real life

The most important subject girls can learn at school.

I work in funds management, and in this particular corner of the finance world women are a rarity. In fact, 78 per cent of fund managers are like me – male.

According to the federal government’s Workforce Gender Equality Agency, across the whole of financial services and insurance, 46.8 per cent of workers are women, which doesn’t sound too bad right? If you delve deeper though, women are grossly underrepresented in certain sectors, such as funds management, and at senior levels.

Most people would agree that this under-representation is less than ideal, but what many fail to realise is that the reasons for this imbalance have other negative and far reaching consequences.

Throughout my life and career I’ve consistently witnessed a version of the following vicious cycle – girls aren’t encouraged to study finance when they are young, so a lot of the time they don’t. In fact, fewer women go to business school than into medicine and law, so the pipeline is narrow to begin with, and the fallout is that there aren’t nearly as many women as men practising finance.

"Women are equally capable in this arena but are often made to feel they’re not, and it’s this stigma that gets acted out and becomes the reality." (Image: Getty)

While this fact alone is alarming, an additional and potentially more harmful consequence that isn’t as widely discussed is that when girls don’t study finance, even at a basic level, later in life they don't feel competent looking after their finances and defer to their partner or a professional to handle this aspect of their lives.

And more often than not, when they defer to their partner, they also have minimal or no direct contact with any professionals their partner might be dealing with, such as financial planners or accountants, therefore losing another valuable learning opportunity.

Women are equally capable in this arena but are often made to feel they’re not, and it’s this stigma that gets acted out and becomes the reality.

Now, I’m not for a second suggesting this is women’s fault, I simply want to highlight that current stereotypes and expectations are working against women. By not encouraging girls to study business subjects in high school or finance at university, we’re silently saying ‘you’re probably not cut out for it’ or ‘you wouldn’t be very good at it’.

These perceptions become ingrained, causing women to lack confidence in taking charge of their own or their family’s finances, or in seeking out financial advice, ultimately minimising their options in life and overall independence.

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While the group most negatively impacted as a result of this situation is clearly women, what many businesses fail to realise is that they are also suffering as a result. By not making business school or working in finance more attractive to women, companies are missing out on half of the best talent that exists.

Not to mention that it’s widely recognised that having women in senior positions improves financial results, which is unsurprisingly thought of as pretty important in finance.

In the interest of transparency, I’d to like to establish that there aren’t currently any women working in our company. This is not a conscious decision on our part, nor how we would like things to be. It is a direct result of the fact that due to the relatively small number of women in our field, we receive so few applications (if any) from women, which makes it difficult to change the status quo.

So what to do? Education and exposure are key to initiating a cultural change. Encouraging financial literacy amongst all children is crucial, but particularly so for young girls if we’re to instil in them the belief that studying business is just as viable an option for them as for their male peers.

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Education extends to influencing subject selection and career advice in secondary school, where girls need to be actively encouraged to pursue studying finance – whatever form this might take.

Aside from the obvious benefits of having a greater gender balance in professional finance, an important side effect of more girls and women pursuing finance during school and potentially professionally, is that they will be better equipped and feel more confident in handling their own finances, ultimately making them more financially independent and a positive role model for others. You can’t put a price on that.

Exposure is also critical. Yes, we need to actively encourage girls to pursue finance, but they also need examples of women working in the field.

This can be done by giving women who work in finance a greater platform from which to influence younger generations, whether this be speaking at schools, more media profiles on women in these roles, more inclusive financial literacy programs and greater access to women in the field when it comes to academic and career guidance. We should be shining a light on successful women in finance to encourage other women to pursue this path for themselves.

Of course, this is not a simple issue with a quick fix, there are many other important elements such as flexibility for families, leave policies and overwhelmingly male cultures that play a significant role in the lack of women in funds management.

However, by encouraging young girls as much as we do boys to consider choosing business subjects, to study finance, and by giving them examples of women who have succeeded and thrived in this field, everyone stands to win.

Luke Cummings is the Chief Investment Officer and Managing Director of Harvest Lane Asset Management.

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