Citi sees the days of traders slamming phones coming to an end

Closing the gap: A woman walks past a Citibank branch in New York. Citigroup has been working to boost the share of women from assistant vice-president up through the MD level to bolster its efforts to close the pay gap between male and female employees. — AFP

NEW YORK: The days of traders slamming phones and breaking computers are becoming a thing of the past.

Such behaviour was a frequent sight when Citigroup Inc’s Deirdre Dunn got her start on Wall Street two decades ago. One colleague even kept a mini baseball bat in his desk to hammer his phone back together. Now, with banks desperate to attract diverse candidates to their hallowed trading floors, there’s far less tolerance for that kind of hard-charging attitude, she said.

“If I look at trading when I started, I would say a phone or occasionally a computer got broken at least once a week, or once every two weeks, ” Dunn, Citigroup’s global co-head of rates trading, said during a virtual roundtable last week, held ahead of International Women’s Day yesterday. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore, or it rarely happens.”

Wall Street has long known it needs to change from a bellicose boys’ club, with many of the world’s largest banks pledging to increase the share of roles held by women up and down their corporate ladders. Now, with the pandemic causing a record number of women to leave the workforce entirely, those efforts matter even more.

For its part, Citigroup has been working to boost the share of women from assistant vice-president up through the managing director level to bolster its efforts to close the pay gap between male and female employees. It’s the first major US bank with a woman as chief executive officer, and one of the few financial firms to disclose details of that gender pay disparity.

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced Wall Street executives to send workers home in droves last spring, managers had to be lenient. Images of their traders juggling caring for children or elderly relatives with the daily demands of their jobs suddenly filled their Zoom screens.

Despite the added stress, trading desks thrived. The five biggest US investment banks notched their first year with over US$100bil in such revenue in more than a decade. That’s all meant that trading executives have learned they can offer the flexibility that women long craved and would often leave finance in order to get.

“The world is not going to end if I wake up earlier, go through my e-mails and then every morning, from 7 to 8, I feed my kids breakfast, ” Ayesa Latif, who oversees Citigroup’s electronic foreign-exchange sales teams in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said during the event. “If you need to leave early and go to a school play or a sports game and log on later to finish your work, that’s perfectly fine.”

So far, the flexibility appears to be working. The share of women in finance roles in the US has held steady, according to data from the Department of Labour. At Bank of America Corp, attrition among women remains at a record low as the lender rolled out a bevy of perks tied to childcare in the last year.

Still, the percentage of women occupying roles on Wall Street’s trading floors remains stubbornly low. Most studies put it below 20%.

And fixing that won’t be easy. Dunn said she has received some pushback to her bank’s efforts to diversify, with some raising the issue of positive discrimination, or the practice of favoring someone for a role or opportunity because they’re a member of a protected class – affirmative action, essentially.

“Another thing that commonly gets a lot of discussion, from my perspective, especially on a trading floor, is what is aggressive behaviour? Or what is aggressive language?” Dunn said. “There is some discussion over ‘I wasn’t yelling, I just have a loud speaking voice.’”

To Dunn, that’s just meant more discussions with senior managers in which she shares the findings of the massive employee surveys Citigroup conducts each year.

“You don’t shy away from the fact that these things exist, ” Dunn said. “You certainly can’t pretend that those kind of conversations aren’t happening. You need to address them head on and discuss it.” — Bloomberg

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