms in 2014, only 12 per cent were women. What's more, schools and careers services often do not offer finance as an option for young women, while fewer than 10 per cent of equity income managers in the UK are females and just 7 per cent of retail investment funds are managed by women.

Commenting on the matter of education, Ms Feely said: "Strong female leaders should be encouraged to go out and speak to people coming into work, through apprenticeships and other similar schemes, so people understand that you can have a good work-life balance.

"You can have your career, but also your family and your home life, and it is not a one-or-the-other-choice. If businesses - or universities and schools - could push that, and do more from a mentoring point of view, it will create confidence and encourage people to promote themselves and succeed in their career.”

This is the first blog post in our Women In Finance blog series. Read the second blog post, a Q&A session with Sellick Partnership's Nives Feely, here.

View all blog posts in our Women in Finance series:

View all blog posts in our Women in Finance series:
Women in finance: the state of play today
2. Q&A with Finance Director Nives Feely
Breaking the glass ceiling: five prominent women in finance
4. Changing careers and education - what’s holding women back in the finance sector?
5. Women in finance: Analysis of our 'Gender Diversity in Business' survey

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