Although there's certainly been progress, the financial services world lags other prestigious professions in gender equality. Women make up only about a quarter of the industry.
"NAPFA has 28% women members, FPA is about 25% women and the CFP Board is about 25%. We have a ways to go," says Peggy Cabaniss, president of HC Financial Advisors in Lafayette, Calif., and past chair of NAPFA. The numbers are even lower at the top: Looking at Fortune 500 companies, only 16% of corporate officers in the finance and insurance industries are women, according to a 2006 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping women advance in business. "The stats are even worse in the brokerage industry," Cabaniss says. "They tell you that 30% or 40% of workers are women, but a lot are secretaries; the number of female brokers is 10%."
Cabaniss notes that this is on par with where medicine and law were back in the 1970s. Today, both those fields are more than 50% female. "We could use an injection of adrenaline for the women in our industry, because I feel like I see less women than before, and there never were many," says Karen Altfest, vice president of L.J. Altfest & Co. in New York City and 20-year industry veteran.
The topic of how to balance career and family raised the backs of some of the women executives we interviewed. "These [work-life balance] questions are fair game in any industry, for any executive, but for women in financial services there's always a negative undercurrent," says Clara Sierra, executive vice president of Sentinel Investments in Montpelier, Vt., a company with many women in the upper ranks. "I'm an animal when it comes to work. I easily work 80 hours a week, and I'm on the road 50% of the time, but I'm not doing that to compromise my family. I have two children and I've been married for 13 years to a fabulous man." When Sierra joined Sentinel from AIG last March, she says, a tremendous draw was the opportunity to work among many powerful women, including money management doyenne Elizabeth Bramwell.
By contrast, Bramwell herself says that the prospect of female peers did not factor at all in her decision to sell her firm, Bramwell Capital, to Sentinel and join its management as senior vice president. "I take a gender-neutral approach," she says. "The thing about portfolio management is it's fairly measurable. It's your performance against benchmarks."
Bramwell worked part-time for a few years while her two children were young, waiting until they went to boarding school and on to college before founding Bramwell Capital. "It's not even the time commitment, it's the emotional commitment," she says.
Of course, the experience of women in finance is not uniform. The environment is quite different in, say, sales and trading compared with asset management or human resources. "How comfortable a woman feels in financial services, and how she can handle the work-life issues, has to do with the field she is in," says Jane Newton, CFP, of Regent Atlantic in Chatham, N.J.
Newton previously spent 17 years at JPMorgan. "I started out in investment banking, and it's a 24/7 type of job. If you have client responsibility and are working on deals, it's very difficult to ask for any flexibility, whereas in asset management or human resources you might have some."
"This is a woman-friendly business if you're an advisor or in a product group or marketing," says Karen Schultz, vice president of the private client group at Raymond James in St. Petersburg, Fla., and director of the company's women's network. But Newton says it's a mistake to think of flextime as an entitlement. "There's a misperception that firms are going to work it out for you just because you're willing to take a cut in salary to 80% for four days. One woman at Morgan left for her second or third maternity leave and surprised herself by not wanting to go back full-time. She asked, 'What kind of part-time jobs can they offer me when I come back?' There is no list of part-time jobs. You have to put together a proposal and show how you're going to benefit the firm."
Nevertheless, in an effort to retain female talent, a number of financial firms have adopted family-friendly policies or have initiated programs aimed at advancing women, including Lehman Brothers, Goldman, Citi, American Express and others. Yet these can be a double-edged sword. "There is the whole issue of career suicide which continues to exist," Newton says. "Unless you see a CEO or a major division head avail themselves of the policy, you might be skeptical as to whether the firms are just talking the talk or really walking the walk."