“If I act like a man, I’m seen as whiny.” Women's image problem in investment banking

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Women working in investment banking or management consulting are facing an image problem. Acting like a man in a male-dominated industry doesn’t work, but displaying typically feminine qualities is seen as too ‘timid’ to progress. The result? Career stagnation.

At least this is the conclusion of a new piece of academic research by INSEAD academics Hermina Ibarra and Jennifer Petriglieri, which suggests that the paucity of senior female leaders in the industry could be down – in part at least – to women adopting ‘passive image strategies’.

“A good job is expected. To be on the superstar track you have to be outspoken, brash, self-promoting. The self-promotion factor does women in,” said one male investment banker who was interviewed as part of the study.

Men in banking view successful client interaction as being “political and stylistic”, while women are more likely focus on technical competence. This, combined with ‘second generation bias’ – and simply the fact there are more male clients – means men are more likely to gain clients' confidence quickly. And this is key to progressing.

“I can’t be 6’3”, handsome, with a firm handshake. But that’s the image people have when they think of power and influence. When people meet me, they don’t immediately think ‘this person’s a star’. I think gender has a lot to do with it,” said one female investment banker

In theory, the solution is simple – act in a similar fashion to male counterparts and win the confidence of clients. This is a technique that senior female investment bankers have complained about in the past. There’s just one problem – it doesn’t work.

“Men are seen as aggressive or thoughtful while for women the same behaviour is seen as whiny,” said one female investment banker. “I have to watch my words. I’m afraid to seem too whiny and aggressive whereas a man would be seen as fighting the battle. Will I be viewed as too aggressive if I ask for additional resources or kill myself on deals?”

Women generally seek out longer-term assignments, where they can sufficiently research the client and therefore display enough technical expertise to impress over time. Men go for brief meetings where off-the-cuff comments and aggressive tactics are sufficient to convince clients that they’re someone to be trusted.

Women in these industries are often fearful of aping male behaviour and, as a result, attaining a senior role represented an “impossible self” that could “neither be attained, nor granted if claimed”.

If this all sounds predictably bleak, it’s worth noting that diversity in corporations more generally led to women in banking getting recognised for the qualities and skills they possess. The solution, therefore, is 'just' better representation for women across all industries.

“What turned my career around was that I got two accounts where the CFO was a woman. They demanded that I be there at the meetings. When they called, I was the one they wanted to talk to. That's critical – having a client who loves you, when you're the one who gets the phone calls,” said another female investment banker.

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