CEOS OF SEVEN of the largest U.S. banks appeared before the House Financial Services Committee in April 2019. When the panel—all men, all white—were asked under oath if their successors were likely to be female or a person of colour, no one raised his hand.
Without saying a word, the CEOs had put a fine point on a hard truth: Wall Street had never had a female CEO, nor was one likely in the near future.
The message they sent was antithetical to the mood of corporate America at the time. The #MeToo movement had prompted a harsh reexamination of office workplace dynamics; institutional investors were demanding that boards of directors add more women; and companies— banks included—were preaching the merits of diversity.
The moment left such a bleak impression that Fortune dedicated pages of its 2019 Most Powerful Women issue to asking three pressing questions: Why had bank CEO suites remained so impenetrable to women? Who might be the first to breakthrough? And when?
We now have a definitive answer to those last two questions: Citigroup in mid-September announced that Jane Fraser would succeed Michael Corbat as chief executive in February. Barring something unforeseeable, Wall Street banks’ long-standing glass ceiling is history.
But Fraser’s appointment doesn’t eliminate the culture that had kept women out of the corner office for so long. In fact, it raises a new set of questions: Who is the woman who will be the first female CEO of a big Wall Street bank and how did she achieve what has, for so long, appeared unachievable?
On one hand, the most recent stage of Fraser’s career follows what Jane Stevenson, head of CEO succession at executive recruiter Korn Ferry, calls “the blueprint”: She worked her way through key business units at the bank and left each better than she found it. Yet at the same time, her refusal to sacrifice her personal life at the altar of her career flouts many of the old “rules” for getting to the top. That ability to find a middle way—to forge a new path through a very old maze—may indeed be an essential part of what makes her uniquely qualified for the job she’ll step into in 2021. And so, for that matter, is her willingness to talk candidly about navigating the labyrinth.
FRASER, 53, was born in St. Andrews, Scotland. (Yes, as a matter of birth she has an affinity for golf.) She moved to Australia for high school and with aspirations to be a doctor. But she soon learned she was bad at biology but fond of math and economics, which made banking a natural career fit.
From the University of Cambridge, she landed at Goldman Sachs in London at the tender age of 20. She would lament years later that she was “the boring British girl” in the office. “Everyone else was much more exotic, from all over Europe. They were a little bit older, they spoke multiple languages, and I just thought they were so much more interesting than I was,” she said in a 2016 address to the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. The feeling was motivation enough for her to leave London for Madrid, where she spent two years as an analyst at consultancy Asesores Bursátiles and worked on her Spanish—a skill that would prove especially useful years down the line.
After business school at Harvard in the early 1990s, her career diverged further from the typical banking trajectory. Rather than return to a place like Goldman, she opted to join consulting firm McKinsey for a reason she doesn’t sugarcoat: The women she saw in the banking industry at that time “were rather scary”, she said in the 2016 speech.
Those were the days of big shoulder pads and manly suits. The women and many of the men didn’t seem “that happy”, she recalled. “They were very successful. They were brilliant. But it was tough.”
In short: She wanted a life.
Working at McKinsey was still demanding, but it offered the same dynamic—being a trusted adviser to a client—with more predictability.
She got married two years later and got pregnant the same year she was up for partner. “I got quite a lot of advice, ‘Don’t get pregnant in your partnership year.’ And I just thought that was nonsense,” she told me at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in October. The firm informed her she’d made partner two weeks after she gave birth.
After that moment—having a baby, making partner—she did heed a different piece of advice: “I remember one of my mentors saying to me, ‘You’re going to have several careers in your life, and your careers are going to be measured in decades. So why this sense of rush and trying to have everything at the same time?’ ” It led her to make a decision that she says was critical: She chose to work the entirety of her five-year partnership—until she left McKinsey for Citi in 2004—part-time.
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