The financial services sector has a reputation problem.

The culture portrayed in the 2013 Hollywood film The Wolf of Wall Street, that of an early 1990s-era investment industry dominated by men, fuelled by testosterone and teeming with male chauvinism, is a depiction that – to the detriment of the industry – continues to reflect the way financial services is perceived by many women.

Although the film paints an exaggerated picture that’s far from reflecting the modern financial services sector, it does portray the kinds of lingering notions that leave many capable and talented women convinced that the sector is not the place for them to build a satisfying career that includes multiple opportunities for advancement.

Combine that negative perception with the barriers facing those women who do pursue careers in the sector – such as setbacks associated with pausing a career to have children, long hours and, in some cases, inflexible schedules – and the result is an industry in which men outnumber women by a considerable margin in many key roles, including financial advisors and senior management positions.

Although there are signs that gender diversity is improving within the sector, there is still a long way to go in attracting more women into certain components of the business and ensuring that they have access to the same opportunities as men.

“That Wolf of Wall Street image, unfortunately, is prevalent among women, so they aren’t attracted to the industry,” says Jennifer Reynolds, president and CEO of Toronto-based Women in Capital Markets (WCM). “I think it’s a dated perception that we need to correct.”

One of the areas in which the gender imbalance is most prominent is in senior leadership roles. Women comprise 25% of boards and 23% of executive committees at Canada’s financial institutions, according to research from New York-based global consulting firm Oliver Wyman Group. The imbalance is more pronounced in the capital markets industry, in which women occupy only about 10% of senior management positions, Reynolds says.

Those numbers are not surprising to Tanya Rowntree, a veteran of the securities industry and now vice president, regional sales, with TMX Equity Transfer Services, a subsidiary of Toronto-based TMX Group Ltd. “I was always the only woman, at almost every firm and almost every stage along the way,” says Rowntree. “I don’t feel I’ve been limited because of my gender; but, at the same time, when you look around the room and you’re the only woman, you know that there are probably other women who would like to be in that room.”

Female representation at the advisor level isn’t much better. For example, women make up just 25.7% of securities agents, investment dealers and traders, according to Statistics Canada’s 2015 Labour Force Survey. Of the individuals registered with the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada as of Dec. 31, 2015, 72% were men and 28% were women.

The gender imbalance extends to other categories of advisors, as well. Among certified financial planners (CFPs) in Canada, 34% are women, according to a 2014 report from the Denver-based Financial Planning Standards Board Ltd.

“Women are definitely outnumbered,” says Dana Mitchell, CFP with Toronto-based Basis Wealth, a team that is part of the Wealth and Estate Planning Group of Freedom 55 Financial, owned by London Life Insurance Co.

Mitchell says she has begun to notice an uptick in female advisors entering the business in recent years, and she’s perplexed about why that didn’t happen sooner. She says the advisor role has key advantages for women over other career options, including a flexible schedule.

“I have a young family, so one of the big benefits of going into the business for me was to manage my time,” Mitchell says. “I wanted to be working in a professional role, but I also wanted to be a hands-on mom. I feel that [being a financial advisor] has given me the opportunity to have the best of both worlds.”

In some cases, simple intimidation deters women from joining a profession dominated by men, Rowntree says. “I think that is the problem half the time: people are a little bit intimidated or fearful.”

In other industries within the financial services sector, barriers are more prominent. Investment-management roles that require close monitoring of financial markets, for instance, tend to come with rigid schedules and long hours, which presents a challenge, particularly for working mothers.

“As a working mother, achieving work/life balance is a big challenge,” says Vivian Lo, vice president and portfolio manager with Toronto-based Aston Hill Financial Inc. “You essentially have two full-time jobs – one that you work when the markets are open; and then you go home and put the other hat on. Trying to provide 100% effort and energy on both sides is very demanding, but also very rewarding.”

Hiring practices also have presented barriers for women trying to launch a career in the sector, with jobs frequently being filled via networking on golf courses rather than through transparent application processes. “[Career advancement] is always about who you know,” says Rowntree. “There’s a natural inclination to work with people you like; people who you have something in common with.”

Although the statistics haven’t demonstrated much progress, there is anecdotal evidence that women are beginning to gain more momentum within the financial services sector. “Over the past five years or so, I’ve seen a lot more women enter the [business] in much more visible roles,” Lo says. “It is encouraging.”

This shift is being driven partly by a growing proportion of wealth being controlled by women, according to Guy Armstrong, senior consultant and managing director with Toronto-based Investor Economics Inc. He says that reality has motivated a greater push among firms to ensure their staff and representatives reflect the demographics of the clients they’re serving.

“The amount of financial wealth that is controlled by women is going to go up significantly in the next 10 years,” says Armstrong. “All of the brokerage firms are acutely aware of that, and they’re very aware that they need to get more women into the business.”

A growing number of initiatives that aim to provide more women with support, mentoring and networking opportunities – both at individual firms and industrywide – also is adding momentum to the shift toward gender parity.

In late 2014, for example, the global organization Women in ETFs launched a Canadian chapter that provides guidance, education and networking opportunities for women in the exchange-traded funds (ETFs) business through events attended by both men and women.

Such initiatives are changing the way networking happens, and that’s paving the way for a profession in which women eventually will be represented in much greater numbers and in more senior positions, says Rowntree, who is co-chairwoman of Women in ETFs’ Canadian chapter.

“An organization like this is a game-changer,” Rowntree says, “to have an army of people that you can network with and build relationships with who can help you in your career.

“It’s no longer the ‘old boys club’ entry into financial services,” she adds.

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