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Jacki Zehner Headshot

Shattering the Ceilings, for Good

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I started in the financial services industry in 1988 as an analyst at Goldman Sachs. Eight years later at the age of 32, I was the first female trader and youngest woman to be invited in to the partnership of this firm. I was an example of how women could make it on Wall Street and the financial services in general. Or was I?

At the time I made partner I was one of two women in a class of 38 and the percentages are not that much different today. The barriers that continue to prevent women from reaching senior leadership in critical mass in the financial services industry and more generally--negative gender stereotyping, lack of women in line positions, a narrow pipeline, lack of mentoring and promotion opportunities, work/life balance challenges, limited access to powerful professional networks--are the same ones faced over a decade ago. So little is changed and we are left asking why.

Rilke once said we should honor the questions, and we should, but in this case solutions are long overdue. A report that will be released Wednesday, June 24th, by the National Council for Research on Women, "Women in Fund Management: A Roadmap to Positive Change and Why it Matters" offers some of both. It's time to get beyond the ambivalence, embrace the solutions, and make progress lasting and real.

These questions are not new, just newly applied--though one starts to wonder if anyone has been paying attention lo these many years. "Weren't we supposed to be beyond this by now?" asked Portfolio's Harriet Rubin in relation to women's lack of progress at work. She notes that 'while women have made huge professional gains in the past three decades, progress now appears to have slowed or stalled. In some cases it is even backsliding." Despite growing and consistent evidence that having women on boards enhances corporate performance, fifty-nine of the largest companies in America are still without even one. The numbers are not much better on the political front. "In a year of unprecedented attention to women in politics, female candidates made only marginal gains" says Vanessa Gezari in the Washington Post. It is all just so disappointing. What will it take for positive change to finally take hold?

Perhaps it took a full-scare financial and economic crisis the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Depression to push us in to new solutions, primary among which is attaining a critical mass of women in leadership and decision making roles. Critical mass is defined as 30%, as research bears out that it is this percentage that decision -making dynamics changes for the better. Given the poor decision making, failure of leadership, excessive leveraging, the lack of appropriate regulatory oversight and the broad failure of risk management systems, we can no longer afford not to draw on the talents of our entire population, 51% of which are women, to rebuild our financial system and bring stability to our national and global economies once more.

With the spotlight clearly on the world's largest financial institutions and regulatory agencies the Council's solutions are both comprehensive and timely. They provide the road map for positive change. Here is what is needed: Recognize and address the complex interconnectedness and global nature of the crisis. Adopt the critical mass principle for board composition and senior leadership positions. Recognize that women fund managers and business owners lack access to capital, and provide work to open the channels for funding. Require greater transparency and accountability broadly. Expand the pipeline for women entering careers in financial services and business generally. Build and expand professional networks. Provide mentoring opportunities at all levels. Highlight the achievements of successful women in finance to provide role models for other women. Work to change the climate and culture. Support and fund more research in this field.

To be sure, lack of women in finance is but one of many possible problems that led us to this dark place. But it's a problem that can be addressed. So let's move. Time to stand up and demand that the leadership of our country's largest institutions, and in particular our financial institutions including our regulatory institutions, more closely represent the populations they are intended to serve. Just last week the government announced the most broad based changes to our financial institutions in 80 years and yet absent from that was this. Let us make it a goal to have a critical mass of talented and committed women to join the decision-making tables including senior leadership and boards of directors. The Financial Times called for this measure saying "that is there is ever a time for women to make a decisive breakthrough in corporate boardrooms, it is surely now." Just a few weeks later they featured an article on how the country of Norway is quickly becoming an example to the world by institutionalizing this commitment. We can do this here.

From brokenness comes opportunity. From failure comes success. And from destruction comes the possibility of a stronger and more sustainable future. My daughter is 9 years old. One day, I hope she will consider a career on Wall Street like her mother. And I hope that when that day comes, she can look at the leadership of our country's largest financial institutions and see women's faces in critical mass saying yes, this is where you belong.