Lost Generation: Young Women Flee Finance

By kyle stock

When Mary Barneby started working at Merrill Lynch in 1974, her thinking about babies and work-life balance was clear: she assumed she was not going to have either.

She was wrong. But that sort of dedication helped Barneby, 58, and a wave of women like her break into finance in the 1970s and 1980s and make a career of it. Call them the bank boomers, if you like.

Young women entering the working world in the 21st century, however, have not been as interested in or as dedicated to Wall Street.

Between 2001 and 2010, the number of women over the age of 55 in finance fields -- everything from trading to retail banking -- rose by 296,000, or 45.2%. This reflects the waves of women who joined the industry 30 years ago and stayed.

However, in the same period, the number of women between the ages of 20 and 34 working in the finance industry actually dropped -- by 394,000, or 20.6%, according to a FINS.com analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Younger women either left the field or fewer chose to go into the business at all -- or both.

The decline in young female workers has happened in a decade when the ranks of young men fell by just 0.9% and banks and brokerages staged unprecedented efforts to attract and retain women. As one reflection of such measures, sexual harassment suits in the finance industry have declined steadily in recent years, according to data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Mission Accomplished?

Some senior women on Wall Street, however, have a few theories about what's happening: Most notably, they said women hitting the workforce in the 21st-century aren't driven by the same sense of purpose that their generation had -- the mission of breaking into the boys' club.

Barneby, for example, got her MBA at night and got to know her local FedEx person very well during her "maternity leave;" he delivered stacks of work documents several times a week. Today, she runs UBS's private-wealth office in Stamford, Conn.

"There were so few of us back in the day, we felt this need to sort of lead the way," Barneby said. "Maybe women today don't feel that they need to be pioneers like that."

Wall Street still hasn't been able to offer much in the way of work-life balance, according to Betty Spence, president of The National Association of Female Executives, a division of Working Mother Media.

"I hear it everywhere I go," Spence said. "And the firms who have some sort of program on the books, don't necessarily do it right."

Long hours are nothing new on Wall Street, but today's workers -- both men and women -- are emboldened to ask for more flexibility.

Consider 28-year-old Shauna Mei, a self-described "Tiger daughter" who went from a childhood in Mongolia to Goldman Sachs, via a computer science program at MIT and a series of internships at Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley. Mei quit Goldman Sachs after 13 months to help launch a luxury brand marketing company in Sweden. Today, she runs AHAlife, a membership-based online store for small-batch luxury products.

"I thought I would have a better chance of succeeding without killing myself in the fashion industry," she said. "I know myself. I would have just been the one who worked all the time and did whatever it took to beat the boys."

Joan Shapiro Green, a managing director at Bankers Trust and later president of BT Brokerage, a division of Deutsche Bank, was always "startled" by the lack of female coworkers. When her two children came along, Green, now 66, considered working and not working -- nothing in between. Both times she took a very short maternity leave.

"You just had to work hard and do your thing and you were frankly happy you had the opportunity," she said. "Now, younger women are starting with the assumption that 'Hey, I want to have a life.'"

Make Them Believe

About five years ago, a wave of women left American Express to have children, according to Susan Sobbott, president of OPEN, the company's small-business division. Sobbott's attempts to keep them on as part-time employees were rebuffed.

"Two things were happening," she explained. "They had already made up their minds long before I approached them. And they didn't believe me; they didn't believe they could manage their work and life as a new mother."

Today, American Express is making more of an effort to attract young women through a project resource team Sobbott helped set up in which employees who need a flexible or light schedule are matched with focused assignments.

Ironically, much of the project-based work involves women coming back from maternity leave filling in for women starting maternity leave.

"It's not about keeping 10 people," Sobbott said. "It's about the impact of the other 500 people who see that we are accommodating...and then know that they have options."

It is harder, however, for Wall Street firms to fix the relative dearth of women in senior roles -- a ratio that has no doubt put off some of the brightest and most ambitious female graduates in recent years. And the finance industry has some of the economy's biggest pay gaps between women and men.

"The culture is still very tough," Green said. "There is still an old boys' network and if a guy has a choice to help somebody, it's going to be the guy he drinks with and plays golf with."

Meanwhile, the wave of senior women bankers approaches retirement. They are concerned that the share of women on Wall Street, which they worked so hard to increase, will backslide once again.

Write to Kyle Stock

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