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On International Women’s Day Bob Park asks: Where are the Women?

Back at the end of the 1970’s, when I started my first job in the financial industry, I found two things on my new desk; a quote terminal and a large tabletop ashtray. All the desks had those two things and both were heavily used. If a person didn’t have a cigarette in his mouth, a lit one was burning in his ashtray.

One guy whose desk was just behind me was really a focused participant in the market. His desk was always a mess, covered with a mass of open research reports, notes and used food wrappers. He was also a very messy smoker who flicked his ashes everywhere. One day he was engaged in a really intense telephone conversation with a client.

In the midst of his call an errant ash missed the ashtray and started a fire on his desk. He was so focused he never even noticed as several people rushed over to stamp out the growing flames. We were sure it would happen again. So the prudent thing to do might have been to put a fire extinguisher next to my desk. But instead, at lunch that day, a colleague and I went to a nearby Radio Shack and bought battery-powered toy firefighter hats, complete with rotating red lights and loud sirens, to keep under our desks so that we could grab them and put them on when it happened again. We were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to bring them out. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), we never needed to, but we were always ready for years after.

That’s an example of the kind of juvenile male locker room mentality that existed in the industry back then. The financial industry was pretty well a male bastion. Yes, there were women in the business, but any woman who wasn’t a secretary, assistant, wire operator (don’t ask), filing clerk or receptionist, was a rare exception.

Today the heaping ashtrays are long gone and women have made some progress, particularly in the retail investment industry. But in capital markets trading and risk management, quantitative finance, and the technology industry that supports those activities, women are still a small minority.

That’s in stark contrast to some other fields. About half of today’s law school graduates are women and they now make up more than a quarter of the profession. Still far from per capita participation, but way ahead of where they were in the 1970’s; much different than the field of quantitative finance and technology. Why?

In this (only just beginning) era of #MeToo and #TimesUp there is a growing pile of rank smelling evidence that the old misogynistic culture in finance and technology isn’t nearly as gone as those heaping full office ashtrays. That surely sends a message.

Sure, the phenomenon spans many industries, but it’s clearly present in finance and technology. Several major financial firms have been sued for sexual harassment or discrimination in the past few years, some more than once. And the culture in Silicon Valley’s Brotopia is the subject of increasing attention.

At the same time, the industry is in a perennial struggle to find top talent. Modern finance and financial risk management is complicated. Solving modern financial challenges is difficult, whether creating financial solutions for banking customers or technology solutions for participants in the markets that enable them to create, trade and risk manage those financial products. It takes the very brightest, best educated minds.

Yet, roughly half the population is hardly participating. That is a problem.

Unfortunately many women don’t appear to be showing much interest in finance careers. That means we are largely missing out on half the world’s talent, which significantly limits the growth of our industry.

And it’s a problem for those women who have a love of physics or mathematics or a desire to work in quantitative finance and financial technology, but who are reluctant to pursue their dreams because they are afraid of, or at least suspicious of, the culture in which they would be immersed.

Any intelligent CEO wants to cast the broadest net possible for talent, and then be very selective and choose only the best. Knowledge-based businesses especially need the brightest people they can find. So, a crucial step is to create a welcoming culture where everyone can feel safe and valued. That is what we have been trying to do at FINCAD. It takes constant effort to do that by everyone here, so that is why I didn’t say we “have done” it. And it takes people who don’t just follow the rules, but live the values.

However, putting out the welcome mat isn’t enough if nobody is coming to the door. And that is the real issue.

For whatever reason, not enough women around the globe are pursuing an education in quantitative finance or software engineering, particularly at the post graduate level. So another step is to ensure that women know that these careers are open and welcoming to them and that the education is made accessible to them.

At FINCAD, we hope to do our part in encouraging more women to consider pursuing careers in this field by offering a scholarship award. Our annual Women in Finance scholarship awards one qualified female each calendar year with $10,000 to put towards an advanced degree in Finance. We’ve designed this program to help talented women reduce the financial stress of pursuing graduate or PhD level coursework. It is our hope that opportunities like this will go a long way toward building up women’s confidence in entering promising fields that have been non-traditional to females.

If you or someone you know is interested in applying for FINCAD’s Women in Finance scholarship, we’d love to hear from you. We will begin accepting applications for this scholarship opportunity in late April. At that time, please check out our scholarship web page for details on how to apply. Please note that the scholarship opportunity is open to women of any age and citizenship who are studying Finance in an accredited graduate-level or PhD program.

About the author

Bob Park

President, CEO & Director, FINCAD

Bob co-founded FINCAD in 1990 and is responsible for the overall management of the company. Prior to co-founding FINCAD he worked in the Canadian investment industry in the private client areas of two national firms, Richardson Greenshields and CIBC Wood Gundy, latterly as a vice president.

Bob is also a member of the governing council of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, Canada's leading hi-tech industry alliance.


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