What makes high finance the ideal career for women?

2 January 2019 10:27
Michelle White

As a recent graduate, Michelle White (BSc International Business (Economics) 2003) didn’t fully grasp the importance of flexible working, maternity leave and team focused approach when a Lehman Brothers executive mentioned that a career in the wealth management industry would be perfect for a woman. 

“At the time it felt a bit like he was speaking a foreign language, the thought of being married and having a family was so far removed from my position, as a hungry graduate ready to prove myself, that I didn’t really pay much attention”.

Fifteen years later and now as a mother of two, Michelle recognises how right this executive was. “It’s a great job for women. You find like-minded colleagues to partner with - smart, talented people - with whom you form long-term relationships. You’re supported, therefore going on maternity leave isn’t an issue. When I started my career, I was in the same team for five years before the financial crash in 2008 and I was part of the same team for almost as long afterwards. I have always felt fortunate to work in a field I’m passionate about and with people whom I respect and admire.”

Michelle has reached the position of Executive Director at Julius Baer, the world’s leading Swiss private banking group, an organisation managing assets of CHF 395 billion. She provides wealth management services to high and ultra-high net worth clients, including wealth planning (cash flow analysis, asset and liability analysis, pension planning, philanthropy), investment management and lending.

Her career has been shaped by the people she’s known. Not through privilege or old school ties but rather through her affiliation with the local hockey club.

“I’d heard about Lancaster University from someone at my local hockey club who’d attended the University and was fascinated by the insights they shared. After conducting some initial research, I learned that Lancaster was amongst the top three in the league tables for economic research which I found to be both impressive and a draw. The campus felt like a big village - which was comfortable for me having grown up in rural Hertfordshire.

“Life on campus was brilliant. I was in Fylde College, right at the heart of things. Hockey was a big focus of my life at Lancaster and I took part in college sports matches for Fylde every other weekend. I was captain of the first team for hockey in my second year and social secretary in my third.”

Long before the arrival of Instagram and Snapchat, there was a more primitive form of social media.

“Every Thursday morning we’d be excited about the noticeboard! We’d rush down to see the posters with news of forthcoming matches, along with gossip and reports, in the hope of finding we’d been mentioned. Now it sounds like something from the dinosaur age.”

The Lancaster experience provided an essential foundation for work in the real-world.

“Tutors were business-oriented in the way they taught - always putting the lessons into context, explaining why the knowledge would be useful and practical, careful to bring the topics to life as opposed to making it feel like textbook learning for its own sake. There was also an important freedom of choice when it came to topics, which allowed me to undertake modules in management science and economics as part of the same International Business programme.”

“I’d always thought I would end up in finance - my parents were both in the industry as a banker and a chartered accountant - I’d always enjoyed maths and economics and happened to be good at them both but there was definitely an element of ‘it’s who you know not what you know’ in terms of landing my first role. 

The Chief Operating Officer of the Investment Management Division at Lehman Brothers in London had joined my Hertfordshire hockey club after I had left for university and friends in the club contacted me at Lancaster to highlight that she was offering internship places there. I applied but didn’t actually get one in the end, as they were given to two men she knew directly through the club. Nonetheless, having met me in person, she offered to circulate my CV around the department in case other opportunities arose. The rest, as they say, is history, as I was then invited to interview for a sales assistant role with the private client team a few weeks later and promptly offered the position.”

As a woman who has climbed the ladder in a traditionally masculine industry, Michelle points to very different experiences depending on the culture of individual employers.

“From what I’ve seen, American firms are a long way ahead of the rest in terms of attitudes to and treatment of women and other minorities. When I look back, at my time in Lehman Brothers I was often the only woman in the room - of the 3,000 employees in the London office there were only two female Managing Directors - but I didn’t ever particularly notice and it was never an issue. If you were good enough to be in the room then that was all that mattered. You were treated with respect and as an equal. From my perspective, Lehman was a true meritocracy, not an organisation that was employing diversity for the sake of it; it wasn’t about box-ticking. If anyone sees a senior female undeserving of their position, then it's really rather detrimental to the positive diversity argument.” 

The global crisis in financial services in 2008 was a difficult, chaotic time. 

“The problems at Lehman Brothers were nothing to do with our work in the private client division, we and our clients were affected by decisions made in other parts of the organisation (and industry). We helped our clients navigate through and out of the bankruptcy, due to strong camaraderie and a passion for delivering despite very tough times.” 

“There have been huge changes since then. People, including clients and employees ask questions that weren’t the norm pre-2008. Questions about segregation of assets for example, making sure people understand their counterparty exposures versus assets which are ring-fenced. Regulation and oversight of the industry has increased and this has created challenges as well as opportunity. Julius Baer has tackled the opportunity by investing in new technologies that allow us to both meet the regulations and provide ongoing personalised investment advice.”

New technologies have also begun to pose a threat to the future of careers in financial services.

“Four or five years ago I felt threatened by the rise of robo-advisers and online trading platforms. However, since then I have seen that high and ultra-high net worth individuals continue to recognise the value of personal advice. Private clients value personal relationships, they want to be able to discuss and meet with an individual who has their best interests at heart.”

“Wealth management continues to be a great career path offering an array of opportunities. Anyone interested in this field should be speaking to people in the industry as often as possible. I attended an alumni event organised by Lancaster in London recently, which provided future graduates a chance to network, find out about the different sectors and areas of the financial industry, as well as a safe place to ask all of the questions that you worry might sound stupid…before it comes down to the actual interviews.”

If any Lancaster University students or alumni would like to get in touch with Michelle to discuss opportunities in the wealth management sector, she can be contacted by email at michelle.white@juliusbaer.com

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