Can Sweden offer the US lessons on how to improve gender equality in finance? Here’s what two Northeastern students found.

Mary King and Malin Ortenblad recently published a paper on gender equity in finance. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Malin Ortenblad and Mary King had witnessed male employees in the workplace making sexual jokes about younger female workers. They had read in textbooks that men were the visionaries in the field of modern investment. They had worked in offices where male employees far outnumbered women.

So they decided to research gender equality in a way that might make a difference. Specifically, Ortenblad, who grew up in Sweden, had always believed her country was different. Her conviction was backed by the World Economic Forum, a nonprofit institute based in Switzerland, which has ranked Sweden the fifth-best country in the world in addressing the gender equality gap. So she and King decided to study whether Sweden could offer examples of how the United States could improve.

What they found in their study, which they conducted as undergraduate students at Northeastern, surprised them.

Gender equality at Swedish firms whose employees they surveyed was higher than those in the United States. But the study, the results of which were published in December in Harvard Business Review, found that the percentage of women working at those Swedish companies wasn’t as high as they expected in certain fields. While many managers in retail and commercial banking said their teams were more than 50 percent female, Swedish investment bankers they surveyed said women comprised only one-fifth, at most, of their teams.

“I really had hopes that investment banking, for example, in Sweden would be a lot different,” said Ortenblad, who graduated in August and now works full time at a consulting firm. “But it turns out that the country has less of an impact in certain fields of finance.”

Ortenblad and King conducted online surveys with 60 finance professionals from the two countries and extensive follow-up interviews with half of them in-person for their study, which was funded by the Summer Scholars Independent Research Fellowship program at Northeastern.

They said that most interviewees cited a “masculine and unwelcoming culture” as the primary reason why few women worked in some fields of finance. Many interviewees also said they believed that women aren’t interested in finance.

Some findings from their research in the United States and Sweden offered more promising prospects for gender equality in the finance industry in both countries. Ortenblad and King said two groups of people—clients of financial firms and recent college graduates, especially men—emerged as the strongest advocates for making workplaces in the finance industry more gender balanced.

They learned from interviewing employees in both countries that clients often complained about the lack of gender diversity in their meetings, and that this feedback led the women they interviewed to be invited to meetings more often in the future.

“It means that people who aren’t in finance can have an impact on this,” said King, who is a fifth-year student at Northeastern.

In both countries, young people with fewer than four years of experience out of college “were most vocally concerned about the lack of equal gender representation at their firms,” Ortenblad and King wrote.

“I think the younger generation is not afraid of speaking up in the same way and they’re less worried about the consequences, maybe, I hope,” Ortenblad said in an interview. “That made me feel really optimistic, and I do think things are going to change.”