Many prominent women in the industry have gotten their start at iShares. The business was originally developed by Morgan Stanley and Barclays Global Investors in the mid-’90s under the leadership of Patricia Dunn. “It was a deeply entrepreneurial organization,” recalls Sue Thompson, a founder of Women in ETFs who worked at iShares until last spring, when she left to start her own consulting firm.
Dunn was a strong supporter of women, and Thompson recalls times when the entire slate of interviewers for a prospective hire would be made up of women. “My boss was a woman, and my boss’s boss was a woman, and her boss’s boss’s boss was a woman!” says Marie Dzanis, another early employee. (Dunn, whose legacy was tarnished by her involvement in a spying campaign at Hewlett-Packard when she was chairman of that company’s board, died of ovarian cancer in 2011. The Wikipedia description of iShares does not mention her, instead giving full credit to two men who helped develop the business.)
One thing that distinguished Dunn’s leadership was that she didn’t merely mentor other women; she sponsored them. Mentorship generally entails offering advice without much at stake for the advice giver. Sponsorship, says Lori Heinel, the deputy global chief investment officer at State Street, is “a willingness to risk your own political capital to push someone along or pull someone up.” Many big promotions require sponsorship, and typically, men sponsor other men. As a report by the consulting firm Oliver Wyman puts it, “It is more difficult for women to find a sponsor in their organization, with few having senior colleagues pushing them up to the next career level.”
Sponsorship is a large part of the thinking behind Women in ETFs—which is also open to men, who account for about 10 percent of its members. (Reggie Browne is a member.) Roughly a quarter of the members rank as senior vice presidents or higher, and local chapters are designed to let rising women take on leadership roles and meet possible sponsors outside their own companies.
It’s not an accident that these practices took hold in an area where white men hadn’t already staked their claim, where the rules of the game weren’t already defined, and where the career path wasn’t seen as prestigious. Browne—who recently helped Cantor Fitzgerald start an internship program for graduates of historically black colleges and universities—points out that in the nascent ETF business, there was “no old boys’ network that holds people down.” ETFs “don’t have this 100-year history of what the people in charge look like,” says Sue Thompson. “There is more opportunity for the smartest, the brightest, those with the most interesting vision.”
Many of these factors—the entrepreneurialism, the newness, the growth—would also seem to apply to Silicon Valley, where the lack of both gender and racial diversity has been well chronicled. But as Lori Heinel points out, in Silicon Valley, where there’s a higher concentration of stem careers, “there’s a heavy reliance on an educational background skill set that is classically more male.” For ETFs, on the other hand, much of the infrastructure is in marketing, sales, and relationship management, roles that leave openings for those who are ambitious, talented, and hardworking—even if they don’t have a specific set of technical skills.