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Women work in compliance, men work in trading

It's long been a cliché that if you look around the trading floor of an investment bank, you'll see a lot more men than women - in trading roles, at least. However, if you look at the compliance function that polices the traders, women are typically far more populous. 

A report from strategy firm Oliver Wyman identifies compliance as one of the roles where women have gained ground in recent years. On average, it says women now account for 34% of the compliance function in finance firms - up eight percentage points on 2016, although still behind HR where they account for 58%.

At some banks the proportion of women in compliance is higher than men. The former head of EMEA compliance at one U.S. investment bank, says his team was 54% women two years ago. "We had a brilliant, and very diverse team," he reflects.

What draws women to compliance jobs? One female compliance advisory professional who's worked in banks and hedge funds suggests it's partly a reflection of compliance's lack of status and partly because male traders and managers find women less threatening. "The front office still regards compliance as secretarial-type work, involving record-keeping, thematic reviews and report writing, so recruitment is biased towards women who studied humanities," she says. "Plus women are less prone to challenging senior managers, who are mostly men."

She notes, however, that many of the senior compliance professionals in banks are men - but that the mid-ranking and junior roles are typically held by women.

The (male) ex-head of compliance offers an alternative appraisal of the situation. "We always struggled to hire women into trading because they seemed less comfortable than men when making decisions based upon incomplete information," he says.

By comparison, he says women often excelled in compliance because: "They are good empathizers, listeners and communicators."

Decisive women on the trading floor might take strong exception to these assertions. However, he says there's another reason compliance tends to attract women: the hours are more congenial than the alternatives. "I hired a lot of excellent females who went into law and bluntly found it quite tricky," he suggests. "When you're on a transaction you're expected to work nights and weekends. In compliance I could offer them the work-life balance they desired..." 

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Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash


AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Br
    23 October 2020

    Hey efinancialcareers - why do you run articles like this? The attempt to present a balanced view of both sides just validates the biased attitudes that, among other things, keep women out of these roles.

    It would be more helpful to hear from women and underrepresented groups directly, not just describing the challenges they face, but practical solutions for them.

    FWIW, also, traders tend to knock off work relatively early (vs investment bankers) in my experience ... early enough to pick up the kids and make dinner, with fewer lost weekends. I was always curious about why there weren’t more women on the trading floor, given what, in my perception, was a more manageable work / life balance (vs other revenue-generating roles in a bank). It would be good to hear from the women on the floor themselves.

  • To
    22 October 2020

    Despite united pressure across the media, education system, and corporate complex, women still seem to stubbornly prefer roles that are more relational than analytical, and let them have evenings, weekends, and holidays to do things like marry and raise a family.

    Even in feminist paradise Sweden, after billions spent over decades, and every affirmative action program in the world, nursing is 95% female. Should we respect their revealed preference, or double down on trying to correct it?

  • Th
    The Hunter
    22 October 2020

    I suspect another big reason is the following: banks have been desperate to jump on the diversity band wagon and push to increase numbers of female staff, but in revenue-generating roles, performance is more important than gender. Female graduates are more likely to have studied humanities and be less interested in finance and economics; hence they naturally fill the roles where their performance cannot be monetarily quantified as easily, and where their performance is not crucial to the bank, e.g. HR, compliance, back office.

  • An
    22 October 2020

    This would really need to break down the data by bank to have more meaning. Some banks have a lot of men in compliance and a lot of women in trading. There are probably more senior women in risk and compliance than there are men - many banks have consciously put women in senior roles here, and men are more likely to be stuck at the mid-level.

    Its true that HR is clearly mostly female, generally more than 58%, and almost all EMEA heads of HR are female. Mediation type roles and roles which involve investigating claims of sexual harassment or conflicts between male and female colleagues are almost exclusively filled by women.

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