Left: Chioma Akamnonu MBA ’19; right: Prof. Vicki Bogan, applied economics and management

Courtesy of Akamnonu and Bogan

Left: Chioma Akamnonu MBA ’19; right: Prof. Vicki Bogan, applied economics and management

October 4, 2020

Closing Deals Over Golf — Cornell Professor and Alumna Discuss Gender Biases in Finance

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In the U.S., women now make up just over half of the financial services industry despite not entering the industry en masse until the 1980s — highlighting the progress that has been made towards gender representation in what was once an extremely male-dominated field.

But despite increases in gender representation in most areas of the financial sector, many women who work in the industry still report obstacles that often do not impact their male counterparts to the same extent.

Chioma Akamnonu MBA ’19, a treasury risk management senior leader at Citi, recalled past experiences in which she was given less trust and autonomy than her male coworkers.

“I’ve experienced times when I’ve had to literally ask for or demand more responsibility, harder projects or more complex scenarios to analyze. Sometimes I’ll even be told that the problem is too complicated,” Akamnonu said.

Akamnonu also spoke about her experiences with not being taken as seriously as the men in the room.

“My thoughts would not be praised and appreciated as much as my male counterparts despite the similarities,” stated Akamnonu.

Prof. Vicki Bogan, applied economics and management, was also impacted by gender biases when she worked in the corporate sector. Bogan recalled that many business deals and opportunities were presented during stereotypically masculine leisure activities, like golf tournaments and poker nights.

Women who don’t feel comfortable participating in these activities may miss out on promotions and client relationships, exacerbating the problem of investment management being thought of as a “boys club” that women have to fight to be included in.

“Those types of activities have a lot of implicit gender bias, but that’s often where some of the sales and deals would happen. That’s how people were made aware of opportunities, so the culture is tough,” Bogan said.

One way that diversity in the workplace has been encouraged is through gender quotas — policies in which companies are forced or incentivized to hire and maintain a certain quantity or percentage of women. While countries with enforced gender quotas saw increases in boardroom diversity and quality, Bogan and Akamnonu both said they would like to see more action taken.

Akamnonu agreed that gender quotas have been effective in enforcing the reevaluation of gender biases. However, she’d like to see many more conversations happening between executives and their management teams — and a lot more progress in communication about diversity and inclusion.

“It’s not enough to fill up a quota,” Akamnonu said.

Without education and reform addressing inclusivity in the workplace, gender quotas are limited when combatting fundamental prejudice, largely because there are often loopholes. For example, managers acting on their innate prejudices may give all of the senior management roles to white men despite having a broader pool of qualified candidates.

Less than 2 percent of chief executive officers and less than 20 percent of board members in financial institutions are women. This leads to fewer role models for professional women, like Akamnonu, who credited much of her success to being able to see other women thriving in leadership positions.

“I worry because, in terms of hiring, it’s more than just how many women there are, but it’s also what positions they hold,” said Bogan.

Bogan also emphasized the importance of not increasing gender representation in a “window dressing” fashion that is more performative to the public than actually inclusive for their employees.

“You need to have representation so that specific disciplines and areas feel welcoming for everybody,” Bogan said. “One of the best ways to try to change the culture is to try to change who’s at the table.”

When Bogan first began teaching a course in fixed income at Cornell, she recalled only having one woman in her class during her first semester. However, she saw a drastic increase in gender representation in her classroom over the next few years, crediting this upward trend in part to the fact that female finance students felt more comfortable exploring complex topics if the professor was also a woman.

Diversity in workplace leadership has been shown to have advantages outside of inspiring other women and people of color in the company.

“My experience is that people with different perspectives and backgrounds offer different insights that can help to facilitate the problem solving process,” Bogan said. “Irrespective of gender, ethnicity or any other ways in which people are different, I think that diversity brings a richness to the process.”

According to Akamnonu, one way that all employees can help to decrease prejudice and discrimination based on gender in their workplaces is to speak up on behalf of their coworkers.

“A lot of individuals aren’t okay with the status quo and what’s going on within their organization, but have that fear that if they were to speak up and share their thoughts they would be penalized,” Akamnonu said. “I believe it’s important that people muster up the courage to seek change and equality for their colleagues.”

To young women who are interested in working in the financial services industry, Bogan said that they “shouldn’t stop pursuing something that they’re interested in just because it’s perceived as a male-dominated career.”

Akamnonu also advised women to be confident in their abilities and professional pursuits. “Be confident in yourself. If you’re a math person and you love numbers — go for it. Don’t let what anyone says deter you from your goals,” she said. “You can do or be whatever you want. You just have to go hard at it and don’t stop — no matter what.”