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Anita Raghavan: Women’s chances of promotion? Depends on the country

A woman in Scandinavia, Canada and even Russia stands a better chance of rising to the top ranks of a financial services company than a woman in the US.

That is one of the conclusions of a five-year global study of women in financial services that the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman published on Thursday. The study is based on a survey of 150 financial services firms globally and on interviews with more than 1,000 current and potential financial services employees from five countries.

The most surprising aspect of the study is the exuberant picture of corporate life painted by women in financial services in Russia.

“If a woman is willing to build her career, she can do it,” Bella Zlatkis, the deputy chairwoman of Russia’s Sberbank, told the authors of the study. “There is no glass ceiling in Russia.”

The glowing reports of business life for women at Russian financial services firms may be a function of Russians’ reluctance to say anything negative. But the study offers some statistics to back up those appraisals.

Women account for 20 per cent of the members of the executive committees of major Russian financial companies. In the US, by contrast, women represent 16 per cent of the members of executive committees at large financial firms and, in Britain, they account for only 12 per cent, according to Oliver Wyman.

The challenge that women in the US face is moving from middle management to the senior levels of financial firms. There are more women than men at junior levels of financial services firms. And a junior female employee in financial services stands about the same chance as a man in reaching middle management.

But a woman in financial services has less of a chance to progress from that point than in any other industry in the US. According to Oliver Wyman, a woman in financial services is less than half as likely as a man to move from a mid-level position to a senior position.

Norway, Sweden and Canada were the only three countries to surpass Russia in the representation of women on financial firms’ executive committees.

The prominent role that women hold at the top echelons of financial firms in Scandinavian countries is not surprising. For a long time, women in countries like Norway and Sweden have enjoyed family-friendly policies that encourage them to remain in the workplace after they have children. In addition, legislation has helped women advance in some nations. In 2003, for instance, Norway became the first country in Europe to enact a law mandating that 40 per cent of supervisory board members at publicly traded companies be women. Last month, Germany passed a similar law requiring that 30 per cent of supervisory board positions at the nation’s biggest companies be held by women starting in 2016.

In Canada, new rules like the Ontario Securities Commission’s “comply or explain” policy, which officially goes into effect at the end of the year and will cover more than 1,000 companies, is already changing behaviour. The rule will require companies to reveal the number of women on their boards, executive committees and in their workforce.

Russian women don’t owe their advancement to legislative changes. Instead, women there have benefited from the legacy of a drive by the former Soviet Union to promote female participation in the work force. That push meant that Russian women in the early 20th century began working in industries that were still considered male bastions in the West, Oliver Wyman noted.

In addition, commercial banking in the West has a long tradition as a profession dominated by white men in pinstriped suits. But in Russia, it is a new business. “Russian women confront no tradition of male commercial banking, if only because there is no tradition at all,” the authors of the report said.


The writer is the author of “The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund”
© 2014 The New York Times

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