Walking down bustling streets, I felt my attention pulled between the sweet smells drifting from scattered food trucks, the clamor of impatient car horns, the eye-catching window displays in every shop, and the endless line of buildings reaching up to greet the sky. New York City is a place filled to the brim with opportunities, shared by over 8 million people all marching to the beat of their own drum. Yet beneath it all, there is a unified, beating heart that keeps the city very much alive. There really is no place in the world quite like NYC.
I was lucky enough to travel to this captivating city a couple of weeks ago through a University of Michigan program called the Och Initiative for Women in Finance. When I was there, I got to experience a truly distinct aspect of New York’s culture: Wall Street. I visited 7 different firms and saw firsthand what it’s like to work in the finance industry.
Being a girl in business school, looking to start a career in a male-dominated field, it’s hard not to be intimidated by that infamous glass ceiling. However, on this trip, I got to pull back the curtain and meet so many incredibly talented and successful women dominating their industries and giving the Wall Street patriarchy a run for its money. Here are some of my main takeaways from speaking with these female executives on things young women should consider when starting their careers.
1) The world is changing, but not fast enough.
All of the companies I visited had some version of diversity recruiting or women’s networks. The professional world is changing to become a more inclusive one than it has been in the past. Morgan Stanley is one of the largest Wall Street banks, and according to Laura Norman, a private wealth manager at the firm, their last intern class was 50% women, and that’s definitely not something that happened 25 years ago. She claimed that this wasn’t about filling a quota. More firms are recognizing that women are qualified and motivated, and that they ultimately add to the bottom line. Even so, the disparity is still there. You still see fewer women rising up in the ranks, and the percentage of females in the C-suite hasn’t changed much in recent years. However, if you’re motivated enough, you can use this to your advantage. In business, finance, or any field with a lack of female representation, as a woman, you stand out. You think differently, and that’s a superpower that will make people remember you in the long run.
2) Be a decision-maker.
Nicole Sermier, a partner at Sculptor Capital Management, shared an interesting observation. She’s seen a trend of women continuously being pushed towards roles that seem more “female-friendly.” They’re pointed in the direction of equity research because they’re so “thoughtful” or towards sales because they’re so “friendly” or they take on less responsibility because they want more time at home. She gave an example from her time spent working at Lehman Brothers, where there were so few female traders. The skills associated with trading don’t necessarily fit the female archetype, despite the fact that trading is a job that offers hours more compatible with having a family. This same sentiment was echoed by female traders I met at the bank Barclays.
Her advice: Be mindful and don’t fall into this trap! You should try to be on the frontline as much as possible, and that means you want to be a decision-maker! These are the principal roles, the ones that will propel you forward in the future. Being a decision-maker gives you power, and puts you that much closer to breaking through that glass ceiling.
3) Forget the stigma of “having it all.” You can be successful in both your professional and personal life without making sacrifices.
Far too often, women are criticized for trying to “have it all,” which leads us to question whether it’s possible to have a successful career and a family. I’ve learned to throw this notion out entirely. It’s just a product of outdated, traditional thinking that restrains women from embracing all of the choices that we have available to us. All of the women I met in New York are incredibly successful, and all of them have a family and a fulfilling personal life outside of work. If your work-life balance isn’t what you want, you might be at the wrong place, because there are lots of companies out there that recognize the importance of your life outside the office. To name one, American Express offers 6 months paid maternity and paternity leave! Additionally, don’t shy away from taking on more responsibilities at work because you’re worried about losing time outside the office. The higher you rise, the more control you have over your own schedule.
4) You don’t need to know what you want right away. Your career can change.
Trying to navigate the professional world as a college student can be so overwhelming. So much focus is placed on getting that first job after graduation, and the breadth of opportunities is so wide that choosing just one function can feel impossible. But that first job is not the end of the line! So few of the top executives at these firms had a straight-line career path. Tara Swanson tried on so many different roles, from journalism to marketing to sales, before reaching her current position as Bloomberg’s Head of Analytics for the Americas. Her advice was that “your journey can change, and your life can change, and that’s okay.” Don’t worry if you don’t have it all figured out because you don’t have to. Not everything you do in college has to be career-focused because you will learn on the job. Instead, follow your passions. Embrace flexibility and mobility, and eventually, you will find a place where you can be truly successful.
5) Your career path should be a learning process.
Everywhere you work, you will learn something new about yourself and about the world around you. From big banks like Morgan Stanley or RBC to firms like Blackstone or American Express, the consensus was the same: you should be constantly learning. When choosing a place to work, you should go where you think you can learn the most, and this can take many forms. At Sculptor Capital Management, this was working in small teams and having accessible senior management. At Bloomberg, this was investing heavily in training. Consider this the next time you walk into a job interview or a networking situation. As nervous or as under qualified as you feel, show a genuine eagerness to learn, and you will make an impression.
6) Use your voice because your contributions are valuable.
Another common thread was the idea that people are an organization’s greatest asset. For example, at RBC, they placed a huge emphasis on relationship-building, and at American Express they emphasized employee benefits and work-life balance. Always remember that your work and your contributions are valuable, and make sure you choose a workplace that recognizes that. Not only that, but recognize it yourself! Nicole Sermier from Sculptor Capital Management explained that you should have confidence in your own brainpower. If you feel intimidated, remind yourself, “I am smart” and speak up when you have ideas. Never lie about understanding something when you don’t. Instead, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to own your voice because it is more impactful than you know.
These insights apply far beyond the world of finance, so be mindful of them when making your decisions. No matter what job you end up doing, if you are motivated and passionate about your work, you will rise. There are lots of ways to be successful, and there’s plenty of room at the top. Let’s give this glass ceiling a fight.