How to Network Your Way Into Finance as a Female – Without Getting Hit On or Getting In Your Own Way
There shouldn’t have to be a separate article on networking for women.
Women who want to work in finance need to develop their stories, cold call, and be diligent in following up – just like men who want to break in.
But women still encounter gender-related obstacles on their path to breaking into finance – some of which you can prepare for and work your way through, and others which may require arming yourself to defend against crazy male bankers.
Obstacle 1: Not Telling Your Story Confidently
Ever notice how ‘global warming’ became ‘climate change’? Or how the debate is over the ‘death tax’ instead of the ‘estate tax’?
Frank Lunz coined those phrases at the behest of politicians and industry groups to affect the way we think about and discuss the issues behind them. His firm’s motto is: “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.”
The same goes for you when networking or interviewing. Brian has covered what you should say, but you also need to pay attention to how it’s heard. Women have a different communication style than men that can sometimes undermine the content of their speech.
Let’s say you’re completing a less-than-ideal summer internship between your junior and senior years of college, and you’re networking with bankers to boost your chances during full-time recruitment in the fall.
You meet with a VP in Equity Capital Markets, and he asks about your experience. You answer:
“Well, I feel like I’d be a good investment banker but I couldn’t get any internships there so I’m just a part-time intern at a local PWM office. I do some investment research and performance analysis, but also some administrative work because their regular admin is on medical leave for colon cancer.”
The first problem is starting with a preamble: it clutters your actual point without conveying relevant information.
Related to the preamble is the lengthy explanation at the end about the regular admin’s medical leave – get to your point succinctly and then stop. Adding irrelevant context around it only undermines what you’re trying to communicate.
The second problem is downplaying your work by saying you’re ‘just’ a PWM intern at a ‘local office’ instead of naming the firm. Those little modifiers tell the listener you’re not taking the internship, or yourself, very seriously.
‘Feeling’ words, as opposed to thinking or doing words, come off as passive and less confident. You don’t ‘feel’ you’d be a good banker – you know it because you love Excel and all-nighters.
Tell the truth, but don’t feel pressured to tell the whole truth. Your admin work won’t help you stand out, and talking about it as much as the investment work makes it sound like you spend equal time on both.
You should rephrase your answer to the following to sound more confident and direct:
“I’m interning at Credit Suisse Private Wealth Management in Cleveland, doing investment research and performance analysis. I’ve followed a lot of the recent IPOs and that’s led me to explore investment banking.”
Even after recognizing your communication landmines and avoiding them, you can still kill your story with the biggest mistake women make: ending declarative sentences with a higher-pitched voice. Doing so makes it sound like you’re asking questions when you should be stating facts.
How much would you trust a banker who spoke like this:
“Well, we have to discount for the overseas cash? Because bringing it back to the US would incur tax penalties? And there aren’t any promising avenues for expanding the business abroad?”
Luckily, these errors are fixable: it all comes down to honest self-assessment.
Film yourself doing a practice interview and review it to pinpoint times where what you’re saying doesn’t match up with how the other person hears it. Keep practicing until you’ve broken these bad habits and develop an instinct for direct, confident speech.
You have to practice until that direct, confident speech becomes natural.
Obstacle 2: Not Putting Yourself Out There
What’s stopping women from becoming networking ninjas?
It might just be their timidity around the aggressive tactics profiled before on this site, like cold-calling and asking bluntly about getting that job or internship.
You might have a 4.0 from Wharton but you won’t get anywhere if you just sit around, hoping to get noticed (OK, maybe a 4.0 from Wharton does bring the jobs to you – if the economy is good).
You must capitalize on your relationships: women are more concerned with “fairness” than men and may be reluctant to call a well-connected uncle because it feels nepotistic.
This is a counterproductive attitude, and a close family friend or relative is the perfect person to make introductions and referrals because they already have a vested interest in your success.
Finding a woman mentor early on can jumpstart your networking efforts – not only will she be a role model, but she can advise you on the people and firms with a bad reputation for women. If you get lucky, she’ll have a personal mission to promote women in finance.
If you can’t find a potential woman mentor through your usual channels, join a women-oriented industry organization. 85 Broads is good for general finance and 100 Women in Hedge Funds covers women on the buy-side. Students are eligible to join these two and get access to names, events, and job databases.
Use LinkedIn to find regional groups for women in finance like Texas Wall Street Women.
And don’t forget about diversity recruitment opportunities – they often include women in their definition of “diversity.”
Obstacle 3: This is Not a Date
We can’t write an article on men and women networking without reminding everyone that flirting and sexual harassment are no-gos.
Some guidelines to avoid impropriety, or even the appearance of impropriety:
1. Professionalism, professionalism, professionalism.
When in doubt, err on the side of conservatism. Finance is the rare industry where being overly conservative, especially in dress and manner, is unlikely to backfire.
2. Set the tone with the surroundings.
Meet at the office instead of a café. Meet during the workday instead of before or after.
What about Brian’s advice to meet bankers on weekends during multi-day city visits?
Frankly, I’d avoid meeting male bankers for the first time on a weekend because the weekend signals less professionalism, even if he’s at work. Use weekends to meet new women and catch up with folks with whom you’ve already established a relationship.
3. Shake hands, never hug.
If a man is hesitant about shaking hands, women should extend theirs confidently. Make sure your handshake is firm.
4. Meeting two contacts together eliminates the chances of your meeting being misinterpreted and reduces the chances of a boneheaded personal comment.
This is easy if you already have two contacts in the same group at a bank. If you don’t, pay attention to what your one contact says about his co-workers in your email and phone conversations. If he mentions a particular person a few times, mention that you’d like to meet that person as well and ask to schedule them together.
5. No alcohol.
In the comments to other networking articles, readers have mentioned going to banker bars to expand their network under the guise of making friends.
If a woman did that, it would send seriously mixed signals – how many women have chatted up guys in bars without making the guy think non-professional thoughts? 99% of the horror stories I’ve heard from women in finance started with a guy drinking too much. This is a no-brainer.
6. Get a ‘cockroach ring’ if you’re not married or engaged.
This is a cubic zirconia faux engagement ring big enough that guys should notice it and think you’re off-limits. However, this tactic only works if you’re of an age where it’s considered normal to be engaged or married in your part of the world. A nineteen-year old in the US with a big ring would attract the wrong kind of curiosity.
7. This one’s for the guys: a simple rule to make sure you’re not crossing the line is to ask if your comment would feel acceptable with either gender.
“I’m especially impressed by your research report on patent asset valuation” sounds fine whether the imagined audience is male or female. Something you probably wouldn’t say to another guy: “That shirt is really flattering.”
If your contact does make an unprofessional advance, you can:
- Leave. This works if you’re at a conference or some other group setting where you can just walk out of a conversation.
- Be upfront immediately after the inappropriate remark or gesture. Corporette’s guide to networking with older men suggests saying, “I’m flattered by the attention, but not interested like that.”
- Be judicious about reporting it. If it happens during an on-campus interview, talk to your college career office. They’ll determine how to address it with the company and can anonymize their report. It’s harder to report harassment if it happens at an informal event and you’re not an employee of the firm. As much as I hate to let guys get away with this behavior, you may have to let it go for the time being if that’s the case. Calling the firm to report him runs the risk of branding you as a potential liability – but you can tell other women in your network about it so they know to watch out.
Networking isn’t easy when you’re in the majority, let alone a visible minority.
So use these tactics to show you’re equal to the boys and put another crack in the glass ceiling.
Hetty MacIntyre grew up in Western Europe and the Deep South before attending a liberal arts college in the Northeast. She worked at a large pension and endowment fund manager before starting her own value-oriented private investment fund.
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