When I started working in the financial services sector years ago, I was the only female lawyer in a firm specializing in banking, commercial credit and compliance. Every other woman employed by the firm held lower-level administrative positions. Fast forward to the year 2022, it is refreshing to see that the same office location—now with a different law firm—has three strong female lawyers advising a mutual client. However, this does not mean that we have closed the gender gap. Many challenges remain.
The “Broken Rung”
It is interesting to note that, as stated in an Investopedia article, “though the percentage of men and women entering the field is roughly equal, men typically rise to the top faster than women do.”1 The reason for the disparity between men and women in the path to leadership has been called the “broken rung.” The broken rung is the idea that the largest obstacle inhibiting women from obtaining higher rungs on the management ladder is the lack of women in entry-level managerial roles. The term “broken rung” was coined following a five-year study by McKinsey & Company and Sheryl Sandberg through LeanIn.Org. The study comprised 423 companies and showed that women entering the workforce in entry-level positions were less likely to be considered for promotions to manager than men, thus limiting the number of women that could be considered for senior-level positions. It also revealed that for every 100 men who become managers, only 86 women obtain the same positions.2 In 2020, even with the efforts to increase diversity, there were fewer women (38%) holding managerial positions than men (62%).3
The path to getting to the top levels of the echelon is even worse—only 41 Fortune 500 CEOs are women. That amounts to 8%! The number is even scarcer for Hispanic or Black women. However, for the first time, two Black women are running Fortune 500 businesses. The number of female chief executives on the ranking is a closely watched statistic among those who track gender diversity in C-suites.4 Some experts believe that glass ceilings—the barriers to success—are built into the system.5 Investopedia notes, “when it comes to gender equality, there are a few reasons why women may not be advancing to the top ranks as quickly as men are.”6 Many roadblocks exist. Among them are the scarcity of female mentors or role models. Men are deciding who to hire and not offering benefits that make it easier for women with children to stay on track for leadership positions, such as offering enough paid time off and paternal leave to alleviate a mother’s workload.7
Thoughts From Women Professionals in the Financial Sector
Women entering the financial sector may find the path to advancing in their careers more challenging to navigate without more women paving the way. What challenges do women in the regulatory arena face, and how can leaders that have made it to the top ranks contribute to gender equality? These and other questions were discussed with Betina Castellví and Debra Roberts.
Betina Castellví is a Hispanic professional, chief security officer, executive vice president for Popular Inc., one of the few women who has risen through the different ranks to now sit on the C-suite of the institution. Castellví stated that contrary to men, females are often not assertive. They do not raise their hands, no matter how good they are, and they do not ask for a position until they think they are super ready, or even worse, they have doubts about their own ability. As she stated, she believed one’s own work should speak for itself and management should recognize it. However, she found that this may not happen due to a lack of visibility to senior management.
Developing a successful career on your own is not easy. It can be difficult to get perspective when making important decisions without guidance. It can also be difficult to find the right opportunities when leaders have not noticed your potential. Castellví saw this occur many times, particularly with very good women who were not on the radar for opportunities for which they would have been perfect. Having a support system and someone who can provide feedback and promotions in front of stakeholders is priceless.
Early in my career, there were very few women at the top. I was fortunate to have a mentor who coached me on managing and getting buy-in from the business for compliance initiatives. I am a true believer that mentoring and sponsorship can help women advance in their careers. Although a mentor does not have to be a female, in my experience, female mentors can contribute more in a mentoring relationship because they have gone through the same path and encountered similar struggles as their female mentees. Much value is derived from having access to someone who has gone through the same issues, made mistakes, learned from them and achieved their goals.
This message also resonates with Debra Roberts, managing director, general counsel for Global Financial Services, JPMorgan Chase. Roberts stated, “everyone faces challenges in their career, regardless of gender. Some challenges that any professional, particularly women professionals, can face is learning to speak up and be a loud voice in the room to put forward their ideas. As the financial industry shifts from being a male-dominated field, we are seeing more and more women in leadership positions, which to me, shows progress. I am proud that at JPMorgan Chase, we have a diverse team working in financial crimes across legal and compliance.”
Getting on the radar by getting the right people to notice your potential can seem daunting, which is why mentors and sponsors are crucial for career development.
Many senior executive women point to this realization when looking back on their careers. Women and men experience a difference in their sponsor networks. According to McKinsey & Company’s study, “women are three times as likely to rely on a network that is mostly female.”8 Some say this can cause a disadvantage over time because men still hold most senior-level positions in many financial services. Women-focused networks have fewer leaders who can act as sponsors.9 However, the senior pool of women is growing and many members of that senior pool are interested in doing more. When asked about what women leaders do to foster more sponsorship and mentoring for the younger generation, Roberts answered: “it is always great for women leaders to be involved in formal mentoring programs and I am active in such programs. In addition, one of the most important things for women leaders is to be visible and approachable. I make it a priority to respond to every single inquiry or request I receive to speak or meet with folks who have an interest in financial crimes—whether they are just entering the workforce, are in a different field but have an interest, or have been practicing for a while and are looking for guidance. This approach helps generate organic sponsorships. Some of the best career advice I received came from women leaders in this field, and I think it is important to give back and help the next generation excel in this dynamic profession.”
Helping to Level the Playing Field
Networks of advocates and supporters are important for creating and alerting women to opportunities and encouraging risk-taking. Such risks include trying different roles to build a broad foundation of experience.
At riskier points in one’s career, this support can be crucial. Women—in comparison to men—are often judged harsher and more personally for failures in the workplace. Strong sponsors and networks of supporters can help women take greater risks by ensuring that the right conditions are in place for success and performance is fairly evaluated. Castellví said, “in general, men seem more confident in their ability to get to the next level than women who often take more conservative approaches.”
What more can be done to help level the playing field with men so women can take more calculated risks? Robert believes “many companies are prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in their workforce and this needs to continue, particularly focusing on achieving more diversity in leadership positions. Formal mentoring and sponsorship programs are a great way for companies to help women advance their careers, and most importantly, it shows the company’s values. A company with a culture that is committed to advancing women’s careers is the best way for companies to encourage and help women achieve senior positions.”
Not cultivating a sponsor—or several—is a mistake. Castellví believed that good work would speak for itself and although companies do talk about merit, she found that women without a sponsor risk being overlooked, especially in large organizations.
Sponsors and mentors may sound similar because they provide guidance and advice but are very different. One main difference is that mentors can be found outside of your organization but sponsors usually do work in the same organization. A mentor provides their mentee with guidance and career advice. A sponsor advocates for their mentee’s career success within their current professional environment.
Mentors may help you network but sponsors actively include you in their professional network. The idea is to have them go out of their way to introduce you to people who could help advance your career. They should be personally invested in your professional development. One important role for a sponsor is making sure that you are on the radar and that the decision-makers know who you are. As Castellví has done since attaining a leadership position, she makes sure there is a support system, good feedback, reminds her mentees that they can do it and promotes them in front of stakeholders.
Another resource that has an important role in the workplace is coaching, which is done by specialized professionals who help employees attain their full potential. It pays for organizations to provide coaching for women considered high potential. Castellví and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a coach, who happened to be a woman, to assess strengths and development areas and help us achieve our goals.
Many women can benefit from a mentor but do not know how to find them. Think carefully about what you might want and need from a mentor or sponsor. Then, look for someone you admire and want to emulate or possesses a professional skill you would like to develop. You would be surprised that it may be just a matter of asking and letting that individual know that you admire them and exploring if they would be willing to meet regularly.
ACAMS has also developed several forums for women that attract senior leaders willing to mentor younger women. Each conference has a Women in Anti-Money Laundering (AML) session. Attending those can certainly help you find a mentor willing to help in your career.
Mentoring and sponsoring matter and many women, including myself, are committed to positively influencing women’s careers. I am convinced both can be one of the top strategies to close the gender gap.
María de Lourdes “Marilú” Jiménez, Esq. CAMS, president, FINCAdvisors, San Juan, Puerto Rico, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kweilin Ellingrud, Alexis Krivkovich, Marie-Claude Nadeau and Jill Zucker, “Closing the gender and race gaps in North
American financial services,” McKinsey & Company, October 21, 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/financial-services/our-insights/closing-the-gender-and-race-gaps-in-north-american-financial-services
- “Women in the Workplace 2021,” McKinsey & Company, September 27, 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace
- Emma Hinchliffe, “The Female CEOs on this year’s Fortune 500 just broke three all-time records,” Fortune, June 2,
- Lisa Fritscher, “The Glass Ceiling Effect and Its Impact On Women,” Everyday Health, November 15, 2017,
- Sarah Chandler, “Why Are So Few Women in Finance? It’s Complicated,” Investopedia, July 21, 2021,
- Areva Martin, “It’s 2021——Women Reaching The C-Suite Shouldn’t Be Historic,” Chief Executive, September 22, 2021,
are%20touting%202021%20as,a%20major%20Wall%20Street%20bank.; Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier, “To Retain
Women, U.S. Companies Need Better Childcare Policies,” Harvard Business Review, May 28, 2021, https://hbr.org/2021/05/to-retain-women-u-s-companies-need-better-childcare-policies
- Alexis Krivkovich and Marie-Claude Nadeau, “The link between sponsorship and risk-taking for women in financial
services,” McKinsey & Company, May 22, 2019, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/financial-services/our-insights/banking-matters/the-link-between-sponsorship-and-risk-taking-for-women-in-financial-services