Better balance: schools are striving to attract more women to MSc in finance programmes © Getty Images/Cultura Exclusive

Senior female financiers are in short supply, despite years of efforts from the world’s largest banks, asset managers and insurers to improve gender diversity and shed their reputation as “pale, male and stale”.

Research papers have highlighted the problem repeatedly. In the US, the percentage of women running mutual funds fell over the past decade from 11 per cent in 2008 to 10 per cent at the end of last year, says Morningstar, the research firm.

In banking, women accounted for a little less than a quarter of senior staff at 25 of the world’s largest banks, according to data submitted by the lenders to the Financial Times last year.

Meanwhile, a 2016 Harvard Business Review analysis of 50 US financial services companies found that women held a fifth of executive committee roles at these groups and 22 per cent of board positions. Only 12 per cent of the chief executives in the sector were female.

Many of the world’s most influential business schools, an important source of talent for the financial services sector, have also recognised that gender imbalance among students may have contributed to the problem. But they also realise that they can play a role in addressing it.

Over the past decade dozens of scholarships aimed at female MBA participants have been launched, often with money from banks and other financial services companies, offering tens of thousands of dollars towards tuition costs, if not complete coverage.

These include the Lloyds Scholars MBA Scholarships for Women programme, which has provided $47,000 towards course fees at the London Business School (LBS) since 2014; and a full tuition fee scholarship offered by the 30% Club, an organisation in the UK that campaigns for greater diversity on boards, at the Alliance Manchester Business School since 2017.

Helena Morrissey, a prominent City figure who launched the 30% Club in 2010, says its involvement with business schools has encouraged many, including LBS and Oxford university’s Saïd Business School, to adopt and exceed 30 per cent targets for female representation on MBA programmes.

The 30% Club has additionally encouraged business schools to change language in their brochures to avoid macho phrases such as “world beating” in an attempt to make them “more appealing, not just to women but for less dominant types”, she adds.

Despite such efforts, progress for many business schools on recruiting more women has been slow. Women account for 37 per cent of participants on courses in the FT’s 2018 global ranking of the top 100 MBAs, up from 33 per cent five years ago. The figures are higher in the FT’s 2018 ranking of pre-experience masters in finance courses, with 42 per cent female students, up from 40 per cent five years ago.

A former investment banker who took an MBA mid-career and works in the investment industry, says the proportion of female students is a concern. “This matters because women self-select themselves out of opportunities in finance — at an undergraduate level but also when choosing a business school and then opportunities after their MBA,” says the financier, who asked to remain anonymous. “Sadly, this is still an image problem for the industry, but also for the business schools.”

Many business schools are aware of the problem and have vowed to continue to push for greater female representation on MBA and masters courses.

In 2015, the Robert H Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland set an ambitious target of reaching gender parity on its MBAs by 2020, a date selected to coincide with the centenary of US women being given the right to vote.

At the time 36 per cent of its MBA participants were women — a number that has risen to 39.5 per cent. A representative for the school says: “Despite the progress, our intake of women across our MBA programmes has not increased as rapidly as necessary.”

Regardless, the Smith School will continue in its drive to attract more women. This is a three-pronged approach, including talks at secondary schools and universities; and staging recruitment events for female professionals hosted by students, alumni and faculty staff. The school has also introduced new classes, such as one called “Ladies First” for female entrepreneurs and also “Get Confident”, which encourages female MBA students to try new activities such as golf and clay pigeon shooting.

Imperial College Business School has also strived to attract more women. In 2014 the London school made achieving gender equality one of its 10 strategic priorities. The FT ranking shows that the number of women on its masters in finance course has since increased from 44 per cent to 50 per cent this year. The number of female MBA students is up from 29 per cent to 44 per cent.

Efforts to improve female representation included partnering with organisations that focus on gender equality and ensuring marketing materials were “gender neutral”, according to Leila Guerra, associate dean of programmes.

Imperial is also considering introducing a “salary negotiation workshop” that will be open to alumni, staff and faculty members to help address the fact that men tend to be “faster to request salary increases” than women, says Ms Guerra.

The next hurdle the school wants to overcome is to ensure its faculty, which is 30 per cent female, becomes more gender diverse. This is slightly better than the 28 per cent average across the top 100 MBA programmes ranked by the FT.

“We are not there yet,” Ms Guerra says of the faculty. “That is something that is a priority. I hope we will get there in the next five years.”

She is optimistic that the efforts to attract more women, coupled with an increased appetite from financial services companies for talented female graduates, will help to improve the gender imbalance across the sector.

Imperial’s own research has shown that of its current cohort of MBA students, female participants have received job offers sooner than their male counterparts.

Ms Guerra says: “We were talking the other day to recruiters and many of them were saying [they wanted to see] a gender balanced pool [of candidates].

“They do care about that. I wouldn’t have seen this five years ago.”

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