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Breaking the mould: Women in unconventional roles

by LLB Editor
4th Apr 13 9:11 am

Why women shouldn’t shy away from taking the IT, energy and trading floors

Almost exactly 40 years ago the City experienced a kind of revolution. In March 1973, six women walked onto the floor of “The House,” in the London Stock Exchange (LSE). Other than the Queen, they were the first women ever to step foot onto the hallowed wooden floors of LSE.

Having battled long and hard to get accepted into LSE, women were at last able to join and the age-old trading ‘boys’ club’ was challenged. Or was it? According to reports, these women and those who came after them were were subjected to constant teasing and name-calling. Today, while the overt name-calling might have subdued, the boys’ club atmosphere still exists.

Natalie Brossard is the co-founder of fashion site LuxxLab, but before she set up her own company she spent 10 years working in finance, including a stint on the trading floor at Deutsche Bank.

“For me it was like going into the lion’s pit. I was one of five women on a 300 strong trading floor and I felt that I had to prove myself every minute of every day – it was a real boys’ club,” she says.

There is no doubt that the City is still a male-dominated area, especially the competitive trading floors, but those women working in it are certainly not alone. There are numerous women’s support networks which help to champion and connect these women who are carving their careers in finance. Women in the City, City Women’s Network and We Are The City are all communities where these women connect.

“The trading floor is still seen as a machismo area but there is a great sense of sisterhood in the City with many women’s networking groups,” says Yvonne Smyth, director at Hays, the recruiting experts.

“These events offer networking opportunities with the aim of meeting influential peers and the potential for career advancement.”

Gender diversity has become a huge talking point, especially at senior level with women representing only 3% of FTSE 100 CEOs. The benefits of diversity are well-known and measures are being taken to right the balance across industries. There are certain sectors however, that need more help than others.

The oil and gas industry has tried to meet the challenge of bringing women to senior positions head on. But there are often practicalities which need to be solved to get women into certain roles within the sector.

“There are a number of considerations as a woman in the oil and gas industry,” says Smyth. “If you’re going to work on rigs are there female facilities? These locations tend to be in regions where there might be a threat to personal safety. The rotation system of two weeks on and four weeks off wouldn’t necessarily suit someone with a family for example. But our experience is that the oil and gas industry is crying out for talented women to gain the experience needed to take up senior roles.”

Shell is one such company and has been working hard for the past few years to address the gender imbalance and encourage more women to take up these “unconventional roles”.

“We aim to create an inclusive work environment with equal opportunities,” says Vera Surzhenko, Media Relations, Shell International.

In its Sustainability Report, Shell said, “We measure diversity and inclusion in part by the representation of women and local nationals in senior leadership positions. By the end of 2011, the proportion of women in senior leadership positions at Shell was 16.6%, up 1.3% from 2010 and up 2.6% from 2009.”

It’s not just at the top that Shell is focused on encouraging women. As we all know, these problems stem from a source and often school is where these career-related decisions are made.

“UK Shell supports the programme to attract young women into science and technology education. For example, we have piloted a very successful programme called ‘Girls in Energy’ together with the Banff and Buchan College in Aberdeenshire,” adds Surzhenko.

This is an introductory course for girls aged 14-16, who are interested in exploring a career in the energy industry. The aim is to open their eyes to the variety of professions and career opportunities that exist in the energy industry and challenge any stereotypes that they may have about engineering careers being just for men.

Hopefully encouraging more women to take up careers in traditionally male areas such as energy, IT, engineering and trading will help to bring gender balance to them. But what is the experience of these women who go into roles where, as a female, they are still in a significant minority?

“I think for any minority member, it can be a challenge as well as an opportunity because a minority member is memorable,” says Eliza Rawlings, chief business officer at Cloud Direct – a cloud services brokerage for SMEs.

“In the case of women working in a male-dominated industry – I have seen a tendency for some people to make the judgement that if a woman isn’t competent then it’s because she’s a woman. Whereas if a man isn’t good at his job, then it’s just because he is not up to standards and it’s nothing to do with his gender.  So I guess the most important thing is to be good at your job and confident of your own ability.”

Jo Butlin, MD of energy and carbon experts, Utilyx feels that although energy is a male-dominated industry but she’s never found it to be a barrier to her career growth.

“Sometimes the chat and common social language reverts to football and golf, neither of which I have any interest in, but I always try to maintain a healthy sense of humour. It’s better to laugh at our differences rather than adopting a different persona to fit in; you have to be genuine about who you are,” she said.

Both women have encountered challenges as women in the energy and IT sectors, much like Brossard on the trading floor. However the overall message is that being one of the only women in a role doesn’t have to be a trial – it can be rewarding.

Educating the next generation of women of the benefits of taking up careers in these industries will go a long way to bringing gender balance to them. But until this parity is found, we should look to those pioneering and successful women who have benefited from not shying away from these industries for inspiration and advice.

“I believe that when you embark on a challenge, it is important to learn to ignore irrelevant distractions such as discrimination,” says Rawlings. “Discrimination comes in many forms and typically arises out of ignorance or fear of the unknown – it’s important not to let someone else’s ignorance spoil your journey.”

You need to read:

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Boardroom balance: Where are all the ladies?

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