The women in finance who say diversity initiatives are misleading them

Financial services companies are doing everything they can to hire women. Most have goals both to recruit women as juniors and to retain and promote them up the ranks. But not all women agree with his techniques.

in a just published study*, academics from the Copenhagen Business School conducted 60 interviews over a 12-year period with people who work for the city the largest accounting, auditing and consulting firms. Interviewees ranged in seniority, from new graduates to senior managers and partners. 30% were women. And none of them felt that programs to promote diversity and work-life balance for female hires were beneficial to their careers.

Instead, at the end of the 12-year period, the researchers found that all the women they interviewed had left the companies they worked for, and that all but one had left before becoming a partner. Well-intentioned diversity initiatives were partly to blame.

A 28-year-old accountant, Elisabeth, said she was ambitious and didn’t mind working weekends, but was encouraged by her male division manager to say no to weekend work and to “take it easy.” Instead of aiming to get top marks on her evaluations like her male colleagues, Elisabeth was told that she would consider the average grades acceptable and that she had plenty of time to advance her career. In fact, Elisabeth was well aware that she couldn’t take it easy because she wanted children and she needed to get married before 40 (since hardly anyone older gets promoted). While it was considered “natural and normal” for her male colleagues to work long hours, Elisabeth was told to “take care of herself.”

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Another interviewee, Julia, 29, had been working as an accountant in New York City and wanted to start a family. However, she had realized that what her signature said about diversity was very different from reality. While her partners encouraged her to have children and said they would support her, the only older woman with children that Julia knew at the firm had a terrible lifestyle. – In theory, the older woman only worked 60% of the time; actually, she worked at midnight every day once the kids were asleep. The ‘mom track’ was not an easy choice.

Anna, 39, a manager with two children, made a similar point. After her second maternity leave, Anna said she was encouraged to go back to work 30 hours a week and she ended up working 40 to 50 hours a week without getting paid for it, “so coming back on short notice didn’t make sense.” At the same time, she was expected to be responsible for women’s initiatives in the company, which also consumed her week. When it came to partner promotions, a male colleague with the who had been working for years was promoted instead.

Because men were not stigmatized for working long hours, another interviewee, Helen, 32, with one child, said they worked harder and got promoted faster. Women were encouraged to work less, but later found it more difficult to become partners because their male colleagues had filled all the promotion positions.

The fundamental problem, the researchers said, was the discrepancy between what professional services firms said was important and what really was important when deciding whom to promote. On the one hand, the leadership encouraged women not to overwork, but on the other they ran an “aggressive top-down culture” that “kept a meticulous follow-up of their [women’s] shortcomings by continuing to compare them with those who worked continuously.

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Ultimately, the academics said the women in the study were being tricked into giving up the opportunity to mate. By framing women as fragile employees in need of solidarity initiatives, female stereotypes were perpetuated rather than broken. However well-intentioned, diversity programs simply manipulated women’s sense of reality, persuading them to work less and leading to stagnant careers.

*Work-Life Balance as Gaslighting: Exploring Repressive Care in Accounting Careers

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