Corporate America is very slowly becoming gender neutral. There are miles to go before equality can be claimed, but women have the top job at more than 20 S&P 500 companies, including Yahoo (YHOO), of course. More than 10% of these same companies had female CFO's at the end of 2012, up 35% since 2011.
Finance is the last hold-out industry. With absurdly few exceptions, Wall Street remains a lilly-white boys club at the highest levels. It's a question that seems like something out of the 70s, but it has to be asked: Can women succeed on Wall Street? If the answer is — obviously — yes, then why aren't they?
Karen Finerman, founder of Metropolitan Capital and author of Finerman's Rules: Secrets I'd Only Tell My Daughters About Business and Life, says of course women can make it to the top. "You hear often about how it's such a disadvantage to be a woman, but there are big advantages to being a woman on Wall Street." The key, she says, is learning to use them.
For women starting out, step one is being unafraid to go where the boys are. In finance that means stepping out of the pre-approved path right from the start of their career. "If you look at the retail industry, that's covered by a lot of women; the mix is not so far off 50:50," Finerman says in the attached video. In the industrial or energy sectors the mix of male to female analysts is 9 or 10 to 1.
Being outnumbered by a factor of 10 is intimidating, but it also means you're going to get noticed. That's a good thing. "If you're a woman and you go into that field and you go to conferences and you meet with the CEOs, they're going to pay attention to you," she says. "That's an advantage, and I think we should use it."
It's not a matter of sleeping or flirting your way to the top (though Finerman is, for the record, pro-flirting if applicable). It's being who you really are.
As for Paul Tudor Jones' infamous notion that mothers can't be effective executives because they are sullied by the bliss of parenthood, Finerman says it's not a matter of gender but focus. It's just not up to the boss to make that judgement. "Women are smart enough to recognize whether they, in fact, are not interested, are losing focus. It's up to them to decide." She's against multitasking in all its forms. To win on the Street you need to be obsessed. It's a rule that applies equally to both sexes.
The numbers of graduates coming out of business school and applying for Wall Street jobs are close to balanced on gender. As peer groups advance professionally, women drop out. It's just numbers.
For the women in the corridors of Wall Street who remain as maniacally focused as their male counterparts throughout their careers, Finerman says finally kicking down the door is going to be a matter of time and numbers.
"It won't change until we have a generation of women [who] are leaders," she concludes. "We don't have that yet. We're not even close."