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9 Tips from Women on Wall Street

Mar 23, 2018
Experiential / Reality-based Learning

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To make it as a woman in the male-dominated finance industry, you have to be assertive. And key to that is having – or faking – confidence, says Marguerita M. Cheng, CEO of investment advisory firm Blue Ocean Wealth.

"I learned to assert myself through the skills that I have," says Cheng, a 1993 graduate of the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Cheng began her career on Wall Street as an analyst, but wanted to work more closely with clients. She became a Certified Financial Planner and transitioned into wealth management.

For others, making it on Wall Street means keeping up with the alpha males. Kristen Fanarakis, assistant director of the Smith School's Center for Financial Policy and a former Wall Street trader, says she had to disregard her proper Southern upbringing – where she was taught never to yell or interrupt – to keep her job as a trader. "The first time that I screamed across the trading desk at somebody, they literally gave me a standing ovation," she remembers.

She admits the trading desk is a unique environment, where aggressive behavior is sometimes rewarded. In other environments, she says it's about making sure your voice is heard.

Cheng and Fanarakis agree there are ways to stand out as a woman in male-dominated fields or in any work environment. They offered their insights and took questions from Smith students at a Women's Month event on March 15, 2018, in College Park, Md.

As Cheng points out, "Men and women are wired differently." Here's how to use that to your advantage:

  1. Know your strengths. Cheng, a self-described introvert, says she doesn't always speak up right away because she likes to process information first. Early in her career, she had a boss tell her she was a horrible financial adviser for spending too much time listening and building relationships and not enough time selling. That ability to listen and connect with clients is one of her greatest strengths and has propelled Blue Ocean Wealth's success.
  2. Be confident. Whether you're dealing with the alpha male at work or stepping into a new environment, have confidence in what you're doing, says Fanarakis, or project confidence until you truly feel it. She says women should find whatever it is that provides that confidence boost – doing extra research, over-prepping for a big meeting, donning your best power suit. "I like really high shoes," Fanarakis says. Cheng says to strive for a small success to build confidence when you are trying something new.
  3. Don't get in your own way. You don't have to model someone else's behavior, says Cheng. "Sometimes we, ourselves, are actually our biggest roadblock," says Cheng, "thinking 'I can't do that.' But you're not going to know what you can't do until you try."
  4. Don't be afraid to ask questions. As a trader, Fanarakis would take the time to seek out the correct answers to client questions. "Don't be afraid to say you don't know something," she says. "There is nothing wrong with saying 'I need to get back to you.' It's definitely worse to screw up."
  5. Do the right thing. Even when people want things in a hurry, take the time to do things right, says Cheng. "I am very serious about doing what is in people's best interest."
  6. Embrace diversity. People focus on race and ethnicity and gender. But equally important is diversity of skillset, experience, thought, opinion, says Cheng. "Diversity is just inviting everybody to dance. Inclusion is inviting everybody to dance, and then asking them what their favorite song is and letting everyone participate." With more diversity, comes better solutions, she says. Think about how your skills and experiences can contribute to diversity of a team, Fanarakis advises.
  7. Bring other women up with you. "In my experience, the women were not very nice to me. My mentors were all men," says Fanarakis. "There was not one single woman who tried to help me or mentor me. I always went out of my way to try to be nice to junior employees." Cheng also says her mentors were men, and she now goes out of her way to seek out women to mentor. "My biggest challenges were I had no role models. So many people focused on what I couldn't do. I never wanted any other woman to feel like I felt."
  8. Don't apologize. If you didn't do anything wrong, you don't need to apologize, says Cheng. Don't provide an excuse, but provide an explanation. Validate and acknowledge the other person's feeling, but you don't have to take the blame. "One of my adages is: 'Your emergency is not my emergency,'" says Fanarakis. "Women try to appease people and it doesn't always work." She says you have to be firm.
  9. Work together. "Women are more relational," says Cheng, which can be a big benefit. She says women are more likely to be collaborative and work well in a team environment, which in the workplace, are important strengths.'

More highlights from Smith Women's Month.

About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.