Finance remains a male-dominated profession, especially at the top. Women in the United States made up 53 percent of the total labor force in finance in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But they accounted for only 17 percent of senior-level managers in the investment banking sector in 2015, according to a February 2017 survey by Catalyst Research and the latest data.
Women can be heavily scrutinized or overlooked for positions of power. They are sometimes underestimated, pitted against each other, held to a higher standard, and expected to work harder or achieve more to prove themselves against their male counterparts.
But there are now more opportunities in finance than ever before for women, thanks in large part to women who have pioneered in the field. If you want to play leadership roles in finance and are looking for models, here are seven women who have achieved great success - often by being willing to stand out, take risks and refuse 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, listening to her parents' conversations, and studying 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."
To avoid further gender discrimination, Weiss signed her newsletter "G. Weiss." It wasn't until the mid-1970s that she revealed her 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, Siebert 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, too.
Siebert went on to bring her financial expertise to politics, another male-dominated field. As New York State Banking Department Superintendent from 1977 to 1982, she helped prevent bank failures in a tumultuous market. As a Republican, she also made a bid for a U.S. Senate seat. Siebert passed away on August 24, 2013.
Abigail Johnson, Investment Advisor
Billionaire Abigail Johnson became Chairman and CEO of Fidelity Investments in 2016, after serving as President and CEO since 2014. She is the daughter of former Fidelity Chairman Edward C. Johnson III and granddaughter of the company's founder. She owns nearly 25% of the company, and her net worth is estimated at about $11 billion.
There is no question that being born into the right family helped Johnson get where she is today. That said, as one of the largest mutual fund companies with nearly $6.8 trillion in assets under administration, $2.6 trillion of assets under management as of 2018 and a 71-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 representative, 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 has been a respected and honored portfolio strategist for decades. After serving 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 joined Goldman Sachs in 1990, became a partner in 1998. Her positive and accurate forecasts of the 1990s bull market made her a star in finance and media.
Cohen retired in 2018 as Chief Strategist and President of Goldman's Global Market Institute. But as of 2019, she remains an advisory director and senior investment strategist, as well as a member of the Investment Committee for the firm’s U.S. retirement plans.
Cohen has also held prestigious positions with 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 finances.
Lubna S. Olayan, CEO
As CEO of Riyadh-based Olayan Financing Company, one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent companies, this Saudi woman is responsible for 50 manufacturing companies and has also been named #59 on Forbes' "Most Powerful Women" list.
Olayan entered the family business in the early 1980s when it was not common or socially acceptable for Saudi women to work in the 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. She employs more than 540 women in her company and champions women in the workforce.
Like Johnson, Olayan was born into the right family, but she would not be able to run a conglomerate that oversees 50 other companies and is one of the largest investors in the Saudi stock market if she was not 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 of several private companies and one nonprofit and has appeared on Forbes' "Midas List," a ranking of top venture capitalists.
Linda Bradford Raschke, 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 pressure, but also high visibility. And women who want to rise through the ranks can make this visibility work in their favor. Many women in finance still face gender discrimination and lower pay for comparable work. But the barriers are lower and the options are more plentiful today than when Weiss, Siebert, and Cohen entered the field.