Looking bank, Denise admits that her appointment as the first female chairperson of the financial markets industry association is one of her proudest achievements: “To be appointed by my male colleagues as the first woman to represent them in the markets, that was really nice.”
However, it was also the culmination of a long struggle for Denise, who confided to me that, “To be honest, men ignored me many times along my career, as if I was not even there.”
She describes how, during her early years as an investment banking analyst her colleagues ignored her answers to problems. And, minutes later, when a man offered the same solution, they acted like she had never said anything. “They were not ready for a woman in their midst, and they wanted to devalue me,” recalls Denise, who adds that, “I didn’t let them put me down and I always told myself that my major competitor was myself.”
Unfortunately, this treatment persisted, including when Denise returned to school to add a law degree to her economist credentials and she noticed how, “The male professors just ignored my answers.”
Even later, when she became the head of investment banking at her firm, she received a cool client response: “I remember attending an M&A meeting with an auto industry executive and he just ignored me. When my colleague explained that I was actually the boss, the executive looked at me like I was ET, some alien from another world.”
“You know, that’s part of life,” Denise replied modestly when I asked how she endured such treatment. However, she also explains that, “I always thought it was funny, and it made me challenge myself rather than become depressed. I said ‘Okay, I’ll show them that I deserve to be here’, and that’s what I did my entire life.”
While Denise notes that her clients sooner or later accepted her as their advisor – and some became friends – she still faced bias from certain supervisors. While she compliments a number of her past managers for treating her fairly, with no pre-conceived notions against women, she still had to speak up to earn advancement opportunities. For example, she told me how she challenged one former boss when she saw that less qualified males were promoted instead of her. “I went to him and said, ‘Why was I not appointed instead of that guy? Tell me what I am missing and what I must do to be considered?’”
Denise’s persistence paid off. Although her boss had no concrete answers to her questions, he agreed to match her with an executive coach, who soon reported that Denise was definitely ‘ready’ for the next promotion. She also notes that she’s had a number of very supportive managers over the years who treated her fairly even.