Among the female executives I meet, one of the issues that aggravates them most on their career journey is being treated differently than male colleagues. Perhaps it’s because, after gaining the same education, skills and experience as the men, these women still encounter different standards and treatment than men do - and it can create frustrating barriers to advancement.
This theme came out loud and clear during my recent conversation with Liz Field, Chief Executive of PIMFA, the Personal Investment Management and Financial Advice Association in the UK. What stands out to me is that, while Liz can list repeated incidents of unacceptable behavior from the early days of her career to the recent past, she has developed a strategy to call out – and overcome – this behavior when it occurs.
Interestingly, Liz told me that her earliest experience in the financial industry, as a junior employee in a male-dominated association of insurance brokers, was a positive, less-biased experience. She remembers that, “The guys took me under their wing and showed me the ropes. Even though the job included working lunches that ended in the bar or golf course, I was treated as one of the lads and I didn’t feel I was treated differently.”
Things changed later, however, when Liz was promoted to the role of ‘Acting CEO.’ Recalling that it took a year for the board to decide to give her the permanent title, Liz notes that, “My male colleagues were actually the ones who criticized the organization for not giving me the proper title sooner. I think that if a man had been in that position, they possibly would have been given the role right away or a lot sooner.”
Liz continued to face ‘gaps’ in treatment over the years. For example, she was asked during a job interview how she, as a woman, would cope with a position that was based in London, far from her home and school-age children. Most infuriating for Liz, the interviewer was a woman, who she felt would never dare ask a male candidate such a question.
Back then, Liz dealt with these incidents quietly, knowing that she had little recourse at the time. Describing herself as a ‘determined person,’ she simply told herself that, “I’ll show them I can do this,” or “I’ll just carry on and get on with it.”
But today Liz takes a more direct – although controlled – approach to ‘calling out’ this sort of behavior. Admitting that it’s tempting to get angry and respond defensively to inappropriate treatment, she advises women to take a calmer, strategic approach.
Liz says she applies her psychology training to see things through the eyes of the other person and understand why they are acting in this way. This will help her determine if a simple, humorous rebuttal is called for when an off-color comment is made or if she needs to respond more strongly.
She often takes a two-step response, by which she will first try to calmly and factually address the incident in the moment, pointing out to the individual why their behavior was inappropriate. However, if she feels that her comment won’t be impactful, or the behavior continues, she will take another approach later, possibly by speaking with the person one-on-one, or sending an email to address inappropriate group behavior.
Liz adds that it’s okay to escalate the issue when you can’t resolve it on your own. She notes that, “Some years ago, I faced really belittling and bullying behavior from a group and I involved our chairman because I knew I had to involve others. My main advice is, whether you decide to push back and roll over the offenders yourself or involve others, you need to stay calm and be factual when you call it out.”
While it can feel deflating to hear that unacceptable behavior continues in the financial services workplace including exclusionary tactics – my conversation with Liz left me feeling very positive about women’s ability to conquer such issues. With determination, intelligence and confidence – to either challenge poor behavior yourself or call on others for help – women can change behaviors, improve corporate cultures, and not let gender bias stop their rise to the top.