Call me naïve, but when I started working in the mortgage industry seven years ago, it was a while before I realised how few women enjoy senior roles. There were plenty of women in the office so I assumed they were all broking mortgages. But after a few weeks I worked out that almost exclusively the women were support staff, working in administrative roles. Female mortgage brokers were few and far between.
Coming from a journalistic background where the number of women and men is fairly evenly balanced this came as a culture shock. In journalism, plenty of women are in editorial roles – I was a section editor. There are few women right at the top of the pile, editing the whole shebang, but in some notable cases they do make it.
Joining a mortgage brokerage, admittedly to do PRrather than write business, I thought women could progress as easily in this career as any other. I joined as an associate director and was promoted to director within a year, so assumed this would be the same for anyone reasonably ambitious, male or female.
Rather than there being a glass ceiling, it was apparent that women didn’t seem to want to be mortgage brokers as much as men, let alone take on senior roles.
I have come across a few female administrators who want to become brokers. But on the whole, most seem happy with their roles. And when the downturn came opportunities for progressing were curtailed anyway.
Female brokers may be thin on the ground but on the whole they tend to be far more impressive than their male counterparts. They have to be to progress in such a male-dominated industry. The most successful don’t tend to exploit their feminine wiles – they are almost interchangeable with men in attitude and appearance.
They blend in and concentrate on getting on with the job. If there is sexist banter, they let it wash over them. Why there are so few women in senior roles is a question I have pondered many times in the past few years. In many respects, it doesn’t make sense because women make excellent financial advisers. They tend to have more empathy than men, are more cautious when investing and often hold the purse strings in the household, so know about budgeting and making financial decisions. With more women buying property on their own, and favouring advice from a woman, why on earth aren’t there more giving mortgage advice?
There is the inevitable career break that gets in the way when women have children. Then there are childcare issues and wanting to be home for bedtime, rather than schmoozing in the bar with colleagues.
It is not so much lack of opportunity as lack of interest. Some women have the necessary desire to climb to the top of the greasy mortgage pole but most don’t.
Market does not do itself favours
After my first week at Mortgage Strategy it became apparent that the mortgage sector is very much a man’s world. Within one week of working at the magazine, after chatting to one mortgage contact over lunch I was asked if I wanted to go up to his hotel room and was given the impression this was the norm.
Over the next few years I learned that call girls and lap dancing bars were openly seen as acceptable corporate entertainment during the boom years, and still are by many.
Although this type of behaviour is not exclusive to the mortgage industry, it is hard to imagine how management can have a derogatory view of women on the one hand and still promote gender diversity in the boardroom.
I remember going to my first Mortgage Business Expo in 2004 and being told to watch out for the pole dancers who had featured at the event a year earlier. Luckily I missed them, but was instead greeted by scantily-clad women handing out flyers. Some lenders still think this is the best way to sell their mortgage products.
And in 2005 BM Solutions divided the market when it launched its sexy Red character online, a buxom red-head who guided brokers through the online application process. At the time female brokers complained of the lender alienating them, but few complaints were lodged from male brokers.
It is fair to say the industry does not do itself any favours in improving its appeal to women.
The market has tamed in recent years and naked female golf caddies are no longer being hired by firms to carry their golf clubs.
But even in recent times sexism in the market still appears to be alive and well among some. My experience as a journalist will be somewhat different to that of a woman working at a small brokerage or director working within the industry, but I would be surprised if others have not had similar experiences.
Only recently when out for a drink one contact felt he could tell me, while placing his hand on my knee, why all good women want to do is stay at home and have babies.
Of course it would be wrong to make a generalisation of the entire mortgage market, but it seems that if the sector wants to know why it is not attracting enough senior women into jobs, it just has to look at the way it portrays women.
However, while being a woman in an all male environment can be problematic, in some ways it can be advantageous.
Some of my male colleagues joke how certain people are more willing to speak to a female journalist and seem more trusting when divulging gossip.