Stacey Cunningham made history Friday when she became the first female president of the New York Stock Exchange in the institution’s 226-year history.
Cunningham — who began her career with the exchange as a 19-year-old intern in 1994 — said she was touched when colleagues said she was an example for their own daughters. She also acknowledged women who had paved the way for her rise, and the work that remained to be done in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
“I do look forward to a day when a woman taking a job isn’t newsworthy,” Cunningham told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. “But we aren’t quite there yet.”
Experts in workplace gender dynamics agree. Ursula Mead, founder and CEO of job-review platform InHerSight, noted that although none of the big Wall Street banks is helmed by women, now two of the major exchanges are, the Nasdaq having appointed Adena Friedman as CEO at the beginning of last year. “I think having two women lead the exchanges can go a long way towards changing the perception of women in finance,” she said.
Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, said Cunningham’s appointment should serve as a reminder that more still needs to be done for women to achieve parity in finance and other male-dominated fields. “A single appointment does not totally destroy longtime practices and approaches but it does signal that there’s a real opportunity,” she said. “Disrupting the boys’ club culture is a good thing. This could be an opportunity to begin that.”
Having a board committed to diversity helps, and big investors’ growing comfort with taking on advocacy roles has the potential to advance gender parity.
“You have to have a board that advocates for change or thinks differently,” said Di Ann Sanchez, a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Special Expertise Panel of the Society for Human Resource Management.
“We do have some progress at the board level,” said Barbara Krumsiek, senior fellow at the Women’s Leadership Institute at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “Investors who increasingly feel that diverse boards lead to better outcomes… like large pension funds have made this a priority. They have that tool of advocacy, which they’ve exercised,” she said.
For women to be better-represented in corporate leadership, support needs to come from corner offices, as well. Cunningham credited the mentors she had over the years with pushing her to believe in herself and her ambition. “I think it’s so important for women to not hold themselves back,” she told NBC News. “I’ve been very, very fortunate to have mentors that have pushed me.”
By highlighting mentorship, Cunningham identified a critical, but often absent, component that helps young women grow in their careers, according to experts. “[It’s] one of the things that has been missing in too many fields, especially those that have been traditionally dominated by men,” Graves said.
Finance is no exception. “We still see there’s work to be done around mentorship and sponsorship programs in the industry,” Mead said.
According to Barbara Krumsiek, a senior fellow at the Women’s Leadership Institute at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, mentorship is equally important — if not more so — when it is undertaken informally, because that indicates a corporate culture that encourages the organic development of those relationships.
“Informal mentoring is more useful to them,” she said. “You’re not assigning someone or requiring anything, which says to me it’s culture.”
WHY ARE THERE SO FEW WOMEN ON WALL STREET?
Krumsiek said finance has more gender parity than many others fields at the entry level, but women tend to leave the field at a consistently higher rate than men, which skews that balance over time. “Particularly in financial services and Wall Street, we have a lot of women entering, but we tend to see very few of them at the top,” she said. “It doesn’t have an intake problem… it’s the attrition rate that particularly bothers me.”
Corporate culture is often to blame, Krumsiek said. “We do find one of the most frequently cited reasons women give is their frustration, and the general sense of the climate not being accepting or not being the type of climate they’d like to have in the workplace.” Having more women in key top roles could help shift this dynamic, she said.
InHerSight data suggests similar findings: Women at financial firms tend, in general, to have a positive view of their industry, but they are dissatisfied with the number of women in industry leadership roles, and in the opportunities afforded to them by official mentorship programs, women-focused initiatives or affiliate groups. Mead said that although women hold nearly 30 percent of senior level jobs at financial firms, they make up only around 5 percent of president and CEO-level positions.
“I think it’s really important that we continue this trend of trying to increase women’s representation in management, in senior leadership, in the C-suite,” she said, because those examples become beacons for the next generation of young women entering the workforce.
Cunningham also alluded to this, telling NBC’s Guthrie, “The fact is that any time a woman does something or any individual, any time they redraw the boundaries, it’s helping everybody that follows them.”