The Women In Listed Derivatives (WILD) annual symposium last week at the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank addressed a pressing question and one that men face as well. Now that floor trading is mostly gone and that route into the business closed, what can young women do to get into the industry and what can the veteran professionals do to help them?

This fourth year for the event was a chance for women in the derivatives industry to be among a sea of women, rather than the usual sea of men we find at most industry gatherings. WILD aims to help women advance in an industry that still is dominated by men.

Craig Donohue, executive chairman of the OCC, the only male speaker at the symposium, opened the event with a telling statistic about the state of the industry.

“Currently only 1.4 percent of CEOs in the financial industry are women,” he said. “And only 19.8 percent held board seats in the financial sector, versus 20.7 percent of the overall S&P index of companies.”

Most of the women panelists, successful executives with long and sometimes circuitous career histories, had grown up on the trading floor. They often had little to no experience in that world when they started, and had set out with entirely different paths in mind. But what they had in common was a deep appreciation for the grounding given to them while working in the pits and a love of the industry and of the various jobs they had had within it.

The wide range of panelists included Tamara Page, currently diversity & inclusion manager at BP North America, who said that after college she planned “to go to Africa and save the world” but ended up being hired also by Andersen Consulting and started a career in finance. Cindy Williams, vice president of futures and options in the Americas at JPMorgan, said she had planned to write the great American novel and thought math was irrelevant, but ended up getting a Series 3 and landing on the trading floor, later joining CBOT in a business development role.

“A theme that runs through all our stories,” said Kay Torshen, founder and president of Torshen Capital Management, “is that none of us intended to be where we are now.”  

Torshen started out wanting to be a college professor. She got a scholarship and a master’s degree from Harvard, but the scholarship was later withdrawn because she was a woman. She also had trouble getting hired at first, because at that time companies didn’t want to take jobs away from men. She nevertheless went on to become the only woman operating at the partner level at Andersen Consulting, and then a floor trader at the CBOE, where she discovered she had a feel for the markets.

Being a woman on the nearly all-male trading floors was not easy for any of the panelists.  But Torshen said she was so naive at the time, that she wasn’t terribly bothered by the “nasty language” men on the floor used towards her, because she didn’t even understand what they were saying.

Margery Teller, founder of Teller Trading, had “a wall of rejection letters” from various jobs she applied to after college, and one acceptance to trade on the CBOT floor.  She worked for O’Connor & Company in the options pit, where at first she didn’t know the difference between an option and a future. But she realized that Eurodollar options were a growing market.

“There were no women in the pits at that time,” Teller said. “But that was not a detriment.”  Once you won the men’s respect as a trader, she said, it was all about the trade.

Many of the women who spoke felt that, although the floor was a first year gauntlet to establish themselves, that trial by fire had given them strength and self-confidence.

“If you could deal with that first year, nothing would faze you,” Teller said.

The advance of automated trading and changes in regulation have opened up some opportunities for women, but they have also closed some. Women don’t study mathematics in the same numbers as men, and trading is now highly dependent on mathematical knowledge and skill, Teller pointed out.

Nancy Kaplan, a longtime industry executive, echoed her, saying “I thought the advent of electronic trading would mean more women in the business, but it has not been so.” The progress to automation has created opportunities for people with very different skill sets, she added.

For millennials coming into the industry, one challenge that is different from those faced by previous generations is that millennials here in the U.S. will be competing with people all over the world, Page said. Also, “for baby boomers, there used to be a corporate ladder you could climb. Now it’s more like a jungle gym.”

“What saddens me,” said Julie Holzrichter, COO of CME Group, “is that the trading floor was such a great incubator. It was full of such camaraderie. You don’t have that now.”

“On the floor, once you proved yourself as a trader, gender didn’t matter much,” said Tina Lemieux, principal at Lemieux Consulting Group. However, “In a corporate environment, I needed a mentor,” she added.

Mentorship is increasing as a way millennials can gain some knowledge and experience as they attempt to forge a path in the industry, as well as sponsorship programs, in which women can find someone to advocate for them, Page said.

Holzrichter also said there is no such thing as being a pure technologist – you have to understand the goal of the business.

“This industry is ripe for combining those two elements”  – technology and business savvy, she said.

Donohue said companies can help attract and retain qualified women by ensuring that boards and management teams have highly qualified women executives, which he helped to do as CEO of CME Group as well as at the OCC.

Another is to provide flexible work arrangements that allow women to balance work and family, and to find ways to enable women to re-enter the workforce if they have opted to spend time away with their children.

On the question of whether companies should have quotas for hiring women, Holzrichter said that in the derivatives industry, we tend to believe “it’s better to be principles based rather than prescriptive based. People generally find a way to work around prescriptive rules. It’s more important to change the culture.”

Work-life balance is extremely important for millennials, and some companies are recognizing that. And loyalty has changed – while changing jobs frequently used to be considered a negative on a resume, that is reversing. Millennials are much more comfortable working for a company for only three or four years and then moving on, and that is becoming more accepted.

The panelists urged young women to travel widely and abroad – something a majority of the speakers had done – to take risks, and to keep reinventing themselves.

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