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Researchers from the U.S. search for answers to the gender equality problem in the financial sector, both at home and in Sweden.

The Boston-based researchers zeroed in on Sweden as a point of comparison, since it is seen as one of the most gender-equal countries. They surveyed 60 finance professionals, including partners and senior managers at investment banks and venture capital firms, as well as junior traders and entry-level financial consultants, roughly half men and half women. Thirty participants were interviewed in detail. Approximately 67% were from the U.S. and 33% from Sweden.

The survey asked about gender representation at the participants’ firms as well as their self-efficacy or the degree to which they believe they can impact gender equality at work. Writing about their findings in Harvard Business Review, the researchers said that they expected senior managers in Sweden to report more equal representation of women in finance and higher self-efficacy than in the U.S. This was the case – except in venture capital, investment banking, and securities. The results showed that in these fields, women make up less than 20% of the workforce in both countries.

Participants from Sweden’s investment banking sector said that their teams were comprised of only 5% to 20% women on average. And, they reported having even less confidence than investment bankers in the U.S. about their ability to impact gender equality. While the Swedish firms have more family-friendly policies in place, their workplace cultures discourage people from using them fully. This finding suggests that family-friendly policies alone may not be enough to tip the scales.

One insight the researchers drew was that “the field you work in can matter as much or more than the country you work in.” This is likely due to cultural differences, such as firms in the more male-dominated fields working the longest hours.

Retail banking and corporate finance, in contrast, have higher female representation overall. In these fields, survey respondents and interviewees suggested that equality is greater in Sweden, with Swedish managers reporting that their teams have well over 50% women. Women also held senior leadership and board positions in many cases. The numbers were lower in the U.S.

In interviews, the researchers broached the question of why there is a lack of women in finance. Most finance professionals pointed to a masculine culture and long working hours. Behind the latter is an assumption that women are more averse to long hours due to their disproportionate family responsibilities, but this was not validated by the female interviewees. A masculine and unwelcoming culture was cited more often as a reason for the lack of women in certain fields.

As to how change might come about, many respondents said their clients pressure them to strive for more equal gender representation. Clients are in a position to effect positive change, as they can demand more inclusion. The research also identified young people, particularly men, as allies in both countries. While there is still a long way to go, the study also revealed grassroots movements, suggesting that at finance firms in both countries, there is a will to change.

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