How subtle forms of sexism in financial services led to recent City scandals – what research shows

When I first worked in the City of London, a few years out of university, a company-appointed “style consultant” suggested I would be taken more seriously as a female professional if I wore more make-up and exchanged my trousers for skirt suits.

At the time, I was under the naïve impression that workplace sexism was more or less a thing of the past. But I soon found out I was wrong and this conversation served as an early red flag.

That was 20 years ago. And while the financial and professional service industries have changed for the better, they may not have changed enough.

A parliamentary committee has been tasked with renewing an inquiry into sexism in the City of London following claims of sexual misconduct against hedge fund leader, Crispin Odey, which he has denied. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has also recently launched an investigation into similar claims and has announced an overhaul focused on company culture.

Scandals like these matter, of course, most obviously to the women directly affected by them. But such relatively high profile incidents may only represent the tip of the iceberg. There are many more subtle, underlying forms of sexism that pervade the Square Mile and beyond. These forms often lay the foundation for the larger scandals that erupt less frequently.

A man’s world

Men still dominate the most senior and highly paid positions in financial services. The 2021 Women in Finance Charter Annual Review reported 32% female representation in senior management on average among charter participants, which includes many top banking and finance firms. This is an increase of less than 1 percentage point each year since 2017.

Superior status and pay offer men more power and evidence shows that related abuses and sexual harassment are considerably more likely as a result. Factors contributing to this situation are complex and rooted in history. The City has always been male-dominated. Men (typically white, often from middle-class backgrounds) and the versions of masculinity associated with this picture are seen as “the norm” in the financial services industry.

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As American academic Karen Ashcraft points out, in organisations and occupations made by and for men, it is hardly surprising that they continue to enjoy advantages and privileges; they are seen as the “natural fit”. This creates a catch-22: sexist cultures flourish where women are under-represented in positions of power, which is in turn partly due to sexist cultures.

Of course, women can and do compete successfully within these environments. But this often requires them to behave in ways more traditionally associated with men: demonstrating ambition above all else, “total commitment” and, most importantly perhaps, working very long hours.

One of the first academics to explore these tensions, Linda McDowell, who researches work and employment issues, described how the City runs on deeply embedded masculinised assumptions. She reported one female banker as making the following point in the early 1990s: “You have to be one of the boys to get on here.”

In 2020, one of my own research participants, a female financier with many years’ experience, made a similar point:

Overt sexism is probably less common now but success is still based on more of a male model … linear careers, no breaks, long hours.

Of course, suggesting this is problematic could seem sexist in itself by implying that men and women are, in some essential sense, different from each other. This notion was debunked by second-wave feminists who pointed out that most assumed differences between the sexes are the result of socially constructed gender stereotypes.

While often accused of a relatively exclusive form of feminism, centred on privileged white women, they argued this kind of thinking offers a useful justification for women’s lesser position.

On the other hand, feminist scholars and writers have underlined that difference does matter when it comes to biology, as the historical basis for women’s oppression. This is why challenging men’s dominant position requires substantive rather than superficial adjustments to the way society and its organisations are run.

Strengthening diversity and inclusion initiatives

Some related ideas have been enshrined in legislation in areas such as maternity, but diversity and inclusion agendas implemented by City firms since around the turn of this century are quite poorly equipped to address the challenge of making these substantive changes.

As my own research shows, women’s under-representation at senior levels is often attributed to “unconscious bias” on the part of managers. Attention is directed at “de-biasing” individuals through training, with less focus on the underlying systems and structures, which tend to advantage men.

The move towards more flexible work does represent a more structural response. But, where a culture of long hours persists, adopting alternative working patterns might be frowned upon – “success” at work continues to depend on assimilation to dominant norms.

When employers encourage long working hours.

The key problem here is that adjustments are made within existing systems rather than to the system itself. And, arguably, the most important system to address is our current model of capitalism.

The UK has adopted a relatively extreme form of capitalism, and financial and professional service firms have helped drive that through the financialisation of our economy. This aggressive pursuit of profit can be associated with individualistic, competitive and often quite toxic cultures, which can be hostile to both women and men.

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This is an unstable platform from which to address questions of sexism and discrimination. Instead, the latest parliamentary inquiry and City leaders should start by acknowledging that high-profile examples of poor behaviour are not necessarily an unexpected aberration from “business as usual”. More likely, they result from cultures where men (and particular versions of masculinity) remain dominant.

Actions in response should tackle the way certain groups or types of people and their way of working dominates financial services. But this will require a more radical approach that addresses the root causes of sexism and inequality, rather than tinkering around the edges of the problem.

by : Louise Ashley, Senior Lecturer in Sociology of Work, Queen Mary University of London

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