Tuesday, 19 April 2011

FFB: Finance, Feminism and Fashion

This was Tuesday's work outfit. No prizes for those of you who guessed which industry I work for.  I'm one of those people that reads the Financial Times, wears suits and comes home very late at night after working long hours.  That's right, I work in finance.

I should caveat that statement with no, I am not an investment banker, a term used a little too widely to describe the myriad of job descriptions that finance encompasses.  And no, I am not on a squillion dollar salary demanding a squillion dollar bonus every year from a big bank bailed out on taxpayer money.  I was one of those thousands of city workers you probably read about in the news who lost their job at the height of the crisis due to the recklessness of a rogue sector and have been working freelance since.  I crunch numbers certainly but work in a very traditional sector that had little to do with the type of financial weapons of mass destruction that caused the crisis.  Although I could explain in layman's terms what a CDO of ABS is (i.e. collaterised debt obligation of asset backed securities) and why they were bad news I couldn't really structure one to save my life.

I struggled at first to think of anything I could post about for this week's FBF event which was planned to coincide with Equal Pay Day in the States but then reading Terri's post at Rags Against The Machine about how she continues to be underpaid for her qualifications prompted me to comment on her blog about my own experience with this.  I then decided I would relate them in more detail here as Terri asked me what my degree was in.

Let me tell you a little personal tale about finance, feminism and one fashion blogger.

Here is another personal fact.  I have a PhD in engineering.  Truth is stranger than fiction!  Did I imagine when I started out studying to be an engineer that I would end up working in the City of London?  Not on your life! But when I graduated as an engineer I found myself continually being told that in my field I needed at least a Masters or a PhD to even get a look in on a job.  A short while after graduating with a scholarship and placement in a UK university under my belt I found myself on the other side of the globe studying further for this elusive qualification that would make me employable and give me the title of Doctor!  And as an aside, as I commented to another blogger, it amazes me how many people expect to meet a man when they first meet me having previously read just my name and title.  I have sometimes been advised to downplay the PhD on my CV in case I come across as arrogant or intimidating.  Would a man be advised to do the same?

Now try to put yourself in my shoes for a moment and imagine you are being interviewed for a job with an engineering company.  Your CV offers work experience across two continents, across several different business lines as well as a PhD in the correct specialist field of engineering the firm requires.  Imagine the director interviewing you flippantly saying to you at the end of the interview that he is not prepared to offer you a higher salary than a graduate just because you have a PhD because he does not believe that people with PhD's are worth it.  He might as well have spat on my CV and rubbed his shoe in it for good measure.  It would be the last interview I ever attended for a job in my profession by training.

Never mind that I had been a top student and earned my PhD from what was then the top UK University (where is Cambridge in the league tables these days?) or that I had more than enough relevant work experience.  I was simply not worth the extra pay, an extra amount which was, when I look back at it now, frankly a pittance.  I am sure the menial salary on offer would have been additionally discounted because I was a woman.

It is no big secret that engineering is badly paid.  Most of my university contemporaries who were in the top ten percent of my year are no longer in the profession, having left similarly disillusioned after years of hard slog.  We were the ones whose assignments everybody else relied on copying when they wanted to sod off to the pub early - it's those lazy people who never really understood what they were doing who are designing your bridges and roads now!

This final interview was all the more disappointing as up until then every industry I had worked in had been typically dominated by men, it was quite common for women to be paid less than men and to see far more men than women at senior levels.  In the end I was not even offered the job as I was deemed too overqualified and not experienced enough.  My cumulative career experience made me feel like a hamster stuck running in a wheel, never getting anywhere, doomed never to be able to get off the track to nowhere.

A couple of years ago I bumped socially into a very senior human resources manager (a woman) at an oil and gas company I once worked for which had the dubious fame of treating its women employees particularly badly.  I questioned her about the rumoured salary differences between men and women at the firm.  She confirmed to me that it was true.  When I pressed her as to why nothing was ever done about it even though there was no good reason for it she replied rather weakly that that was just the way things are.   

Just the way things are?  This from the senior HR manager?  Ladies, when not even the female dominated profession of human resources are our allies in this battle what hope is there?  If it was not for the campaign of many human resources departments for silence on the issue of compensation then companies would not be able to hide the pay gap that so many of them covertly agree to maintain.

When I was offered a slightly better paid junior level job in finance, I took it.  The pay imbalance makes no sense but it is why there has been a brain drain from science and engineering into the City.  Not that finance is an easy option.  The City is still an old boy's club where it is notoriously difficult to get ahead as a woman and many a law suit for pay discrimination has been fought by female financial professionals.  The women in senior positions at the firms I worked with were either single, and/or had no children and seemed unlikely ever to have them.  And boy, do you work!

But the stakes that the engineering profession had presented to me ended up being so comparatively low for the effort I had put into becoming qualified that, when added to the astronomical cost of living in London, it was a no brainer for me to get into something else.  I was fortunate that my education was of interest to another industry and therefore gave me the choice to pursue a different career.  More importantly however, it was my belief that I was worth more than I was being limited to that drove me to change track.

Working in this industry means looking very smart and leaving much of your more adventurous fashion self to come out after hours and weekends.  My working wardrobe did sharpen up considerably on moving into finance, not only because I had more disposable income but the stakes are raised somewhat when you walk into a new workplace to find your female boss is wearing head to toe Prada and the female directors are in Chanel with their names on waiting lists for Hermes Birkins.  The normal standards of what value for money is gets turned on its head.  I remember reflecting constantly on the absurdity of how I had been able to live for almost two years in Spain on the cost of the ostrich leather Birkin bag that had pride of place in my director's office.

I also remember mildly panicking on my first day decked out in my tweed suit from Mango and realising that Topshop was probably not going to cut it if I was going to follow that old adage of "dress for the job you want".  So a trip to the sale outlet of TM Lewin for some straight city suiting tied me over until a few paychecks later when I could afford to buy some more upmarket work tregs.

Fashion Feminist Blogger Reading Material
Here are the last two books I finished reading on my tube journeys.  How's this for finance, feminism and fashion reading material?  Frocks one week, credit derivatives the next, both superb female authors, both fascinating reads. 

I recently read A Life in Frocks by Kelly Doust, which is one woman's memoires of her wardrobe throughout her life and the kind of light hearted book you can switch off and de-stress reading.  It could almost have been written by me, I had so much in common with the author.  We are both Australian, both did stints working in the City of London, share common yearnings for dresses that promise to change our lives and both ended up with English partners.

The second book is written by Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett and I could harp on and on about how everyone should read this book to understand how badly they have been fleeced as taxpayers by the banking sector.  Many years ago my tube journeys would have been taken up with more of the "A Life of Frocks" books for fun.  I'm glad that I can now pick up a book like Fool's Gold and enjoy the intellectual stimulation from reading it.  Through work I have managed to expand my interest and knowledge into new areas in which I myself had previously been staggeringly ignorant and in which I believe many people would benefit from acquiring basic knowledge - as workers, taxpayers, voters, savers, small business owners, house owners and investors - we all have a vested interest in the health of the financial sector.  The best weapon we have to fight against any financial injustices, be it unequal pay or holding those accountable for a catastrophic credit crisis, is information.  Become informed.  I found this book, even to someone who followed the credit crisis unfolding very closely, a real eyeopener.

I was interested to learn that even the author, Gillian Tett, a social anthropologist by degree and accomplished financial journalist, confesses in the book that she used to hide her "strange" academic background writing:

        "At the time, it seemed that the only qualifications that commanded respect were degrees in orthodox economics, or an MBA: the craft of social anthropology seemed far too "hippy" (as one banker caustically observed) to have any bearing on the high rolling, quantitative world of finance."

She then goes on to argue beautifully how the financial sector, with its lack of interest in wider social matters finally contributing to its downfall, could learn much form the holistic analysis techniques employed in the field of social anthropology.  She also discusses how social "silences" serve to maintain the status quo of power structures - where an elite group "try to maintain their power not simply by garnering wealth, but by dominating the mainstream ideologies, both in terms of what is said, and also what is not discussed."

Sounds like one of the best arguments for transparency on pay between genders to me!

Wool pinstripe suit: Zara; High heeled brogues: Kurt Gieger; Jersey draped top: Vivienne Westwood Anglomania


  1. Great outfit and a very articulate post.

    You've worked hard and you deserve your success ... and wardrobe!


    SSG xxx

  2. I can't believe the nerve of that man that interviewed you! I imagine you're right, that those same words would never been said to say a John Smith!!

  3. Veshoevius--what a long and fascinating journey you have been on. I too have been told to keep writing credentials off of my vita...and I would love to read a book on these questions by a social anthropologist. Here's hoping I can find it in the USA.

  4. "Intimidating"--that's the word I get, even from academics/intellectuals. I learned a long time ago to downplay all the schooling, all the travel, all the "everything"--although I doubt it works. I still get the word. Our times are STILL not ready for the educated, intelligent, well-traveled, stylish, beautiful woman that you clearly are. This is actually one reason I LOVE working for myself behind a computer at home. I wouldn't get far if I had to show my face or expose my voice.

  5. The fact that you had to work so hard only to get to a place where some man is telling you to play down your credentials AND they wouldnt be willing to be paying you any more because of it, sickens me. such a shame but onwards and upwards, right?!
    ps that suit is power dressing at its best. x

  6. Veshoevius, I really enjoyed reading about your educational and work trajectory. Not only that, all of the important questions you raised here need to be the subject of more searching discussions amongst women. Thanks so much for a really vital and engaging post!

  7. What specialty in engineering?

    Your post particularly interests me because one of my lifetime role models, witty and smart and striking and formerly one of my dad's engineering grad students, is a woman who has done very well for a long time at General Motors. My college roommate, who studied engineering, is now a mother of three and continues to be (I think) happy and successful at an engineering company.

    I'd long felt that engineering was a good place for women, and I was proud of and pleased for those who chose to study it and make it their work. But your post comes shortly after my dad emailed me some articles about how women are leaving engineering because of negative work environments. It seems that inequal pay is not the only issue -- there are patronizing, even sexist attitudes from male colleagues, too much travel, poor company planning, long hours, and little work/home divide.

    Working conditions drive women from engineering, UWM survey says

    Why don't we have more practicing women engineers?

    Anyway, I'm a proponent of "working to live, not living to work." I wish we could all have jobs about which we were passionate, that allowed us free time to explore other interests, and that paid us enough upon which we could live pleasant lives. But failing that, I, too, have done work simply because it was tolerable and it paid me enough to live pleasantly. And you know what -- I learned useful things in these fields, just as you've learned about finance. No, processing mortgages and marketing real estate didn't speak to my soul, but I've been so much more comfortable working through my own lown processes, and buying (and selling) my own houses.

  8. Pinstripe is the HOTNESS! I love it to death (especially in 20s Gangster-Looks). Can`t wait for it to become trendy again!

  9. Wow, that is one disillusioning story about that job interview. I'm glad you found a different route to take. At the same time I'm scared by the prospect of having to wear brand name clothing of the luxury class once you work in a certain environment... I don't think I'll ever get there but it's still frightening.

  10. This was so interesting Veshoevius. The job I just left was as a researcher with a financial services company, and I did feel as though I was never going to get anywhere with it. I think that was partly to do with the stream I found myself in, but also because I was a female, and a fairly feminine one at that. I'm glad to be out of it x

  11. The fabulous pin stripe suit goes without saying.

    I was reading this post and I just wanted to go out and raise my feminist flag sooo HIGH!!I absolutely related to everything you talked about. I studied in the Legal Field, which is just as much of a boys club as finance and despite having two degrees and a portofolio of legal work it's hard to get in anywhere except as a receptionist or file clerk because education means NOTHING if you don't have experience. But how can I get experience if no one hires me??

    It's true that we have to be informed and don't play down our education nor our credentials. Men aren't expected to so why should we?

    Bravo for such an awesome post!!

  12. Wow! I was very interested to read some of these responses especially as there are several who could relate to at least some of what I'd gone through from their own personal experiences. It just goes to show that we haven't come as far along as we should have and that there is still much more work to be done.

    @Cloud of Secrets - those articles are as fascinating as they are depressing - you know the accusations against engineering as an unsupportive workplace for women are the same as those against finance!

  13. Hey Doc you are fekking hot in your "City suit"! My 'puter almost slipped off my lap when I saw your pinstripes and white shoes. Holy christ I've been looking for a suit like that for 20 years. Maybe I need to go to Zara in Sydney. Sorry, I must seem like the most shallow blogger to reply here. You need to get this incredible post into this week's IFB Links my dear. You deserve a medal for what you've had to put up with. Put that damn PhD on your CV and be proud. Show me a man that plays down his credentials and my name's Hilary Clinton;). Glad you liked the cape and suit - I could see you wearing both. xo

  14. Hey,

    Wow you have such a wealth of knowledge in you and you didn't let barriers get in your way.

    I applaud you for that.

    The engineering field is missing out on an awesome person because you have a lot to offer.
    You are right that we still have work to do in equal opportunity arena.

    This is an awesome post and the books you recommended Fools gold and A life in frocks I plan to read.

    You are fabulous and your suit is so professional chicness!


  15. Life is just weird. All my life I thought: If I had only finished my university degree then... - but obviously it's not like this at all. My brother has also trained as engineer and he does amazing stuff (a lot of work for Olafur Eliasson), but certainly doesn’t earn what he (as I think) should.
    On the other hand just by showing up at my St Martins course with the FT in my bag made my teacher decide that I must be a kept woman with too much money (and no matter how much I hinted that I was just a poor renter would make her change her mind).
    Oh, I have so much more to say about this, but I think I'll shut up now. One day we will have to have a proper chat over coffee, I hope. xo

  16. I'm just swooping in here to say that you look smokin' hot in that pinstripe suit and white high-heeled brogues. Once again, I'm dying! I worked for electrical engineers when I lived in Austin, Texas. There was 1 woman engineer and 50 male engineers. The lady engineer was feminine and good-looking and she held her ground in that heavy testosterone environment. I admired her for it.

  17. Oh boy. I just left a huge rant about this over at terri's place. It's past 2am here and I won't make any sense at all so best i leave this to another day...

    Just quickly, you look ahhh ready to take on the world, soooo fine... and I love that you are so fine, so Flamenco and have a doctorate.

    This is a very important post. You need to think about writing articles for your industry hon. Publish in the magazines that get read by the women who need to read this. Start a revolution Veshoevius.


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