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At the Top

An uphill battle for diversity Add to ...

Martha Fell once ran a trading and sales desk on Bay Street. Now she speaks for more than 700 members of Women in Capital Markets, a mentoring, training and advocacy group for investment career women - many of whom feel blunted in their career aspirations. As CEO, she works with a constituency highly focused on downtown Toronto, but WCM's message resonates in other industries and regions, including Quebec, where it has ties to the Association of Quebec Women in Finance.

You released a report by the research group Catalyst that shows women in your industry have made no gains.

The 2008 study, that we released in June, did not show any significant improvement. We were still sitting at a flat-line 17 per cent of women in line positions, as against when we started measuring it in 2000.

Have you figured out why?

There really isn't a single factor. That's the sad reality. It's a combination of things.

But when we released the report, we had a room full of the top CEOs from the investment industry, and wealth management and asset management firms, listening to a pretty harsh message. They were all there because they believed in the business case, and they know we need to see change.

So the problem is a lack of alignment between the people at the top and in the trenches?

That is where one of the solutions lies. The business case for diversity is pretty well known across any executive group, any boardroom. The difficulty is: Does everyone understand the case for diversity in line management positions all the way down? They are the ones doing the hiring, firing, promoting and recruiting.

If they are not familiar with the profitability and other benefits that can be achieved by increasing diversity in the work force, how does that influence how they make business decisions today - as compared with 10 years ago?

Is the financial industry different than any others?

Probably not, although some industries have made better headway. The banking industry actually has done a bit better but you are looking at a much bigger pool of employees and some very traditional female roles in the broader retail banking sector. Communications and legal firms are other areas where there is concern about the lack of women being recruited and advanced.

I can't believe companies would just shoot themselves in the foot.

Can you imagine if a CEO or line manager knew they were investing time and money in a new product and over eight years saw no increase in sales? What would happen to that? And if every CEO looked at the amount of money and effort, from their human resources division down to training and development, being poured into diversity with no demonstrable change, it would raise eyebrows.

Aren't you a former trader, who worked in a macho culture?

I think trading floors get a bit of a bad rap. I was on a sales and trading floor for 15 years. I was in a bond department and I actually ran a sales and trading group for seven or eight of those years. Half my team were women.

So what happened to the image of traders as cigar-chomping, overweight men with three-martini habits?

Most of today's trading floors are the same sea of people in a place that looks like a football field, and they all have four monitors in front of them and headsets and telephones. But many women are finding great careers in those segments because they offer flexibility.

You start ridiculously early and by 5 p.m., you're gone. In other traditional roles in investment banking, you might start a little later but you may be working well into the late hours. No, there are very few cigars on the trading floor and three-martini lunches, I think, don't exist for the most part.

So why did you leave?

I added to the very statistics I try to fight, which stands against me. I talk a lot to women, whether in early or late stages of careers, about having to feel empowered that they have choices available. Many people say that sounds like a choice between work and life balance, but that's not all it's about.

Women need to know that, if they haven't been offered choices at different stages of their career, they have to ask for them. They might be able to help model some of the cultural changes we need to see to ensure that the strong talent, male or female, gets a chance to advance when faced with adversity.

I made a choice and I made a good choice. I left the firm I had been at for 15 years, I opened a brand new chapter, and now I get out of bed every morning very passionate about what I do.

Was this a way to get more time as a mother?

It was and it wasn't. It hasn't changed my relationship with my children or the amount of time and focus on them. It does afford me some flexibility because I am self-employed. But it was not that choice. I just needed to close that chapter.

So there are fewer cigars and three martini-lunches but we do have a lot of male bonding that women are not part of.

Bonding and informal networking are a very big issue. Male bonding happens on and off the trading floor.

We knew from the first Catalyst study that the three things we need to focus on are: Increased access to mentors; role models; and increases in informal networking opportunities. In terms of networking, it needs to happen in organizations during the day and we need to look to create environments where women want to network.

If it isn't with a cigar or in a bar - although maybe it is - we need to create those chances. There wasn't a natural opportunity in these firms, with such small pools of women.

So WCM has a big advantage over one single dealer that tries to create its own internal networks: We offer the bench strength of women across Bay Street when they come to network at our events.

In your early career, did you work with a female role model?

Several. When I first joined the trading floor my boss was a woman and her boss was a woman. It was unusual. My mom was a great role model too - she worked in banking.

The financial industry is in upheaval. Is it tougher for women now?

You're right; it is difficult. I looked at a couple of lists of members who were recently made unemployed and they looked very long. That was disturbing. I want to be able to help those young women to get back on track with their careers.

But I look at the media attention about 'What would have happened if it had been Lehman Sisters?' - or 'What's happening internationally where women are leading change through this difficult time?' While I don't necessarily see this as the right focus, it does bring attention to the issue and forces it to the table.

All those executives blamed for the crisis - the Fulds, Thains, Caynes - have been, in fact, guys.

The stats would reflect that. Women were not there and it is hard to know what would be different.

Perhaps less risk?

Possibly. There are bits and pieces of research done over the past decade, and in the past year, that might suggest women are more risk-averse, or make different decisions or bring diversity to the table to produce different outcomes. It is very hard to know.

Will you go back to the financial services industry?

I don't see myself as ever having left. I still spend all my time in the towers and talking to executives. I just work with them in a different capacity.

What is the one thing you would do if you ran one of these organizations?

I would ensure that every member of my management team who had the capacity to hire, promote and fire understood the business case for diversity.

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