Girls Need to See Women Who Are Succeeding in Finance

The following column from Jennifer Pagliara, CapWealth Senior Advisor, appeared in The Tennessean on November 25, 2016.

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Did you know that today in the United States, only 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women? That’s right, it’s nearly 2017 and only a paltry 4.2 percent of America’s biggest companies are led by the sex that comprises over half of our country’s population. Even more shockingly, that percentage hasn’t really changed in over 40 years. As a woman, that makes me rather sad and rather angry, all at the same time.

That figure had a similar effect on Maura Cunningham in 2012, only she decided to do something about it.

Shaking up the status quo

Cunningham was recently retired after a highly successful 25-year career in financial services in which she worked in unit investment trusts and mortgage-backed securities on Wall Street and later financial planning for ultra-high-net-worth clients and succession planning for privately held companies in Florida and Nashville. Three years into retirement, she decided to pursue her masters in civic leadership at Lipscomb University. That’s when all her years of being the only woman in the room really began to gnaw at her. Where were all the other women in positions of financial leadership?

“Forty-four years after the adoption of Title IX, women still face barriers to full equality in education and in the workplace,” says Cunningham. “As a result, their pay, their promotions and their quality of life aren’t equal. Even more disconcerting than the relative absence of women in top roles in the financial industry is the fact that 40 percent of all households with children under 18 rely solely or primarily on income from the mother. I decided I had to do something to help break multi-generational financial illiteracy in females. If not me, who?”

 Girls rock Wall Street

Rock the Street, Wall Street (RTSWS) has been seismic. With a three-pronged educational approach — financial literacy workshops, mentoring and field trips — and relying on female volunteers who are financial professionals, RTSWS has expanded from Nashville to serve Memphis, Chicago, New York City and Dallas/Ft. Worth. Nearly 600 high school girls have completed the five-week workshop, participated in internships and job-shadowing, and had the opportunity to tour financial services firms, banks, entrepreneurial centers and state treasury departments.

The girls are tested on financial knowledge pre- and post-program and on average their knowledge increases 84.26 percent. The program is working, says Cunningham, because RTSWS volunteers “can walk the walk and talk the talk.” They are eminently qualified to instruct and mentor. She cites a recent Survey of States Report, in which over 80 percent of high school teachers do not feel competent to teach personal finance.

The waves Rock the Street, Walls Street has made are being felt all the way to the White House. This year Cunningham was invited by The White House Council on Women and Girls to participate in the White House Conference on Inclusive STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. As if that isn’t positive reinforcement enough, Cunningham was invited to ring the NASDAQ’s closing bell Dec. 2 on Wall Street.

Role models needed

It’s all about positive reinforcement for girls’ aspirations everywhere. “We lose girls in math as early as age 9,” explains Cunningham. “They’re often not encouraged or properly supported in school, and once they’re turned off, never go back. They don’t see female STEM professionals depicted in popular culture, on television and in the movies. They don’t see their friends, their mothers or their role models going into these fields.” In essence, she says, we’re indoctrinating our girls at a very young age that STEM fields aren’t for them, to the detriment of all of us.

“Rock the Street, Wall Street is determined to bring them back,” says Cunningham. “Clearly, girls can do finance and STEM. They just need to hear a chorus that they can instead of they can’t.”

If you want to learn more about Cunningham’s mission or how to donate or volunteer, visit RockTheStreetWallStreet.com. I’m a volunteer, and I’ve never been more proud to be part of an organization.

Jennifer Pagliara is a financial adviser with CapWealth Advisors. Her column appears every other week in The Tennessean.