Finance is a male-dominated profession, especially at the top. While women in the United States make up 55.4% of the total labor force in finance, they comprise only 16.6% of executive officers, 18% of board directors and 2.9% of CEOs, according to a December 2011 survey by Catalyst Research. As outsiders, women are alternately overlooked and heavily scrutinized when it comes to positions of power in finance. They are sometimes underestimated and held to a lower standard, while at other times they are expected to work harder to prove themselves against their male counterparts or even pitted against their female coworkers.
If you want to rise to the top as a woman in finance but you're not sure how, seeking out a role model can help illuminate the path. Here are seven women who have achieved great success in this field by being willing to stand out, taking risks and refusing to accept "no" for an answer.
Geraldine Weiss, Investment Advisor
Geraldine Weiss was one of the first women to make a name for herself in finance and to prove that women could be successful investors. She learned about investing by reading books and listening to her parents' conversations, and also studied business and finance in college.
No investment firm was interested in hiring her as more than a secretary, despite her studies. "It was a man's world, and women need not apply," she recalls.
In the face of rejection, she started her own investment newsletter in 1966, at the age of 40. A response to one of her newsletter advertisements read, "I can't imagine myself ever taking investment advice from a woman. Unless you take your advice from a man."
Wanting to avoid further gender discrimination, she decided to sign her newsletter "G. Weiss." It wasn't until the mid-1970s that she revealed her true identity after achieving a consistently successful track record.
Weiss's value-based, dividend-oriented stock-picking strategy outperformed the strategies recommended by other newsletters and has achieved above-average returns even in poor markets. She published her newsletter, Investment Quality Trends, for 37 years until she retired in 2003. The newsletter still exists and still follows Weiss's strategy.
Muriel Siebert, Brokerage Founder
Without ever graduating from college, Muriel Siebert obtained entry-level research positions in finance, eventually made partner and went on to found the brokerage firm Muriel Siebert & Co. in 1967. The difficult process of getting her firm registered with the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) involved numerous rejections from men who declined to sponsor her application and difficulties obtaining the necessary financing to meet the exchange's expensive entrance requirements. She persevered, and her firm became the first woman-owned member of the NYSE. It is still the only national, woman-owned brokerage on the exchange.
In 1975 she transformed her company into a discount brokerage - a new concept at the time. This threat to the status quo subjected her to ostracism from Wall Street and near expulsion by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), but she overcame these challenges as well.
She went on to bring her financial expertise to politics, another male-dominated field. She worked as New York State Banking Department Superintendent from 1977 to 1982, where she helped prevent bank failures in a tumultuous market. She also made a bid for a Republican seat in the U.S. Senate. Siebert passed away on Aug. 24, 2013.
Abigail Johnson, Investment Advisor
Billionaire Abigail Johnson is the daughter of Fidelity Investments Chairman Edward C. Johnson III and granddaughter of the company's founder. In February 2011, she became chairman of Fidelity Management and Research Co., the investment advisor for Fidelity's mutual funds, and has served as vice chairman of the board for the entire company. Analysts have speculated that she is being positioned to one day run the whole company.
There's no question that being born into the right family helped Johnson get where she is today. That being said, as one of the largest mutual fund companies with nearly $3.5 trillion in assets under administration, $1.5 trillion of assets under management and a 65-year history, Fidelity has too much at stake to put someone in charge based on name alone. Johnson earned an MBA from Harvard and worked as a customer service rep, an analyst and an equity portfolio manager with Fidelity for about a decade before earning her first executive position there.
Abby Joseph Cohen, Portfolio Strategist
Cohen is a respected and honored investor and portfolio strategist. After starting out as a Federal Reserve Board economist in 1973, Cohen worked as an economist and quantitative strategist at major financial firms including T. Rowe Price, Barclays and Drexel Burnham Lambert. She currently works for Goldman Sachs as its chief investment strategist. She joined the company in 1990 and became partner in 1998.
Cohen is frequently consulted by the media for her market commentary and is known for being bullish, though not necessarily accurate, in her predictions. Outside of her busy day job, she has also held prestigious positions with a number of organizations, including Cornell University, the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute, Major League Baseball and the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also found her name on Forbes' "Most Powerful Women" list that includes women from all professions, not just finance.
Lubna S. Olayan, CEO
As CEO of Riyadh-based Olayan Financing Company, a private multinational and one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent companies, this Saudi woman is responsible for 40 manufacturing companies and has also been named to Forbes' "Most Powerful Women" list.
She entered the family business in the early 1980s when it was not common or socially acceptable for Saudi women to work in business. In fact, it was not and still is not common for Saudi women to work at all, let alone to work in business, because of restrictions on their freedom. Even her own company has few female employees.
Saudi women are widely considered to be uneducated and oppressed, and Olayan acknowledges the strict rules of her society, but she has never felt held back by her gender and has always focused on her job performance.
Like Cohen, Olayan was born into the right family, but she wouldn't be able to run a conglomerate that oversees 40 other companies and that is one of the largest investors in the Saudi stock market if she wasn't intelligent, skilled and determined.
In addition to her high-profile position with Olayan Financing, she became the first female board member of a Saudi public company when she joined Saudi Hollandi Bank in 2004. She has also been a board member of the investment company Egyptian Finance Company and the investment bank Capital Union.
Deborah A. Farrington, Venture Capital Fund Partner
Deborah Farrington is a founder and the president of the business financial software company StarVest Management and a partner of the venture capital fund StarVest Partners. Her earlier positions included president and CEO of a private equity investment firm, founding investor and chairman of a successful staffing company and manager with several financial institutions. Like Johnson, she earned her MBA from Harvard Business School.
Farrington is also a director of two public companies: the collectibles authentication company Collectors Universe, Inc., and the business financial software company NetSuite, Inc., both based in California. In addition, she is a director at several private companies and one nonprofit, and has been named to Forbes' "Midas List," a ranking of top venture capitalists.
Linda Bradford Raschke, Professional Trader
Linda Raschke is president of two financial firms that bear her initials: LBRGroup, Inc., a commodity trading advisor, and LBR Asset Management, a commodity pool operator. She began trading professionally in the early 1980s and worked as a market maker for stock options. For six years, she worked at the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange and then the Philadelphia Stock Exchange before becoming a self-employed day trader. Raschke authored a book on high probability trading strategies and has been widely featured in the media. She has also lectured on trading for a number of prestigious organizations, including the Managed Futures Association and Bloomberg.
The Bottom Line
Being a woman in finance means high visibility, and women who want to rise through the ranks can make this visibility work in their favor. Though some women in finance face gender discrimination and lower pay for comparable work, the barriers are lower today than when women like Weiss, Siebert and Cohen entered the field. There's no reason why a determined, intelligent and well-qualified woman can't make it in finance today, if she wants to.