By Anna Irrera
NEW YORK (Reuters) - As a biomedical engineering student at Duke University, Priya Karani thought she did not have the right skills to break into the heavily male-dominated field of Wall Street trading.
"I was never interested in a career in trading at a bank because I didn’t know it was an option," Karani said.
A decade later, Karani is a director at Barclays PLC in New York where she trades healthcare derivatives and helps the bank's effort to attract more women to trading by talking to female college students about her job.
Despite such efforts Karani still represents a small minority since few women apply for jobs in trading, deterred by its decades-old reputation as an "alpha-male territory" and misconceptions about skills it requires.
"Trading is a hard one to crack," said Jon Regan, a head of global markets for executive search firm Sheffield Haworth. "I don't think it has changed much, although firms are working hard to improve their gender ratios."
The firm, which works for many leading investment banks and conducts studies on behalf of its clients, found women generally account for 12 to 15 percent of trading roles, he said.
There are no industry-wide data but the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which oversees U.S. brokerages, said women accounted for about 28 percent of individuals registered with it at the end of 2017. Those numbers include not just traders, but also investment advisers.
Banks' efforts to change that have intensified over the past year with the emergence of the #MeToo movement and growing shareholder calls for disclosures on workforce diversity.
For example, Citigroup Inc and Bank of America Corp released information on diversity and gender pay gap for the first time this year in response to calls from an investment advisory firm.
Since last year, major employers have also been obliged to report gender pay gap data for their British operations, which for banks showed women underrepresented in higher earning roles.
COACHING, NETWORKING AND MENTORING
Barclays' Sophomore Springboard program that Karani supports is one of several initiatives banks have introduced recently to make trading rooms more diverse.
Citigroup Inc does college recruitment focused on informing young women about trading careers and offers them interview coaching, while JPMorgan Chase & Co has been running an internal program for the past two years called Women Who Trade, which offers networking for female traders of all levels, including potential recruits.
"We are doing a better job at ensuring analyst classes have a better intake (of women)," said Claudia Jury, global co-head of currencies and emerging markets at JPMorgan and a senior sponsor for the program. The bank has hired around 30 women through the program since 2016, it said.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc started its Trader Academy in London last year, offering eight months of mentoring, networking and job shadowing for 16 female college students. The bank plans to expand the program to the Americas this year and Asia soon after.
Goldman has said it wants women to eventually make up half of its overall workforce, but acknowledges trading is far from that goal.
"Having women in particular from a trading perspective has always been a challenge for us," said Janine Glasenberg, the bank's head of graduate recruiting in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Banks are so keen to improve their diversity ratios that one declined to make young female traders available for interviews out of fear they might get poached by competitors.
Shareholder pressure aside, managers and some studies say hiring more women simply makes business sense.
David Hesketh, chief executive of a London-based startup TradingHub said trading simulations the company ran in 2014 and 2015 for hundreds of interns as part of banks' recruitment programs showed women made fewer trades and took fewer risks. They would also break the rules less than half as often as men. In all, having more women on a team could translate into savings on brokerage fees, loss provisions and fines.
"That is kind of nuts, if you think some firms are getting fines in the hundreds of millions of dollars," Hesketh said.
BOYS CLUB VIBE
Yet former female traders interviewed by Reuters describe an industry, which has left behind discriminatory attitudes common only a decade ago, but where women remain heavily outnumbered and can sometimes feel like outsiders in a "boys' club."
Simmy Grover, who worked as an equity trader at Morgan Stanley in London between 2006 and 2009, recalled how just over a decade ago one investment bank was ready to offer her a job, but just could not imagine her on the trading floor.
"I remember walking into an interview and I was asked why I had applied for trading because I was a woman and I should be applying to sales."
Grover, now a researcher at the University College London, said she ended up working as a trader elsewhere anyway. While she said she never felt marginalized on the job, she would sometimes get overlooked by brokers hosting social events- typically involving watching a soccer game and a trip to the pub.
Divya Krishnan, who was a trader between 2009 and 2014 as part of Citi's program for quantitative analysts, said in her time the bank was already trying to help young recruits, offering networking opportunities and linking them up with experienced female traders.
They told them, she recalls, to be confident and avoid apologizing too much, something she said women tended to do.
But like Grover she found it was harder to fit in after hours. "I was never a sports person, but that was always a topic of conversation. I had to learn that," Krishnan, who now works for fintech startup Motif, said.
While workplace culture is slow to change, banks focus their outreach in colleges on broadening a pool of potential candidates by dispelling the myth that only math wizards or those with finance degrees can succeed in trading.
"We spend a lot of the time encouraging women who have liberal arts backgrounds to look at this business," said Amanda Magliaro, a managing director and head of global structured finance distribution at Citigroup.
Magliaro, who graduated as a Japanese language major and holds an MBA in finance, said the efforts, including interview coaching for women joining its internship program, were bearing fruit: "It has improved the numbers."
Headhunters say, however, it will take time before effects of such efforts show up in banks' gender ratios.
"Firms would like to have more women in trading and other areas, but there aren't that many women in the pipeline," said Ross Gregory, a director at recruitment firm Proco Commodities.
(Reporting by Anna Irrera; Additional reporting by Catherine Ngai; Editing by Meredith Mazzili and Tomasz Janowski)