Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Women in Finance

Happy International Women's Day!

I wanted to mark today with a more upbeat post (even if I skulk back to my brooding, cynical Cave of Many Opinions later in the day), partly because involvement with women's rights entails not only fighting for equality, but also being optimistic about the future.

That, and I'm sick. Like sore throat and heavy head sick. I know who gave it to me, and I'm looking at you, J. >:(

Watching this TED Talk, I was reminded of previous posts discussing the greater acceptance of femininity in the business and political worlds, (that's not the topic of the linked post but it is mentioned) and how not hiding femininity won't hold you back in Taiwan the way it might in the USA.

What it also brought to mind is how much more respected women are in financial fields in Taiwan. There is absolutely none of the usual "women aren't as good with money" or an expectation that a woman who works in finance or banking has to shed expressions of femininity. If anything, I'd say there might be a slight social bias in favor of women handling money, viewing them as more responsible with it than men.

In the USA, I can say that many women in this field absolutely do "act male" - I would know, I used to work in finance. Female bankers, traders, hedge fund managers, accountants, CFOs and financial planners all hide behind corporate-colored suits and sharply tailored clothes (which can be a certain kind of feminine) but know, often only subconsciously, that they would have neither gotten where they are nor would they be as respected as they are if they were to wear, say, lavender sweaters or soft colors or do anything to draw attention to their femaleness.

Of course there are women in finance who are respected in the USA - I'm pointing not to individuals but to general trends here, and the general trend I've noticed is that to earn respect and equivalent position and pay, you do have to tamp down femininity and go corporate-gray, black or navy.

Back to notions of respect and not of dress, and just on how women in finance are viewed in Taiwan, I think it has to do with the cultures that forms the bases of attitudes in Taiwan and the West (this idea was hatched by a student, mind you, an opinion from the inside rather than observation).

The idea being that traditionally in Taiwan and Japan, the men worked and brought home the money, but on pay day they'd give it to their wives, who would in turn create the household budget and give their husbands an "allowance". According to my friend in Japan, this is still quite common there, even in ultramodern Tokyo: salarymen on allowances. It does still happen in Taiwan - I had a student, the head of a department in a major electronics parts manufacturer, who had a stay-at-home wife who took his entire paycheck and told him how much of it he could keep as she ran the household. While this arrangement isn't quite as common anymore, it is still quite common for the wife to handle more household budget issues than the husband, and not a source of embarrassment for the men - the attitude is more "Why wouldn't she handle finances?" possibly with a "...my mother and grandmother did!" at the end.

As such, women were more traditionally trusted with money here, and that's carried over into modern jobs in banking, accounting and finance. There is an intrinsic trust of women in these fields, as supported by traditional cultural attitudes, and as such they seem to have far fewer barriers to success and far less pressure to masculinize their attitudes. You do occasionally come across women who adopt the Wall Street Swagger in the USA (when those jobs are held by women, which is relatively rarely), but rarely in Taiwan. They don't have to.

Back in the USA (and I gather much of the rest of the West), before women started to work in significant numbers, and even afterwards, husbands generally retained control of household budgets as "heads of the household" (a term which chafes me to no end). This was of course not always true, but it was more likely that while a woman might control a shopping and decorating/renovating or childrearing budget, her husband would plan retirement, investments, large purchases and vacations and decide when they would happen, how the money would be spent and how much would be spent on such things.

All I can say about that is that it is absolutely not the arrangement I have with my husband! We're much more equal in how we plan our finances and while I take something of a leading role, I'm hardly solely in charge.

Anyway, I can see how this could lead to a culture of not trusting women with money - and that does seem to be true at home. Women have an undeserved reputation for being spendthrifts and shopaholics who can't handle the idea of a budget or clamp down when austerity is necessary. What purchases they do make, despite being seen as driving the economy or necessary for the household or to keep up a professional appearance, are often seen as "frivolous" - nevermind what the purchases are. Women shop more, and therefore they can't save money - nevermind as well that women still control the majority of everyday household purchases and have greater expenses when it comes to grooming.

And nevermind that our great grandmothers and grandmothers got us through the Depression and World War II by being frugal and we're getting through the Great Recession by cutting household budgets - we're still not trusted with money in the West - and I think it has a lot to do with the roots of our cultural attitudes. Of course women would be trusted with money here if traditionally they ran the household budgets, and that trust wouldn't be there in a country where men generally ran the roost.

Looking at the finance industry in Taiwan, I do see a world noticeably more open to women than back home. Take a look at Prudential Taiwan: the General Manager is female and plenty of department heads and other occupiers of high-level positions are women, too. Look at Invesco Taiwan - several female department heads. The Big Four accounting firms - accounting is a popular choice for young women looking for careers in Taiwan, and the staff, especially auditors, tends to be female. The students I've worked with at various securities companies and banks have either been predominantly female or with fairly equal male-to-female ratios (I can say all of this because it's not like the information is a secret).

And you know what? Not one of these women would fear wearing a lavender sweater of feminine skirt and blouse to work.

...and I can not say that about the USA. I'd like to see the distribution back home be more equal - "oh, we have so many more women now than we did twenty years ago" isn't good enough if women are still in the noticeable minority. If women can be a driving force in Asian finance (which, by the way, might be a reason why attitudes towards money in Asia tend to be more savings-oriented and less crazy-risk-taking), then I don't see why they can't hold approximately 50% of the positions in finance back home. Same for government: if so many other countries can elect female leaders, why can't we? If the Rwandan legislative body can be roughly equal between men and women, why are our Senate and Congress dominated by men?

And on Women's Day, I do think it is important to meditate on these differences - not just how far we've come but how much we are respected as women (and not women getting respect by acting like men) and how much farther we have to go.

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