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The Pandemic Caused a ‘Major Step Back’ for Women in Financial Services

Nearly a third of women in finance temporarily or permanently left their jobs during the pandemic, according to an Accenture survey.

For women in the financial services industry, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges they face in their jobs, resulting in a significant exodus from the field. 

In a survey conducted by Accenture, a global technology and business consulting firm, 29 percent of women working in financial services said they left their job either permanently or temporarily during the pandemic, while 34 percent of women who hadn’t left their jobs said they were considering leaving their current firms. Almost half of the women who were considering leaving their firms held entry-level positions, meaning they have fewer than five years of industry experience.

In an already male-dominated sector, improving gender diversity is a priority for many firms, but current initiatives may not have been effective enough to combat the pandemic’s toll on non-male employees. Across all career levels — senior, supervisory, and entry-level — over half of the women in the survey said they faced “increased pressure” as the main caregivers in their households, a dynamic they attributed to the pandemic. Among the most affected by the pandemic were executive and senior management respondents, 59 percent of whom believed the pandemic had adversely affected their career progression. 

As Gema Zamarro, a professor at the University of Arkansas, senior economist at the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, and mother of two kids, summed it up: “You’re doing three jobs: mom, teacher, and your own work.” 

Covid-19 Was a “Tipping Point”

Accenture’s survey, which was conducted in May and included 500 respondents across the U.S., was balanced equally across the three primary sectors of the finance industry: banks, capital markets, and insurance. Respondents from the capital markets sector felt the heaviest burden as a result of the pandemic. Over half of capital markets respondents said that if schools are only open for part-time, in-person learning, that they do not have the support they need as working mothers. 

“The additional household responsibilities, the child care and elder care responsibilities in addition to the long work hours in an industry that wasn’t exactly nine-to-five pre-pandemic... I think we hit a bit of a tipping point with some women just feeling like, ‘Look, I can’t do all of this right now,’” said Laurie McGraw, managing director of Accenture’s North American capital markets industry group.

Fifty-three percent of women in the capital markets sector also cited feeling disconnected from or forgotten by their company. Sixty-four percent felt they had lost opportunities to grow in their careers during the pandemic. 

“This is the kind of thing that has happened to women all over,” said Emily Bowersock Hill, founding partner of Bowersock Capital Partners, a women-owned and women-run asset management firm.

In 2020, Hill left her position as an asset manager at Morgan Stanley, where she and her all-women team (known as the Hill Group) managed about $500 million in assets, according to a Bloomberg report. She then started Bowersock Capital Partners. Hill said the small size and demographic of predominately “working moms” at her firm allows for more flexibility and “mutual support” for women than larger, predominantly-male firms. 

“Working moms are making a big sacrifice to have a career,” she said.

In March 2020, Goldman Sachs implemented a new family leave plan which permitted employees with Covid-19 symptoms or childcare needs, including homeschooling, ten days of paid family leave. The plan, which initially only applied to 2020, was extended to September 2021, Goldman Sachs spokesperson Leslie Shribman said in an email. 

At Carlyle Group, the firm released a virtual version of its unconscious bias training program; asked each employee to set an individual diversity, equity, and inclusion objective to ensure “accountability for progress;” and provided assistance for employees who needed to locate caregivers such as babysitters, nannies, and pet care, according to spokesperson Brittany Berliner. 

“Turnover for women at our firm in 2020 was the lowest it’s been in over 3 years,” Berliner said in an emailed statement. “To enhance our culture, we are focused on increasing diversity and fostering inclusion. In fact, more than half of Carlyle’s $260 billion assets under management is managed by women.” 

Institutional Investor reached a variety of other large financial services firms for comment on the Accenture’s findings. Of those, JPMorgan Chase & Co., PwC, and Credit Suisse declined to comment. Morgan Stanley, BlackRock, and Ernst & Young did not respond to the inquiry by press time. 

“A Potential Setback in Earning Power for Women”

Women in finance are desperate for a solution: In the Accenture survey, 62 percent of executives and senior management respondents and 48 percent of entry-level respondents said they would forego compensation for additional flexibility in their workplace.

“That was discouraging to me because I think we’ve spent a lot of focus on equal pay and getting women to be paid much more favorably over the years,” McGraw said. “So, this just represents a potential setback in earning power for women, which was concerning.” 

The challenges presented to women in the financial services industry during the pandemic is only the tip of the iceberg, according to University of Arkansas professor Zamarro. Working mothers are leaving the workforce at alarming rates, she said, adding that the issues women in the workforce have faced as a result of the pandemic have always been present — they were only exacerbated by the challenges of Covid-19.

In December 2020, Zamarro co-authored a study that examined the gender differences in the impacts of the pandemic from March 10 through Nov. 25. In the study, she and her co-authors found that 42.2 percent of women were the sole caretakers of children in the household; 8.7 percent of men said the same was true for them. As a result, in all industries across the country, women left the workforce to fulfill household responsibilities. According to to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the labor force participation rate for mothers with children under the age of 18 was 71.2 percent in 2020, down from 72.3 percent in 2019. Working mothers have also lost social support networks as a result of the pandemic, Zamarro said. 

“I think we have learned that these gender norms are still there,” she said. “If we don’t support families and provide infrastructure for childcare, then we will see parents, especially moms of younger children, leaving the labor force.”

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