Women in banking admit that it's partly their fault

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Why is that there are so few women at managing director (MD) level in investment banks? That there are hardly any female strats? That even after decades of focusing on women's initiatives, banks like Goldman Sachs admit they still have a long way to go? At this week's London conference for women in quantitative finance, senior women shone a light back upon themselves.

Sometimes, women can be responsible for the lack of progress. "My CEO asked me to lead a team of people with 10-18 years' experience and my first reaction was that I had never done that before and wasn't ready," said one senior systematic trader. She recalled how a female executive told her that women often sell themselves short in this way: "You say you're not qualified and this becomes the message - 'She's not qualified'," she said. "Guys never do this. They will always say, 'Yeah I'm super-qualified for that job." She went for the promotion.

Nor are women always receptive to banks' attempts to help them with maternity leave. Another senior female quant who has two children recalled a conversation she had with her manager. "I was nine months pregnant and he wanted to talk to me how they were going to get me from director to managing director. I didn't want to know," she said. "But if I'd known what I know now, I would have been talking about what was happening with my team and managing the roles [for the future]."

There was agreement too that women will often sacrifice ambition and responsibility for security and an ability to cope. One panelist pointed to Donna Strickland, this year's co-winner of the Nobel prize in physics. Despite being brilliant, Strickland is only an associate professor. When an interviewer asked Strickland why she wasn't a full professor she said she "never applied."  "Women tend to find somewhere they feel comfortable and to sit still," said a female head of algorithmic trading. Men don't do this.

Another senior quant trader said women can be unduly hesitant about joining large investment banks, which they (wrongly) perceive to be full of aggressive men. "We were trying to hire a female trader from another bank who clearly wasn't that happy in her role, but she wasn't at all interested." When the woman eventually agreed to an interview she disclosed that she thought the bank trying to hire her would be full of, "alpha males making unilateral decisions."  "We're not like that at all," said the trader. "We're actually very collaborative."

What can be done to make amends? Natalie Basiratpour, a panelist and director at recruitment firm Octavius Finance, suggested women channel Leda Braga, the founder of Systematic Investments, who famously joined BlueCrest when she was 34 weeks pregnant. Sometimes it makes sense to take a risk.

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