Sex in the City may be gone from our screens, but sexism in the City is as rife as ever. The latest figures, collated in a damning report by the Financial Times, show that only 19.5% of senior roles across top City employers are held by women, including only a paltry 16% of managing director posts at City banks.
Other surveys have reached similar conclusions. Three months ago, the World Economic Forum reported that the gap between men and women’s pay has widened so much that the UK has dropped out of the top 20 countries in the world for gender equality. Meanwhile, a study published last year by women’s lobby group Opportunity Now found that men and women are equally likely to be top earners at the age of 29, but once a woman enters her 30s pay packets differ dramatically: only 28% of top earners aged 43, it found, are women.
Why is this? City banks claim they are doing all they can to attract and promote their female workers, with women’s networks and in-house mentoring programmes typically available to most new female recruits. Many firms also offer enhanced maternity packages that most working mothers can only dream of, with Citigroup, PwC and Deloitte leading the way in encouraging employees to share parental leave when the new rules come into force in April.
The problem for firms, however, says City worker Attia Akhtar, is that – because sexist attitudes are still so common among employees – there’s a sense that companies are only encouraging women into the workplace to “show face”.
“From the outside, they all come across like diverse companies where there is a lot of opportunity for women. But when you’re actually inside, it’s very different. Because you’re a woman, you can be seen as unreliable and unable to cope with the pressure.” One male colleague she worked with, she says, refused to train her properly; when she called him up on it, Akhtar was told it was because she was “probably going to leave anyway”.
“I told him he wasn’t going to be able to push me out and that he could either train me or I would keep shouting louder than he could that I needed help. I became known as the bitch in the office, I was so defensive – nobody knew I was going home and crying every night.”
To try to combat this, some companies – such as the Bank of England, Lloyds and Barclays – have set themselves targets to increase the proportion of female managers they employ over the next two to five years. Tony Langham, co-founder of City PR firm Lansons Communications, believes support for this practice is increasing. “I’ve been working in the industry since the early 1980s, and the assumption was that we are on a natural progression towards equality. But clearly the evidence from the past few years is that this either hasn’t happened or it’s stalled. So, unless something changes, action will need to be taken.”
Akhtar agrees that quotas are necessary. “A company might recruit more senior women just to fulfil a quota requirement, but getting women in those positions, being good at their jobs, would change attitudes.” Women, she says, are afraid of standing up to sexist bosses without concrete evidence – and feminists are laughed at. “They make it personal: if you said it was sexism, you’d be seen as being weak.”
Everything from the way a woman dresses to her plans to get married can be used against her, making it hard to get promoted. “Not many women can survive [in finance]. You have to give them your life to get anywhere. There’s a lot of women who want to have a family and can’t commit to giving so much of their life up.”
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