“Good morning, gentlemen.”
This Zoom call greeting did not faze Emily Mendelson, an E. Claiborne Robins School of Business senior at the University of Richmond, when working in a male-dominated industry.
In an investment banking office of 40 people during her summer internship, Mendelson was one of four female analysts.
Mendelson’s experience of lack of female representation aligns with current trends in the business world.
“The proportion of women in financial services leadership could reach 31 percent in 2030—an improvement, but still well below parity,” according to a 2019 analysis by Deloitte. “We might not see an equal number of women in overall U.S. leadership roles until at least 2085.”
Mendelson, along with other female students in the business school, recognizes the gender disparities that are inherent to the business world, yet remains determined to prove themselves in a male-dominated field.
Mendelson and Melanie Fichera, a junior majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance, acknowledge that there is inequality in the numbers of male and female students enrolled in finance courses in the business school.
“In my finance classes, I've been one of two or three girls,” Fichera said.
Mendelson shared similar sentiments of feeling isolated as one or two women in a finance class of over 20 students.
“I don't think my classmates intended to make this a hostile or isolating experience,” Mendelson said, “But it just sort of, in some capacity, was natural by sheer factors.
“It was just very clear that I was the one girl sort of sitting on the periphery of the classroom."
Mendelson added that she noticed another female student sitting on the outskirts of the classroom and felt highly aware that she was one of few female students in the finance concentration.
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The business school’s current Master of Business Administration student body consists of 65% male students and 35% female students, according to the UR MBA website.
Fichera said that the gender disparities in classrooms could create an intimidating environment for female students.
“When I walked into my investments course, day one, I was scared out of my mind,” Fichera said. “I walked in and all of the men were talking about the stock market, and I had no idea about the stock market or about how to trade stocks. I immediately felt like I was less, or that I was less knowledgeable. … I felt like I was of lesser quality than the men in the room.”
In addition to feeling outnumbered by male students in her concentration, Fichera shared a personal experience in a finance class that made her feel isolated by a professor.
“[The professor] goes, ‘Well, there’s only two women in this class, so I’ll just assume your name based on what you look like. I’m going to assume you’re Melanie,’ and I go, ‘Yeah, that’s me,’” Fichera said.
Fichera added that the same professor had made comments in class about his belief that female athletes at UR should not be awarded the same amount in scholarships as male football players because football brings in the most revenue for UR.
“Just having to sit in that environment as a woman definitely doesn't make you feel like you're worth enough to be in this field,” Fichera said.
Senior Junko Takahashi, the vice president of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business Student Government Association, and junior Morgan Zippo, president of the Women in Business club, commented on the more subtle effects that lack of female representation can have on female students.
“I've noticed that [the female students] in [marketing] classes talk more and seem more outgoing,” Zippo, who is pursuing a marketing concentration, said.
Takahashi, who is pursuing an economics concentration, feels it is easier to not ask questions in class as a woman in the business school.
“There's less room for mistakes,” Takahashi said. “You don't want your professor to think you're less smart or like you're not doing as well in their class because you're asking questions, so you ask less questions.”
Zippo, on the other hand, reaches out to her female professors with questions, and she said she has created valuable friendships and mentorships through meeting with these professors.
Professor of finance Joe Farizo is one of the male business school professors who helps female students become aware of the opportunities available to them as women entering the finance world, Fichera said. He also works to make the classroom a more inclusive space for all students, Mendelson added.
“Joe Farizo continues to inspire me,'' Fichera said. “He's like, ‘We need more women in the field,’ and we do need that. He's constantly telling everyone that most of the investment banks and companies nowadays have specific internships that you can apply for if you are of a certain multicultural background, if you're a first-generation college student or if you're a female. Just having those special opportunities means a lot because -- especially as a female in finance -- you're outnumbered easily.”
Mendelson said that Maura Alexander, a professor of finance at UR, encouraged her to be confident about her work.
“I think [Alexander] saw the quality of some of the things that I was writing down and turning into her, but didn't really have the voice or confidence to say in front of the whole class,” Mendelson said. “She would often call on me and help me not only to be confident in my own abilities, but also to be able to share that with the greater community.”
Mendelson and Fichera are among a number of female students that have also found confidence through participating in such business school organizations as the Student Managed Investment Fund and Women in Business.
Mendelson, who is the Environmental, Social and Governance manager of SMIF, said her leadership role and participation in the investment fund gave her greater self-confidence to work among top finance students.
“I've really enjoyed SMIF, and I think the group is highly inclusive,” Mendelson said. “Everyone has something to contribute -- whether that's knowledge from another class or an internship -- and I’ve found that my peers really want to learn and they want to hear my voice as well as everyone else's. There are classes where it's difficult to speak out, it's difficult to give an alternative opinion and it’s more challenging to find your voice, but SMIF allows you to do that.”
The number of women working with the investment fund this year represents a 22% increase since 2015. There are six women and 13 men, and two of the five student-leadership positions are held by women.
“We would not permit it to only be men,” Farizo, who is a faculty advisor for the fund, said. “I think that we’re making strides overall with SMIF.”
Fichera said Women in Business has been a supportive resource for her through its objectives of addressing workplace challenges, highlighting female leaders in the Richmond community and providing networking and mentorship opportunities.
“I get to hear from other women within the business field that keep us inspired and give us opportunities,'' Fichera said. “We're a very inclusive group that really wants to help support one another considering there's such a stereotype around women in business. … I think that it was created specifically to counter that stereotype and stigma.”
As a member of RSB SGA, Takahashi shared ideas on how to create a more comfortable environment for women and increase female enrollment.
RSB SGA members have discussed social media strategies, mandatory presentations for pre-business courses and orientations to provide students with more information and resources, Takahashi said.
Increasing the number of female business leaders on speaker panels would give female students more insights into such workplace issues as how to navigate their careers, she said.
“I feel like women have to act a certain way in order to be taken as seriously as men, and that is not something that is inherent or easy to pick up on,” Takahashi said. “That's something that you have to think about and be taught and learn from other people's experiences.”
According to the business school’s C-Suite Conversations website, it has been over two years since a female leader was interviewed. The C-Suite Conversations program brings distinguished guests and business leaders from various industries to the business school to interact with students and faculty.
“I love going to the C-Suite Conversations because I think it's a great networking opportunity,” Fichera said. “But, at the same time, it's always been male, so I think maybe that could be somewhere to start. It'd be nice to see a female CEO or female in a high-ranking position come in to do them.”
Takahashi hopes to implement further initiatives that establish an environment that eliminates the need for women to act in a specific way to gain respect. She said one of the best ways to do so was through spreading awareness.
Zippo said establishing a female peer mentor program, creating a women’s alumni network and seeking more faculty mentorship through Women in Business would help build confidence among students. Faculty also need to be aware of gender disparities and how to address them.
Teaching methods that diminish gender disparity can elevate a student’s learning experience, Farizo said.
Zippo and Takahashi stress the importance of women confidently expressing themselves in the classroom. Participation sets an example for younger female students and creates a less intimidating environment, Takahashi said.
As a senior female leader, Mendelson hopes to confront the existing gender stigmas and pave the way for future female business students.
“Initially, it was very challenging to find my voice,” Mendelson said. “But you have to, at some point, get over that and realize you can have a voice too.”
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