From immaculate banquier to self-indulgent banker

(Photo: pixabay/pexels)

(Photo: pixabay/pexels)

Money laundering, failed speculation and sexism: financial industry scandals keep causing uproar. Gender studies scholar Anika Thym is investigating how men in the finance sector experience this world and what we can learn from their self-reflection.

Ms Thym, you spoke to about 20 men who hold leadership positions in the Swiss financial industry. What did you hope to learn?

I'm interested in how and why some people in positions of power think critically about power. It's often assumed that accusations of discrimination, injustice and exploitation only come from "below" - from those who suffer due to them. Self-criticism on the part of the powerful is rarely taken seriously. With my project, I want to show that their experiences are also important. This is the only way we can identify power dynamics and develop solutions for improving together.

What makes the financial sector so interesting for questions about the exercise of power?

Two spheres of power overlap in the financial industry: gender and economy. Stock exchange trading and asset management in particular are financially very lucrative and remain strongly dominated by men. Many of my interview partners spoke explicitly about a man's world.

How do these managers themselves perceive this man's world?

As a world governed by competition. Sometimes the competitive thinking is so strong that at a meeting a hierarchy has to be established first before an objective discussion can be had. Some describe a particular, dominant masculinity that strives ruthlessly for profit. Many experience this masculinity as a pressure. Some of the interviewees deliberately champion the advancement of women to leadership positions for this reason. They believe that with women at the negotiating table, decisions are made with more of an eye on the long term and to the benefit of the company and employees.

Is this disinterested criticism or is there some personal concern as well?

Many criticise the professional pressure and the high workload. The consequences are health problems and social losses. The men suffer from the incompatibility of work and family - during the week, some of them only see their children when they're asleep. They describe how their wives, children and partners accuse them of never being there. These diverging demands and availableness often lead to conflicts or separation.

What do the bosses see as the positive side of their work?

Most of my interview partners report a great passion for their work, above all at the beginning of their careers. They meet exciting clients. In stock exchange trading in particular, many were impressed by the speed of everything and the freedom bankers have. A feeling of having your finger on the pulse of life, of living in the fast lane prevailed. Criticism usually started later. The phrase "That's not my world any more" is one I've heard often.

What do they mean by that?

They are criticising the shift in the financial industry towards investment banking, proprietary trading, target agreements and payouts of enormous bonuses that started in the 1980s. Many of my interview partners no longer feel comfortable in this new work culture. They describe how they are no longer supposed to advise their customers in the customer's interest but in the bank's interest, and how the grey areas of what's legal are exploited to make a profit.

Did you get the impression that these managers reflect on the significance and impact of their trading?

Many have never thought in detail about the local and global enmeshments in the financial economy. But one interview partner, for example, told me an impressive story about how he drove the world market price for rice upward by a few points through a trade assigned to him. Only afterwards did he find out that thousands of people in India were no longer able to afford rice as a result. He's struggling a lot with his sense of complicity. Afterwards, he decided not to engage in this type of trade again.

The affair involving the former Raiffeisen boss Pierin Vincenz caused quite a stir. How do scandals like this affect the self-image of bankers?

In recent decades, the immaculate banquier has transformed into the self-indulgent banker with his exorbitant bonuses. Many of my interview partners are aware of this shift in public perception. They, too, criticise the growing narcissism, egocentricity and lack of social responsibility. Some have left or switched to smaller and more socially aware banks. Others try to ignore the criticism—in order to keep doing their jobs, they have to.

Based on this self-reflection, what do you see as the most urgent areas requiring action in the financial industry?

The financial industry needs a stronger awareness of the exclusion of women and qualities associated with femininity, such as empathy, responsibility and long-term thinking. More part-time jobs need to be created to allow people to balance work and family. And socially, we need a stronger awareness of the local and global role of the financial industry. The Bergier report on how banks handle dormant assets made an important contribution to that. The climate movement and the Responsible Business Initiative are doing this now as well. It's crucial to remember the injustice the financial industry is responsible for. That's the only way we can do better in the future.

Anika Thym is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Social Sciences G3S at the University of Basel. Her doctoral project empirically investigates how men in leadership roles in the financial sector think (self-)critically about their work and lives. The research is based on the autobiographies of five financial market players and interviews with 23 male executives in international Swiss banks.

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