Trickle-up economics: The state of gender parity in business

In October 2017, JPMorgan Chase, the largest American investment bank and sixth largest bank in the world, hosted an information session at the Alberta School of Business. The multinational company’s Calgary office sent three sharply dressed, similar-looking guys — all tall, white, and clad in navy suits — to deliver the presentation to the (mostly male) students interested in applying for one of their highly sought-after summer investment analyst positions. The hosts of the session began their presentation with an inside look at the bank’s culture.

“At JPMorgan Chase,” one of the presenters began, “we like to have a really fratty environment.” They talked about how they liked to throw foam footballs around the office with their managers, work out together, and go for drinks after work “pretty much every day.”

These words could be interpreted in one of two ways. The first is that the company’s culture is well-developed, convivial to those who join it and share similar interests, and stresses team involvement both during and after work, which can foster a sense of camaraderie. The second interpretation is more off-putting: that the mentions of a fraternity-like environment, cultural focus on traditionally male interests, and lack of female presence among the presenters implied that women aren’t welcome.

Business was largely dominated by men for much of history — but things are changing. The University of Alberta’s business school roughly reaches gender parity, with the most recent stats reporting 1,060 male and 963 female students in the faculty in 2016-17. This is supposed to have a trickle-up effect: more gender parity at the educational level carries up through the ranks as those same students get jobs and eventually do hiring of their own.

However, change is slow — that progression from student to CEO takes time. Even though there is more aggregate gender parity in business today, many women still face challenges their male counterparts don’t. Often, these issues first come up when students start their foray into the workplace — there can be a distinct difference between the dynamics of the lecture hall and the employee lunchroom.

Paris Morin, a third-year finance major, has noticed that these dynamics have affected her differently during her years studying business. She says she knew that by choosing finance as her major she would be entering a male-dominated field where she could potentially be one of the only women in the room — but that the reality of it didn’t quite hit her fully until her second year in the program, when her workplace experience mounted.

After being working in several positions, Morin found that unless she looked for women in coveted roles, it was difficult to find female mentors. It was also intimidating at times, she says, to notice that the once-vague idea of being one of very few women was now reality.

To deal with that intimidation, Morin says, she depended on her own personal growth and the development of stronger confidence over time. “I just became more okay with [the intimidation], because I partly stopped looking at it as a situation where I was ‘the other,’ and more of a thing where I could just challenge how the world worked,” she says.

Morin also notes that having a strong support system — her parents and largely male group of friends — helped her keep going and continue to “push the envelope” even when she felt alone.

“It’s definitely tough to go into a [finance] class and see group projects where there’s only one girl, and almost never any all-female teams,” Morin says, “but I think the [Alberta School of Business] has done a lot recently to open that field up to women.”

With only 14.2 per cent of top executives at major companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market index being women, it’s not a stretch to see how it might be hard to find mentors in fields with so few top female executives — the pool is simply smaller. Without female mentors and role models to relate their experiences and aspirations to, it can be alienating for young women to walk what feels like an isolating path.

And while there are many inspiring stories about women in business, many of them focus on women in less male-dominated fields. “You see statistics about how [men and women] enter the workforce pretty much 50-50, but you don’t always see that funnel up,” Morin says.

Jessica Tang

Sasha Jacob, a fellow third-year finance major, says her knowledge of the finance industry and conversations she had with professionals in the field helped quell the intimidation she also felt as a junior business student. She originally applied for PRIME, the Alberta School of Business’s exclusive investment management program, but when that didn’t pan out, she doubled down on her own efforts to endow herself with the skills and technical knowledge she needed to achieve her goal: securing a full-time investment banking position.

Jacob, who will soon join TD Bank Group as an investment banking analyst, will be working with a team of approximately 20 people — but only three members, including her, are women. This drastic skew, she says, means a lack of women in certain fields of business can mean the odds may sometimes be in women’s favour in male-dominated fields, as companies aim for more diversity.

Though it can be difficult to pursue jobs in places where women aren’t the majority, Jacob says the fact that there aren’t many women in certain fields shouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle. “If you have a goal for something — even in a field where there aren’t as many women, like finance — and you put everything into trying to achieve it, it’s totally doable,” she says.

Karen Hughes, a professor in strategic management and organization at the Alberta School of Business, says many companies have placed the issue of gender parity at the forefront. “I think organizations have a growing awareness of the value of gender diversity and inclusivity, and many are making progress. But it is uneven across fields and industries,” she says.

It’s also uneven across levels of management. Women are often bottle-necked in terms of advancement at work, less likely to be promoted and ultimately hold top management positions.

Part of this has to do with social norms. Overall, women are seen as less dependable, less visionary. They are less comfortable with tooting their own horns and are more likely to face criticism for snagging the limelight.

All of this may give the impression that business is bent against women, but the truth is this situation is not the same across all areas of the industry. For instance, human resources is an area where women have made lots of good inroads, Hughes says, and there is significant awareness around gender diversity and inclusion in that field. And there are other areas, like marketing, that are actually thought of as more female-dominated, although some research has reported that men still occupy a large proportion of senior marketing positions.

That’s not to say, however, that women in fields with higher gender diversity face none of the same problems as their colleagues in more male-dominated ones. The perception that women in business can be overlooked is magnified in fields where there are fewer women at the top, but it doesn’t just go away in places where women have a stronger presence.

Business spans a wide variety of areas of study: the Alberta School of Business offers 16 distinct majors ranging from entrepreneurship and innovation to Latin American business studies. The gender breakdowns between majors varies, and the numbers may not always be what one expects: accounting, for instance, is fairly equal both in the classroom and the workforce. In entrepreneurship, the current state of gender equality in Canada is also positive.

“Today the ‘gender gap’ has narrowed quite a bit,” Hughes says.

Entrepreneurially, women and men in Canada are about equally likely to be motivated by opportunities they identify in the market, rather than launching a business out of necessity. They’re also fairly close in reporting good opportunities, and in their fear of failure. However, women are still more likely to underestimate their skills and knowledge compared to men.

“When you look at the Canadian population overall, the gender gaps widen a bit, suggesting there’s more work to do there,” Hughes says, citing a 2017 report she authored for the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). “But the gender story in entrepreneurship in Canada is generally positive, and it will continue to be.”

Jessica Tang

The tumult of new areas of business shake things up, too. The rise of technology has led to the development of new majors such as management information systems (MIS) and operations management (OM), which fuse the technical acumen of computing sciences and the qualitative features of business. Combining computing sciences — typically a heavily male-dominated major — and general business, the dynamics in these programs aren’t as set in stone as those of other, more established majors.

Hala Khashashna, a third-year MIS major, chose this program because of her interest in technology. Comprising only around three per cent of the faculty’s students, she says the tight-knit nature of MIS majors and their professors has made the area of study a great long-term choice.

MIS uses some of the same skills required of computing science majors, but in contrast to typical computing science courses at the U of A, Khashashna says MIS classes achieve gender parity. However, the workforce these students move into doesn’t exactly reflect those half-and-half demographics: when Khashashna worked at the Alberta Investment Management Corporation this past summer, she says that of 100 employees in business technology, only 16 were women.

Sometimes instances of gender inequality fly under the radar — not necessarily because they’re purposefully hidden, but rather because it can be hard to recognize an imbalance unless it’s pointed out.

This brings up the question of whether or not thinking consciously about these balances helps or hinders progress. On the one hand, pointing out gender imbalances can draw more attention to the need for more diversity in academic programs and workforces; on the other hand, critics argue that this approach strays further from awarding individuals positions based on merit, which they regard as the most objective and equal way of evaluating candidates. Not all female students feel that gender imbalances in business-related fields need to be brought to the forefront, and many say they haven’t experienced any major issues related to their gender in their work.

Khashashna says she’s never noticed someone being overtly sexist towards her, but she’s also not sure whether her perceptions of the world have obscured her recognition of those kinds of incidents. “What I don’t know is if it happened and I just didn’t notice it, or if it really has never happened,” she says.

That said, not acknowledging imbalances isn’t the solution. There are certain specific issues women often contend with more than men, with the most classic being the perceived choice between raising a family and having a high-powered career. For women who value both, this age-old tug-of-war proves especially challenging.

Women are seen as less dependable, less visionary. They are less comfortable with tooting their own horns and are more likely to face criticism for snagging the limelight.

Jacob, who’s spoken to many women across finance companies at varying levels of seniority, says she’s particularly noticed the distinct shortage of women above the vice-president level. Women who are higher up in their companies are also often unmarried or childless, making it hard for women who want families to find a role model whose behaviour, career choices, and lifestyle they can look up to.

“As someone who’s extremely career-driven, but also very family-oriented — I know I want to have a family — it makes me wonder, ‘Do I have to choose one or the other, or will I be able to have both?’” Jacob says. “It’s something I have to keep in mind now and moving forward, even thinking 10 years into the future.”

The myriad issues women continue to face in business, despite constant change and progress, paints a bleak picture for soon-to-be graduates. But Hughes cautions against being too cynical.

“I tell my students that university is actually a lot like the real world,” she says. “The people you meet here will be part of your business network going forward; you’ll see many of the same dynamics, and you’ll depend on the skill set you develop here and continue to hone it.”

It’s not as if things revert back to how they were in the Mad Men era once female graduates step into their first post-university jobs. And when they do stare down challenges, it’s important for women to remember to advocate for themselves using the confidence they have in their knowledge and abilities.

“If there’s any one difference, studies would suggest that female graduates will face some bias in their skills and aspirations being underestimated,” Hughes says. “So [female graduates] need to work at communicating what they’ve accomplished, what they can do, and what they are aspiring to do.”

That said, Hughes says female graduates also need to realize that many organizations have a growing awareness around gender issues, too, and that an important personal step for each graduate is finding opportunities in firms with that mindset.

The onus is on everyone in business — not just the women — to make conscious choices to push for continued progress, even when it might be uncomfortable. To make change, women must step into powerful roles, and others must empower them to get there.

“On average, it takes seven people to tell a woman to do something before she’ll actually do it — so find seven people,” Morin says, “because I think that’s the biggest thing. And I think if we can get over that obstacle that we place on ourselves, then I think it would really be all about showing up.”


Tori was the 2017-18 Arts & Culture Editor and 2018-19 Online Editor of this site. They were and still are a huge fan of office comedies, legumes, and critters of all kinds.

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