What being a female bond trader taught me about inclusion

If we are to inspire genuinely inclusive behavior in the next generation, then the corporate world must find a way to undo decades of entrenched gender stereotypes. Here are some Templar tips on how to banish biases and promote genuine inclusivity.  

By Megan Philbin, Templar consultant and former senior US corporate bond trader.

I was having dinner with a college friend of mine recently – now a university professor in Boston – and she noticed that my default pronoun when referring to CEOs was always ‘he’. I felt a little embarrassed that, as a woman who consciously battled her way up the male-dominated hierarchy of a Wall Street bond-trading desk, I still unconsciously subordinate women to men when it comes leading companies.

It reminded me of the riddle about a father and son who are involved in a car crash. The father is killed in the accident and the son is taken to hospital. When the son is wheeled into the operating room, the doctor on duty takes one look at him and says: “I cannot operate on this boy. This boy is my son. It’s against medical protocol.”

For hours people would scratch their heads over the question: If the father was killed in the accident, then who was the doctor at the hospital?

In the enlightened days of 2024, our immediate response would – of course – be, the doctor at the hospital is his mother! But not that long ago, many of us automatically assumed that all doctors were men, and so few ever solved the riddle.

Brotherly bonds
Yet, how enlightened are we if – even today – I still sub-consciously assume that all CEOs are men? Perhaps it has something to do with my decade and a half spent on the male-dominated bond trading desks of Wall Street.

I had arrived assuming it was a level playing field for all and soon realized how naïve this assumption was. Day after day I was asked what it was like to be a ‘female bond trader’ – like I was some sort of exotic subset of the financial food chain.

Most summer Fridays, my boss would invite three or four of my fellow traders (all men) to play golf. This meant not only did I have to spend the day in my seat working – and sometimes covering for those who had left early – I missed critical time to deepen relationships with colleagues and senior leaders.
And yet, I was a golfer. Watching them discuss the outing in the days leading up to it – and like true recreational golfers, replay the round for the days to come – is just one example from my prior career that didn’t exactly inspire inclusion.

Language matters
One way to smash embedded stereotypes and be more inclusive is to be more intentional with the kind of day-to-day language we use unconsciously. My college friend says she purposely tries to use “she” when referring to senior leaders – hypothetical or real – from time to time, so that the young women in her classes can associate and identify accordingly.

Here are five other practical steps you might take to further inclusion with colleagues and clients alike:

  1. Include everyone:
    As part of your meeting agendas, ask everyone in the group to share and contribute. Alternatively, consider an opening statement which seeks immediately to promote collaboration and idea-sharing.
  1. Encourage diverse viewpoints:
    Be sure to acknowledge and validate someone’s point before bridging or pivoting to your own.  The best way to do this is to rephrase the other person’s statement, using your own language, and demonstrate understanding.  
  1. Be an ally and amplify
    Actively support colleagues by advocating for their inclusion and amplifying their voices – especially if they are shy or unwilling to do so themselves. If you see a colleague being interrupted or talked over, make sure to call out the behavior and support your colleague. “Sorry Bob, Susan had not finished her point yet …”
  1. Be a better listener:  
    Most of us listen to respond, not to understand.  Instead, show genuine interest in your colleague or client’s perspective by asking open questions to uncover their pain points. Too often we walk past open doors and miss an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and build trust.
  1. Understand someone’s preferred communication style.  
    The best communicators are versatile in their approach and can flex to what their audience needs from them.  Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  Let the receiver guide you and tell you what they need. It is not about what you want to share. It’s about presenting relevant information to people in a way that is easy for them to quickly understand and digest.       

As we celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I urge you to be more inclusive in the way you communicate in the workplace. Personally, I plan to be more conscious of gender stereotypes and how they manifest themselves in my day-to-day language. How will you and your organizations inspire inclusion?

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