What's Missing in Fintech? Oh Yeah, Women

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One of the things I still remember as a kid playing in a basketball league wasn't related to how many points I scored or whether we won or lost. It was that I was the only girl on the team. The experience wasn't unlike what I encounter as a reporter covering the fintech industry.

On the beat since 2008, I have interacted with hundreds of CEOs at banks and startups — by phone, email and on Twitter and Skype. I've also attended gatherings that ranged from business idea brainstorming sessions to formal conferences that brought together some of the industry's best and brightest.

But there has been something missing from these interactions: other women.

Sure, I'm pleased when I don't have to wait in a bathroom line. But I have also overheard raunchy jokes at conferences comparing the industry's enthusiasm for mobile payments to male arousal, and attended a business event at a venue where waitresses wore corsetlike tops. Once, I was told at a conference, "You look less intense in real life." And don't get me started about the "booth babe" concept, which somehow never requires men to wear itty-bitty outfits to entice passersby for a sales pitch.

Uncomfortable moments for women abound in the male-dominated fintech industry. It is no wonder that women may prefer a different kind of work life.

The gender imbalance in the fintech industry is strange and somewhat sad given how data shows that women control the purse strings in household consumer spending. The shortage of women among the progressive entrepreneurs and banking executives attempting to transform how consumers interact with money hampers the industry's ability to know its market.

Innovation is supposed to be about change. But just like other areas of financial services, white males still dominate the fintech industry. A look at American Banker's homepage on any given day underlines this point.

It is true that many men I've met through the industry are advocates for women. And without a doubt, a man could just as easily craft a fintech app a woman would love, just like male writers are able to represent the female point of view in literature. And men too encounter similar misgivings when they work in female-dominated fields.

But how can fintech really change financial services when everyone leading the revolution looks the same as the rest of the industry? What kind of change is possible when the very composition of the industry hasn't changed at all?

My former colleague, Bailey Reutzel, spotlighted the gender imbalance problem in bitcoin circles. For a technological innovation that is touted as empowering, says Reutzel, the bitcoin community undercuts that message when it engages in sexist behavior.

The encounters she experienced firsthand on the bitcoin beat included startup execs asking her if pink flyers would entice more women to attend bitcoin meetups. And once, at a conference after-party, a man sitting next to her on a couch slid his hand behind her to touch her lower back.

Gender identity, in general, is not a black-and-white topic. The same can be said for the fintech industry.

"There's some conflict between equality and separation here since women don't want to be discriminated against because of their gender but also want to be recognized by their gender too," said Reutzel in an email. "And while many would say that argument is duplicitous, there's a balance that can be struck when there's mutual respect."

However, Reutzel is concerned men don't really grasp that mutual respect when they've enjoyed the boy's club for so long. While a man might think it a compliment to say, "You're much prettier than the last person sitting here," that statement implies that one's worth depends on physical appearance and that men are constantly — secretly and not so secretly — playing the judge.

This builds on age-old assumptions that come with other offenses. Recently, a C-suite executive in the Midwest — who held the titles of chief operating officer and senior vice president while working at an institution with progressive technology — told me about how she would be given travel and expense reports to process when she was neither the chief financial officer nor the board secretary at board meetings.

Other times the insults are more in-your-face. A new online series known as FemTech Leaders, run by emerging payments consultant Sam Maule, has been profiling top female fintech superstars worldwide. One of the profiles shared on LinkedIn, however, received negative comments that suggested the program was nonsense, proposing that there should be a "MaleTechLeaders" as the parallel.

Responding in an email to Maule was Beth Shah, head of business development at Digital Asset Holdings, who told him that "there doesn't need to be a 'MaleTech' because every article is more than 90% male-oriented already.

"MaleTech already exists. It just doesn't have a label," Shah wrote in the email.

Memo to men: something has got to give.

We need to purge the talk that could easily isolate females already working in the profession and recognize the added challenges of working in an industry skewed heavily toward men. We need to spend money on more endeavors aimed at getting women jazzed about tech and banking, something often perceived as dry.

There's been progress. Fintech companies are sponsoring initiatives like Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that aims to close the gender gap in tech. And there are ever more fintech female role models. This year, Anne Boden, a former chief operating officer at an Irish bank, has been readying the launch of a mobile-first bank in the U.K. And Sallie Krawcheck, former president of the global wealth and investment management division of Bank of America, is preparing to launch Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women. This year, American Banker and Bank Technology News named Citigroup's Heather Cox Digital Banker of the Year.

These excellent examples are not enough. This is the 21st century, but banking and fintech still look like my nearly-all-boys basketball team. Let's change the game.

Mary Wisniewski is deputy editor at BankThink and fintech reporter for American Banker. She can be reached on Twitter @marymwisniewski.

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