International Women’s Day dates back to 1910, when delegates to the International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark proposed that a day be set aside annually to recognize the struggle for women’s rights worldwide. At the time, women’s suffrage was at the forefront of the movement, as most countries, including the United States, had not yet granted women the right to vote.

It was not until 1975 that the United Nations began recognizing International Women’s Day, and in 1977, the U.N. General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as a day to recognize women’s rights.

Since then, women have made tremendous strides, and in January 2021, the world watched as Kamala Harris was inaugurated as the first woman Vice President of the U.S. But there is still tremendous work to be done in all fields, including finance, where women are grossly underrepresented in senior roles.

As a faith-based financial investor committed to gender equity, United Church Funds (UCF) is proud of the fact that our gender diversity bucks that trend: our staff is over 58% female, and women make up over half of our Board of Directors. But we recognize that we, too, have much more work to do to ensure that women are fairly represented and compensated in the workplace and granted equal rights around the world.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is one of UCF’s priority issues in our responsible investing strategies. In December 2020, UCF co-filed three shareholder resolutions urging corporate transparency on DEI efforts.

We spoke with four women on our team about the challenges and rewards of working in the financial sector.

Minoti Dhanaraj, Senior Portfolio Manager and Analyst, External Investments, became interested in finance at a young age. “I remember listening to my uncle discuss stocks with my father and others,” she says.  “Unfortunately, back then it was mainly men participating in these discussions, but I was still intrigued.”

Minoti decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in finance and completed several internships during that time, beginning with financial planning. “My university started a Financial Analyst Program, and I was the only female in the group,” she says.

Stacey Pettice, Institutional Relationships Executive, relates to Minoti’s experience of training and working in a male-dominated industry. “At the beginning of my career, I worked in some very tough environments that required a level of mental fortitude and resilience to keep up,” Stacey recalls. “Honestly, it was challenging at times, but I developed skills that I still use today in my business interactions that make me a great relationship-builder and salesperson.”

“It is harder for women to stand out in a male-dominated industry, which means we need to work harder,” says Lan Cai, Senior Portfolio Manager and Strategist. “At the same time, we try to fulfill other roles equally well. It’s hard to balance, just try to manage the priorities.”

But for Karen Sherman-Chang, Director of Finance & Administration, the challenges are more personal. “I am fortunate that working in a male-dominated industry is not the main challenge I am faced with. For me, the challenge is the work to put myself forward – to have the drive, determination to succeed and the confidence to excel in my field,” she says.

In spite of the historic inequities, all four executives say they see the outlook for women in finance improving, slowly but steadily. Minoti points out, “As more women have moved into higher ranks, they are helping other younger women to progress. Now there are more programs such as Girls Who Invest, to get girls involved in finance and investing as early as high school.”

Stacey adds, “I have seen the industry shift to intentionally focus on the inclusivity of women in leadership roles, as well as accelerating women to positions of power where we did not appear in the past. There is a desire to have women representation in executive positions and on boards of directors across many organizations.”

“The industry has been evolving in the right direction for gender equity, but very slowly,” says Lan. “It is encouraging to see more women are speaking up and are supporting each other.”

Karen offers some tips to women entering finance: “Have confidence in your ability and in yourself; recognize the value you bring, and don’t be afraid to voice your opinion; and hold yourself to a standard of excellence that includes putting in the hours that make a difference in succeeding in your area of expertise.”

There is a desire to have women representation in executive positions and on boards of directors across many organizations.