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The women in finance who say diversity initiatives are gaslighting them

Financial services firms are going all out to hire women. Most have targets both for hiring women as juniors and for retaining them and promoting them through the ranks. But not all women agree with their techniques.

In a newly published study*, academics at Copenhagen Business School conducted 60 interviews over a 12-year period with people working for the city's largest accounting, auditing, and consulting firms. Interviewees varied in seniority from new graduate hires to senior managers and partners. 30% were women. And none of them felt that programs to promote diversity and work-life balance for female hires were beneficial to their careers.

Instead, by the end of the 12 year-period, the researchers found that all the women they interviewed had left the companies they worked for, and that all but one of them had left before making partner. Well-meaning diversity initiatives were partly to blame.

One 28-year-old accountant, Elisabeth, said she was ambitious and didn't mind working weekends, but that her male division manager encouraged her to say no to weekend work and to "take it easy." Instead of aiming to score top grades in evaluations like male colleagues, Elisabeth was told to consider average grades acceptable and that she had plenty of time to get ahead in her career. In fact, Elisabeth was well aware that she couldn't take it easy because she both wanted children and needed to make partner before she was 40 (given that almost no one older got promoted). While it was considered "natural and normal" for her male colleagues to work long hours, Elisabeth was told to "take care of herself" instead. 

Another interviewee, 29-year-old Julia, had been working as an accountant in New York City and wanted to start a family. However, she'd noticed that what her firm said about diversity was very different to the reality. While partners were encouraging her to have children and said they'd support her in that, the only senior woman with children Julia knew at the firm had a terrible lifestyle. - In theory, the senior woman only worked 60% of the time; in reality she was working at midnight every day once the children were asleep. The 'mommy track' was not an easy option.

39-year-old Anna, a manager with two children, had a similar observation. Following her second maternity leave, Anna said she'd been encouraged to come back to work for 30 hours a week and had ended up working 40-50 hours a week without getting paid for that, "so coming back on reduced time was kind of pointless." Simultaneously, she was expected to be responsible for women's initiatives at the firm, which also ate into her week. When it came to partner promotions, a male colleague she'd been working alongside for years was promoted instead.

Because men were not stigmatized for working long hours, another interviewee, 32-year-old Helen with one child, said they worked more and were promoted more quickly. Women were encouraged to work less hard, but then found it harder to make partner because their male colleagues had filled all the promotion slots. 

The fundamental problem, said the researchers, was the discrepancy between what the professionals services firms said was important, and what was actually important when it came to deciding who to promote. On one hand, leadership encouraged women not to overwork, but on the other they were running an "aggressive up-or-out culture" that "meticulously kept track of their [women's] shortcomings by continuing to compare them to those who worked uninterruptedly."

Ultimately, the academics said the women in the study were being gaslighted into giving up the chance to make partner. By framing women as fragile employees in need of caring initiatives, female stereotypes were perpetuated rather than broken down. However well-meaning, diversity programs were simply manipulating women's sense of reality, persuading them to work less and leading to stagnant careers.

*Work-life balance as gaslighting: Exploring repressive care in female accountants’ careers

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
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  • Ch
    Christine Houston
    7 July 2022

    When I was on the Advisory Board of Catalyst in NY in the mid-90’s, professional services firms were the biggest challenge for women. It is sad that nearly 30 years later, it is still the same but not for the same reason. Women in the US working in these firms are not told to “take it easy”; it’s a laughable idea that any male business leader in one of these firms in the US would say that.

    The issue is, and always has been, that there is basically a contest within firms to see who can work the most hours. And frankly, most of these firms DO NOT care if women leave. It makes no difference to them or to most of their clients if the work is done by a man or a woman.

    So, the professional services firms hire lots of young women, talk about diversity but the realities of biology come into play and many women feel they can’t put off motherhood in order to make partner. So, they leave and the partners shrug and say, “Well, they had as much opportunity as John or Steve”.

    The point is that the model to become a partner has not changed in 50 years and the reason for this is that the leadership of these firms are largely male.

  • An
    Anonymous
    26 June 2022

    Not all men agree with these discriminatory techniques either.

  • An
    Anonymous
    23 June 2022

    I'm not sure diversity initiatives are well intentioned.

  • An
    Anonymous
    23 June 2022

    The best person for the job should be hired, regardless of gender.

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