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The finance sector is struggling to purge its toxic culture, as women report they are still encountering sexism, bullying and microaggressions in the workplace.

A survey by Financial News ahead of International Women’s Day has revealed things have not improved for women in finance, with 60% saying the “old boys’ club” is the number one reason preventing female professionals from getting ahead.

Many of the respondents, who work in investment banking, asset management, professional services, trading and consultancies, told FN they are frequently the only senior woman in the room and said they are regularly cut off during meetings, accused of being “emotional” by their male colleagues and are forced to put up with “laddish” behaviour.

A senior woman working at a City law firm said she has experienced “constant microaggressions” and sometimes “outright aggressions”, from being expected by clients to take food and drink orders to being called ‘love’ and ‘sweetheart’ and hearing colleagues make derogatory comments about other women in the team.

“There are still pockets of men who think it is 1960 and behave accordingly. To be successful you have to be as close to a white heterosexual male as possible,” she said.

“I’ve been asked by clients if I like spanking, been told I’d be raped, and [have been] expected to laugh it off,” one respondent told FN, adding that sexism and related abuse are “standard” in the industry, “especially in the trading world”.

“Many companies say they don’t accept such behaviour, but in reality little is done to put that into practice,” they said.

READ Jupiter, Bridgepoint, IG miss targets for women on boards

The industry has invested heavily in diversity and inclusion efforts in recent years in order to attract and retain female talent and boost the number of women in senior leadership roles.

But these initiatives have fallen flat, according to the 61 women FN polled, many who said firms are paying “lip service” to D&I and treating it like a “tick-box exercise”. 

“Just look at the CEO and the directs. No women,” a woman who works in investment banking said.

The industry “doesn’t walk the talk”, another woman in banking said. “It wants diversity, but doesn’t create leadership structures and ways of working that support this.”

The Financial Conduct Authority is cracking down on sexual harassment and launched a probe into non-financial misconduct this year, following a string of high-profile scandals in the industry. Hedge fund magnate Crispin Odey was last year accused by multiple women of harassment and sexual abuse, which he strenuously denied, while senior figures at the Confederation of British Industry have been hit by similar allegations.

Meanwhile, the Treasury Committee has launched its own investigation into sexism in the City to examine the barriers faced by women in financial services and what role government and regulators can play in tackling sexual harassment and misogyny.

D&I backlash

Investment banks have been slammed in particular for featuring few women in their upper echelons, with FN last year revealing the dearth of female dealmakers. Forty percent of those who responded to FN‘s survey work in the sector.

But respondents across the board pointed to the sluggish progress of getting more women into top jobs.

“Firms want diversity, but they do not deal with the inclusion factor,” a woman who works for an asset manager said. “As International Women’s Day comes around, the business wants to profile women in our business externally, but then go on radio silence a month later when we publish our gender pay gap.”

One respondent who works for an accounting firm said D&I is championed “on paper”, but it “has caused extreme defensiveness in male senior leaders, which discourages openness”.

“Lots of references to ‘promotion just because you are a female’ but also ‘where are the initiatives for white males?’,” they added.

Nearly one fifth of people FN polled said they were extremely worried there could be a backlash against D&I efforts.

READ Rothschild, HSBC worst pay gap offenders as women earn nearly half what men do

Double standards on family leave

Unwillingness to offer flexible working arrangements and “punishing” women for taking career breaks to start a family were repeatedly cited as major stumbling blocks hampering female professionals in the City.

Women complained of a double standard when it comes to taking time off to raise children.

“There are assumptions that women with families can’t be ambitious,” a woman who works in asset management said.

“Whereas the men with the same families are ‘setting boundaries’ when leaving at certain times and can still be groomed for promotions.”

READ Au pairs, housekeepers and house husbands — how senior women ‘made it work’

These concerns were echoed by a male respondent who took six months’ shared parental leave that was “mostly unpaid” for both of his children.

“On my return… it was made very clear to me that I had probably career-fouled myself by taking that time,” he said.

‘Hands on the back. Eyes looking at breasts’

Sexual harassment, including unwanted and inappropriate touching, is still occurring in the industry FN’s findings show, despite repeated promises to remove bad apples from the system.

“Men being in too close proximity to me. Hands on the back. Eyes looking at breasts,” one female respondent said, describing the behaviour she has experienced in less than a decade in the industry.

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Kristen McGachey

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