The Plethora of ‘Mediocre Men’ in Finance

Seasoned female executives dished on the obstacles of a male-dominated industry — and what it takes to succeed.

Takaaki Iwabu/Bloomberg

Takaaki Iwabu/Bloomberg

What’s the best place to work for women in finance?

Any firm with culture of hiring and promoting women embedded in its DNA, according to a trio of female asset management executives. But they agreed that such cultures are more easily found on the buy side than the sell side.

The executives were speaking at a luncheon event held by Natixis Investment Managers in Manhattan on Friday that coincided with International Women’s Day. The wide-ranging discussion covered the global financial markets, geopolitical issues, and what it’s like to succeed as a woman in the male-dominated world of finance.

Katy Kaminski, chief research strategist and portfolio manager at Natixis subsidiary AlphaSimplex Group, said one of her first jobs was at Bracebridge Capital, a hedge fund co-founded by a woman, Nancy Zimmerman. “She had a three-year-old and a one-year-old and she’d walk in and tell the guys what to do,” said Kaminski. “I thought, ‘I could do that.’”

She has spent much of her career at commodity trading advisors, where women are even scarcer than at hedge funds, she said. Kaminski joined AlphaSimplex last year and sits on its investment committee. On her first day at one job, she was one of 12 people sitting around a table — and the only woman.

Women are particularly poorly represented in alternative investments. They hold only 11.2 percent of senior hedge fund roles and just 10 percent of senior investment professionals at private equity firms are women, according to data tracker Preqin. But there has been positive change, the executives acknowledged.

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Elaine Stokes, a 30-year veteran of Natixis subsidiary Loomis Sayles, said women in the industry have hit a tipping point. “For my first 25 years in the business, we were competing with each other,” said Stokes, who manages three bond funds and sits on the firm’s board. “Now we’re just competing. It’s not, ‘She’s a portfolio manager— she’s my competition; there is only one spot.’ We have identified the problem.”

Still, more work remains to fix it.

Kaminski said she knows women who have been fired for being pregnant, for example. “We need to document some of the things that are challenges — because if you don’t get punished for bad behavior, the bad behavior will keep happening,” she said.

The #MeToo movement has not ricocheted through Wall Street with nearly the intensity as it has the entertainment industry, but the executives said one big reason is that financial services firms make employees sign non-disclosure agreements that prohibit them from sharing their experiences. Sexual harassment, combined with a lack of family-friendly policies, can lead to a chicken-and-egg problem: some argue that there are few women in senior roles because many quit before they advance, but some women quit because of the culture of some firms.

But, Stokes said, “People are finally talking about” family-friendly policies.” For example, when people reach mid-career, there are a lot of benefits companies can offer that are not pay-related, and women are more likely to ask for them in lieu of pay raises than men.

As for what advice they would give to young women starting in the industry, Stokes recommended networking — and calling attention to your work. “Women think that if they work hard, that’s enough. But it’s not enough,” she said. “You have to make yourself visible.”

And a knowledge of sports doesn’t hurt. “The best thing my parents gave me was a love of sports,” Stokes said. “They didn’t know it would be an ‘in’ for me. When people on the trading desk talked about the game, I could be part of the conversation.”

Kaminski concurred, adding that she played college ice hockey, which helped her to learn to thrive in a competitive environment. “When you play sports, you’re competing — and when you manage a portfolio, you’re competing every day,” said Marina Gross, executive vice president of Natixis’ portfolio research and consulting group.

Kaminski also recommended that young women make sure they have “political capital.” “You have to be smart, but you also have to have people who support you,” she said.

Women in the industry also face subtler problems than overt discrimination or harassment. To wit, Kaminsky pointed to what she called the “exceptional problem” — women have to be exceptional to be promoted to the upper ranks.

“There are a lot of mediocre men” in the finance industry, she said — a line that drew big laughs. “We need more mediocre women.”