Sunday, May 2, 2021

Cathy Zaharis (BBA82) can’t watch “Mad Men.”

“I know it’s supposed to be entertaining, but it just brings back memories,” she said.

Zaharis is a professor of practice at the Tippie College of Business and worked in mutual funds for 25 years managing $2 billion in assets. While Zaharis’ career trajectory is a success story, when she started, she felt compelled to wear a suit and tightly pull her hair back in an effort to fit in with her co-workers—men.

“I won’t be going back to that,” she said.

And it appears, nor will the world.

Gender equality in the United States has undoubtedly improved since the “Mad Men” days of the 1960s, but certain careers have remained male-dominated, including many in the financial industry. The good news is that several Tippie finance alumna report that women’s representation and a more inclusive culture has gotten noticeably better— especially in the last five to ten years.

After many decades of seemingly unmovable patriarchal order, why the sea change now?

One reason could be money.

Research published by McKinsey shows that companies with women well represented at the top are nearly 50 percent more likely to outperform their peers than those with no women.

And some studies show that women may just manage money better than men. Experts hypothesize this can be chalked up to women being slightly more risk averse and men being overconfident.

While there still aren’t near enough women to claim equality in the industry, there are enough to study their large-scale impact. Results have made more than a few firms sit up and pay attention.

A few specific examples include Citigroup naming its first female CEO, Jane Fraser, in 2020, BMO aiming to educate and empower with their BMO for Women initiative, and Janice Reals Ellig (BBA68), CEO of the executive search firm Ellig Group in New York City advocating for and working towards gender parity on corporate boards and in C-suites.

Equity measures that are becoming normalized across industries include unconscious bias training, longer paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, and flexible work schedules—which got an extra push forward because of the pandemic.

“There’s absolutely been a sea change in the industry. Companies are trying to be more intentional about including more women—and about diversity in general—because they realize that the old way of doing things is not the way forward." - Eden Simmer (BBA05)

Some alumni even report salaries and promotions are increasingly linked to employees’ ability to work on diverse teams.

“A lot of businesses are thinking of how to quantify this, measure it, and make it a benchmark metric for purposes of compensation and promotion,” Sandy Davis (BBA04), vice president in investment banking at Goldman Sachs said. “And it’s only going to become more important.”

Tippie alumnus George Millward (MBA80), retired managing director at The Kafafian Group, understands why.

“It has been my experience over the years that teams that are mixed in genders and backgrounds always do a better job in dealing with unstructured, difficult problems than teams that are homogeneous,” he said.

Petra Sinagl, assistant professor of finance believes diversity on teams creates value as well.

“Firms can certainly profit from the extra value,” Sinagl said. “From a researcher’s perspective, discriminating against half of our population is economically inefficient, so reducing the barriers for women to enter finance—or any other profession—will be associated with economic gains and success.”

Eden Simmer (BBA05), head of Global Equity Trading at PIMCO in New York City, has had a front row seat to the changes in industry.

Simmer, who welcomed her first child in December 2020, says her experiences now are built on the shoulders of the women that came before her.

“One of my mentors and role models said when she was pregnant about 20 years ago, she didn’t even tell anyone until her eighth or ninth month because you just weren’t pregnant on a trading floor— it was a career ender. To think about what she had to go through and compare that to how PIMCO was extremely supportive of my pregnancy and maternity leave is incredible.”

“I could tell you some horror stories of when I first started as an analyst on a trading desk,” she said. “There’s absolutely been a sea change in the industry. Companies are trying to be more intentional about including more women—and about diversity in general— because they realize that the old way of doing things is not the way forward. Firms want to make sure people have a better work-life balance.”

Another reason for the industry change could be about recruitment.

“Given how many people are going into technology vs. the finance sector, firms know they have to change policies to remain competitive and recruit the best people,” Simmer said. “All of these things are just part of why everything is changing— I’m just grateful they are.”

A natural extension of recruitment is retention. According to Sue Christoph (BBA82) of RMB Capital Management, women can choose from two paths when in a less than supportive work environment.

“One is to be the changemaker within those organizations— start the women networking groups and finding mentors and allies,” she said. “The other is to move on. These days women can go and find another, more progressive firm with women in leadership roles with a simple Google search.”

The bottom line?

If a workplace is flexible and supportive and its employee pool inclusive and diverse, it will be nothing less than a talent magnet. To retain qualified employees, avoid profit loss, and to make your firm a leader in industry, hire, mentor, promote, and call on women to lead. It’s the way of the future.

And the future starts now.



  • Recruiting more female faculty.

  • Inviting additional women to advise on Tippie's Finance Advisory Council.

  • Promoting diversity in finance with the Finance Opportunity Fund, which supports a variety of new and innovative departmental initiatives.

  • Partnering with the Forté Foundation, which provides professional development opportunities for students like mentoring, simulations, and conferences (free to Tippie students).

  • Participating with WAVE (Women’s Association of Venture & Equity), a nonprofit that provides networking opportunities and hosts a women in private equity conference (free to Tippie students).

  • Encouraging students to participate in Girls Who Invest, a non-profit that offers summer and online intensive programs, mentoring, and internships.

  • Recruiting female teaching assistants.

  • Working with AEGON on Invest in Girls, a recruiting effort in select Iowa high schools.

  • Supporting InvestHER, a student organization for women interested in finance.

  • Connecting strong female candidates with alumni in industry—like you!


This story appeared in the 2021 issue of Exchange magazine.