More yoga than lap-dancing

    23 May 2015

    Why would any female graduate ever want to work on a City trading floor? Lots do, of course, and very successfully, earning salaries and bonuses the rest of us can only dream about. But if you made your career choice on the basis of tabloid headlines, no self-respecting woman would ever set foot in the financial sector.

    ‘Sickening footage shows young City trader throwing up after eating EIGHT quarter pounders in humiliating initiation ritual’, reads one in the Mirror. Another: ‘Woman City trader forced to wear bunny costume and play “Borat bitch” in team-building exercise, tribunal hears.’ And: ‘Investment banker made redundant on maternity leave “for not being at work’’.’

    Did Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street leave a nasty taste in your mouth? Never fear — the man whose life it was based on has said that the film didn’t reflect reality. ‘My life was even worse than that,’ admits Jordan Belfort. It’s not just the lad culture, either. The hours are painfully long, especially for juniors.

    It just doesn’t sound attractive, does it? For a young woman fresh from university, it takes some balls — if you’ll pardon the expression — even to submit a CV for a City graduate scheme. Why not just plump for a nice civilised job; teaching maybe, or PR, or magazine journalism?

    But what’s the truth behind all this? Does the money world — and its trading floors in particular — actually offer an enjoyable and stimulating working life, but the media have decided to trash the reality? Surely in the aftermath of the crash, banks must have taken urgent steps to improve their image as employers just as much as their profile as market risk-takers? I decided to find out by asking a selection of women currently working in the sector — and some who worked there in the 1980s and 1990s and have seen it evolve — what they think of the City as a place to build a career today.

    One woman I spoke to certainly believes the atmosphere has taken a turn for the better. She has only worked in finance post-crash but, she says, the Wolf of Wall Street days are over. Lavish entertainment budgets have been cut in favour of giving more to charity, and many of the most unpleasant co-workers — the ones who fuelled the macho culture in the first place — have departed or been forced to tone down their act. ‘A lot of the assholes who gave banking a bad reputation have been humbled,’ she says: the culture is now more about yoga and kale smoothies than lap-dancing.

    Having moved from trading into the more cerebral milieu of fund management (not because of the men or the atmosphere, she was keen to point out, but to escape the 5 a.m. wake-up alarm), she thinks there has never been a better time to be a woman in the City. For a start, many banks — both the giants and the boutiques — are so keen to be perceived as ‘equal opportunity’ employers since the crash that simply being female is likely to bolster your chances of being hired.

    The idea that the macho side of the financial world has been toned down since the crash of 2008 seemed to be an overarching theme of these conversations. One woman in her mid-thirties said that the general misogyny and sexual harassment had decreased significantly during her time in the industry. But that does not mean it has gone away entirely. The work still involves plenty of ‘schoolboy humour’, alcohol-fuelled evenings in strip clubs and corporate days at ‘dull-as-death sports events’ such as rugby and boxing.

    Only one female financier said she had experienced sexual harassment in recent times. But for those who worked in the City ten or 20 years ago, it was a different kettle of fish. Back in the 1980s ‘it really was brutal’, said one. She was told by a client that he would remove her bank from his account unless she slept with him. She refused, and was held back from promotion as a result. But despite her experiences she would still recommend a City career — if you can hack it. The hours are still very long (‘You have to kiss goodbye to your life while you pursue your career’), but you’ll be well paid, in a dynamic working environment, surrounded by some of the most talented people in the country.

    The opportunities for women graduates in banking may be increasing, and the unpleasant aspects of working there may be diminishing — but apparently the girls just aren’t applying these days. A senior manager at one bank told me that since the crash she had seen a significant decrease in the number of women candidates. Prior to 2008, she said, it was usual to see a 50/50 gender split. Nowadays you’re lucky if 30 per cent of graduate applicants are women. Why? She put it down to the perceived macho culture, the insecurity of the career path and the appeal of alternative job choices that might be more ‘female friendly’.

    But for the young woman who hasn’t been put off, how should she make the most of the City opportunity and give smashing through the glass ceiling her best shot? One twentysomething pointed out enigmatically that ‘a girl can get her foot in the door more easily, for the same reason that could eventually hinder her once through the door’. Another gave this advice to women starting out: ‘Don’t try to be one of the boys, or even worse treat men like a wife or mother. They already have those.’

    For her, being a big fish in a small pond had worked well — starting on the graduate scheme of a small company and focusing on a niche area. Financial services may have a way before it offers genuine equality, but in certain ways women have the upper hand. ‘The cult of personality seems to prefer women,’ she said. ‘Women at the top may be rare, but when they are there, they are very, very good.’

    So, getting a job in the financial sector as a woman is by no means an impossible feat. In fact, gender might even count in your favour. But what can women expect once they have reached their early thirties, say, and want to start families? Obviously trading-floor hours aren’t particularly convenient for young mothers, but that doesn’t mean the whole sector is a write-off. One girl in her twenties who works at a boutique investment bank said ‘there always seems to be someone pregnant in my office’— with maternity leave policies well established, and career breaks entirely possible. Another, in her thirties with a young son, highlighted start-ups and consultancy roles as being highly flexible, and thus areas where you’re very likely to find other working mothers.

    Perhaps it’s not that the jobs aren’t flexible enough, but that many women’s priorities change once they become mothers: given the choice between time spent at work or with their children, the family wins. Meanwhile, the culture of the City seems to be a lot less masculine than it used to be — and it is now one more place where the girls, if they have the inclination, the self-confidence and the stamina, can beat the boys at their own game.