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Deborah Hartung

Personify Change

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Sexism in the City: How the ‘Boys’ Club’ perpetuates pay gaps

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On International Women’s Day, the Treasury Committee published its Sexism in the City report, and called for an end to the ‘era of impunity’. As we know, this era has gone on long enough.

Working on a project in financial services around 10 years ago in South Africa, I learned that, apparently, between the 1960s and into the 1980s it was customary for young insurance salesmen in Johannesburg to meet with their managers before proposing to their girlfriends. It wasn’t for a toast or well wishes. They needed to do some serious financial planning to determine if they could ‘afford a wife’. The assumption was that the man would be the sole breadwinner, and his new wife would want a house, furniture and children within a few years – all on his salary alone.

At the heart of the problem lies the ‘boys’ club’ culture.

While such blatant sexism might seem like a relic of the past, its legacy persists in subtler ways, including the much-maligned gender pay gap. This gap is a direct consequence of the outdated belief that a woman’s income is secondary to that of a husband. 

The Treasury Committee’s recent inquiry confirms that gender bias remains a pervasive force in the financial sector, even here in the UK, where we like to believe that we are beyond such outdated practices. Granted, the Women in Finance Charter is a step in the right direction, but in the absence of tangible consequences for institutions that fail to change, it risks becoming mere lip service.

The ‘Boys’ Club’ is not just banter

At the heart of the problem lies the ‘boys’ club’ culture. This isn’t simply about drinks at the pub after work or a constant barrage of off-color jokes; it’s about decision-making circles dominated by men, many of whom attended the same exclusive schools and universities and have forged bonds since they were literal boys.

The boys’ club is a reinforcement of outdated stereotypes and unconscious biases that continue to limit women’s opportunities and earning potential.

The pay gap paradox

The gender pay gap is a glaring illustration of this systemic inequality. In a world of sophisticated job grading and global salary data, there’s no excuse for persistent pay disparities between men and women.

Yet, the gap stubbornly exists. Why? Because too often, salaries are decided within the informal networks of the ‘boys’ club.’ Women lack access to these spaces, and their hesitation to aggressively negotiate their worth – a result of social conditioning – puts them at further disadvantage.

It’s through allyship that we start to dismantle the entrenched systems holding women back.

Lip service and the need for real action

The Women in Finance Charter pledges to address these issues, but we need to move beyond well-meaning statements. True change demands transparency in gender pay reporting, breaking down data by seniority to reveal where the real gaps lie. 

More importantly, there needs to be accountability for institutions failing to make meaningful progress. Without consequences, old habits die hard, and the ‘boys’ club’ mentality will continue to undermine diversity.

Men as allies, not bystanders

This isn’t about women versus men; it’s about creating a sector that values talent over gender. Men have a critical role to play as allies. Speaking up against everyday sexism, sponsoring talented women, and advocating for structural change are all vital actions. It’s through allyship that we start to dismantle the entrenched systems holding women back.

Actionable steps for change

While dismantling the ‘boys’ club’ culture will take time, organisations can immediately implement measures to challenge sexism and drive progress:

While robust action is needed, it’s essential to avoid reverse discrimination or promoting individuals who lack the skills and experience to be successful in their role. The goal should always be a meritocracy where the best talent rises, regardless of gender.

Sexism in the City isn’t just about individual acts; it’s about the very culture of many financial institutions. But the issues of gender inequality, sexism and the gender pay gap are prevalent in all industries. 

Progress has been frustratingly slow, but by implementing concrete steps like these, we can finally start to move beyond token gestures and embrace the genuine change that a diverse and inclusive workforce can bring.

Interested in this topic? Read The RAF’S latest assault: Sexual harassment is not the problem – systemic misogyny is.

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Deborah Hartung

SPARKFluencer: Sparking Ideas Influencing Change

Read more from Deborah Hartung

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