Man's World: The Reality of Life as a Female Trader

Ever wondered what it would be like as a woman in the male dominated world of trading? Read this fascinating guest article by Terri Duhon, Author of How the Trading Floor Really Works. Part of this month's theme of Finance.

20 years ago, when I was studying Math as an undergraduate at MIT, I was vaguely aware that the world of finance, my chosen career path, was dominated by men. Because I had just spent two years at MIT where women were the minority and in particular I was studying Math which had only 10% women at the time, I was not fazed.  As a student I felt that I had experienced a true meritocracy. My academic experience was one in which my gender didn’t seem to play a part. I was mostly aware of gender issues through my mama and other older female relatives. But to me, they were their issues and particular to their generation. I had heard stories of single women not being able to rent an apartment and of wives being subservient to husbands but those were not my issues and clearly times had changed. 

When I was a senior at MIT, it was time to go through the interview process. I decided to focus on financial markets.

I found the trading floor fascinating and was drawn to the energy and excitement. The interview process however proved to be eye-opening.

In one interview in particular, I was brought onto the trading floor and sat next to a trader. He didn’t have time to leave the desk because it was the middle of the trading day. So he shouted questions at me in between watching the markets and doing trades. He never once looked at me because he couldn’t take his eyes off the screens. I answered the questions as best as I could but had no idea if he was even hearing me. This of course made the trading floor seem more exciting and important.  Then the sales person arrived. She was hovering behind the trader waiting for a good moment to interrupt. Her body language was one of subservience. When she did to speak to him, he was curt and rude and she was grateful for the information. (Remember that this is through the eyes of a 21 year old student who had no real context of the roles and responsibilities on the trading floor.) 

I then became aware that on the trading floor, the traders were all men and the few women that weren’t secretaries, were mostly in sales roles.

This was my first visit to a trading floor but it soon became clear that this was not an anomaly. At that moment, any question in my mind about what role would best suit me on the trading floor was gone. I decided to be a trader. My mama had taught me all the words to the song “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” by Helen Reddy and I couldn’t imagine playing what I thought was the subservient role of a sales person. I was also keen to prove that as a woman I could do it. And finally, I was drawn to what I perceived to be the more technical role of the trader. With hindsight, I know that sales people on the trading floor are not subservient to traders but they do respect the focus that the trader needs to do his job. I also know that many sales people are more technical than their trading counterparts depending on the particular client they cover and the asset class on which they specialize. While all this means that I could have found a sales role that would have suited me well, I am not unhappy with my original choice because it gave me a valuable skill set which I was able to use in other roles I played on and off the trading floor over my career. 

The start of my career was in 1994 when I got the offer from JPMorgan to join the Sales and Trading Analyst program. After months in an intensive training program, I was assigned to a derivative trading role. I was pleased to note that there were several senior women on the trading floor who were in management roles and in my analyst class (which was about a quarter female) there were several women who had elected to be traders. I figured it was just a matter of time before the trading floor was a more equal playing field. And despite all the stories about women in business generally, my personal experience was a relatively good one. The two senior women who stood out the most to me were very well respected across the trading floor for being smart and capable. They weren’t given the usual names of “bitchy” or “bossy”. One ran the proprietary trading desk and the other ran the asset and liability management business. These were two major and profitable business units. 

One of these women pulled me aside and offered to be a mentor as soon as I joined. They didn’t fit the oft quoted stereotype of “catty” competitive women.

Maybe these women felt that it could only be positive to encourage other women given the extreme minority that we were on the trading floor. Regardless, I benefitted from their support. 

The fact remained that women were the extreme minority on the trading floor, which was and is a high stress and high energy place. This often creates a bit of a playground atmosphere. Intense periods of doing nothing but sitting at a desk watching market prices move and making risky decisions interspersed with short periods of downtime when jokes are exchanged or silly antics are encouraged. No, the jokes weren’t necessarily PC but they weren’t deliberately non-PC. There with a few exceptions though.

On bring your daughter to work day, a senior trader on my desk brought his daughter into the office and told her “These are the boys, they’re here to make money and here are the girls, they’re here to look good.” 

Being one of the two “girls” on that trading desk, I was not amused.  I was angry that he could say that to his 8-year-old daughter while demeaning my intelligence and contribution to the business at the same time. I was always prepared to defend myself so my retort conveyed my view but whether it had a real impact or came across as defensive, I don’t know. 

Early in my career, political correctness eventually made its way into the work place. We all got a memo declaring that jokes which made fun of women or minority groups would no longer be tolerated. My first reaction was frustration. Prior to that moment, I didn’t think I had been treated much differently. Now suddenly, if I were in a group of people talking, the joke would have to wait till the others were in the men’s room. Intellectually, I understood the philosophy behind being politically correct, but the implementation didn’t feel helpful on a personal level.  Despite the memo, as it happens, the jokes didn’t change much.          

So fast forward twenty years from my starting point and where are we now?  Did that early anecdotal evidence of more women interested in trading pan out and become the trend?

Sadly, I don’t see much change if any in the demographics of women on the trading floor today. There are few to no women on any given trading desk and the women that are there are still primarily in sales roles. Of course we’ve gone through a major upheaval in the industry so let’s look at the demographics of new analyst programs or the undergrads interested in finance. My business runs analyst training programs for many of the large banks globally. Women represent about ten to twenty percent generally of those new-hire programs. (Note this is not the overall new hire demographics of most banks but strictly the new hires going into sales and trading in financial markets.)  Also, over the last few months, I’ve been giving financial markets career advice to universities in the US and the UK as part of my book launch. In the 5 lectures at top universities globally that I’ve done thus far, I’ve seen less than ten percent women in the room on average. 

There is much said today about the danger of men being in charge of the financial markets and their desire for short-term-oriented unfettered capitalism. The alternative often being stated is that women are much better risk managers and have an instinctive understanding of socially responsible capitalism. Whether this is true or not, we’ll never know because we can’t even seem to get women to be interested in finance as a starter career. Again, anecdotal evidence says that just as many girls as boys are interested in math and science when they’re in single sex schools but that balance shifts dramatically in co-ed schools. I don’t think it’s as simple as the fact that we dress our girls in pink and our boys in blue but I intuitively feel that we’re doing something wrong as a society.

Now, I’m a mother and I expect I’ll be telling my daughter my stories. I also expect her to shrug them off as my issues and specific to my generation. However, as much as times have changed, much seems to have stayed the same.  

Terri Duhon is the author of How the Trading Floor Really Works.  She graduated from MIT in Math in 1994 and immediately joined JPMorgan as an derivatives trader on Wall Street. While at JPMorgan, she was instrumental in developing the credit derivative market globally. Her time on the trading floor has been documented in the book Fool’s Gold as well as by PBS’s Frontline.  In 2004, after 10 years on the trading floor in New York and London, Terri founded B&B Structured Finance Ltd, which provides expert consulting and financial markets training.  She has led expert witness teams for financial  litigation in both NY and London, assisted asset managers in assessing financial market risks as well as given hundreds of training programs globally for thousands of participants. 

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