‘This “first” is an accomplishment for us all’: Jane Fraser, chief executive designate at Citi © Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg

Citigroup’s soon-to-be chief executive Jane Fraser is not the first foreigner to lead one of the main US banks. The Scot is not even the first former McKinsey consultant to make it to the very highest echelons of Wall Street, since Morgan Stanley boss James Gorman is both Australian and once of McKinsey.

Ms Fraser’s novelty is her gender. As Citi’s chief executive designate, she is set to become the first woman to lead a big Wall Street bank when she takes the mantle from Mike Corbat in February. 

This is 2020. Wall Street has been trying to tame its gender problem for more than a decade. Ms Fraser’s sex should not matter. Ms Fraser’s sex matters very much indeed. 

It matters to the women of Citi, who flooded professional network LinkedIn with virtual thumbs ups and supportive comments after the announcement. 

“The age-old myth was smashed once and for all this week. Women do indeed support other women,” Ms Fraser wrote in a post in response, which has been liked more than 16,000 times. 

Citi women say that while the bank has long been a strong proponent of gender equality, and has put women in scores of senior posts, having a woman and a mother at the very top makes a difference. It is not just that Ms Fraser has shattered Wall Street’s several hundred years’ old glass ceiling, showing other women and mothers that it is possible for someone like them to lead a 204,000-person organisation. 

It is not just that having a woman in charge could give other Citi women more confidence that any unconscious bias or sexist behaviour will be stamped out, or that anyone with complaints may feel more comfortable raising them. And it is not just that Ms Fraser’s elevation should help with recruitment of other women, a big goal for banks.

Alongside all of those tangible things, there is a more amorphous sense of tribal pride, a collective “we did it”. 

The fuss left little room to mention Jane Fraser’s work ethic, the loyalty she inspires, and her gumption © Rodrigo Capote/Bloomberg

Ms Fraser’s elevation matters to women at other banks as well. They have seen progress at banks such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. Last week Goldman named Stephanie Cohen as co-head of its consumer and wealth management business, making her the first woman to run a big division at the bank in years, while Chase boss Thasunda Brown Duckett was recently promoted to JP’s top management committee. (“Proud of you Thasunda. You are shining a light for us all,” Ms Fraser wrote on LinkedIn.)

With Ms Fraser named as Citi boss, the likelihood of other women becoming chief executives increases.

Citi’s men joined the chorus celebrating her promotion. They will now work at a woman-led bank, and they recognise the diversity edge they have over other men whose institutions continue to be led by males. 

As is often the case when women scale new heights, the fuss around Ms Fraser’s gender left little room for comment on anything else — her relentless work ethic, the loyalty she inspires in colleagues, the gumption that led her, in her 20s, to say she would only join McKinsey if she could work directly for its head of banking. Ms Fraser’s professional record — spanning various strategy roles until she led Citi’s private bank in 2009 and culminating in her appointment to run its consumer bank a year ago — also drew little comment.

Reducing her to one thing and one thing only — a woman — is patently unfair and some Wall Street women quietly rage against such treatment.

They want to be celebrated as powerful people, not powerful women. They want to talk about the intricacies of finance, or HR, or their given speciality, not the complexities of juggling childcare and Zoom calls.

They want their competences and skills to be judged against men’s on a level playing field. That, they say, is true progress and equality.

Ms Fraser took a different approach. Rather than back away from her gender, she has embraced it, mentoring women, speaking publicly about the challenges she has faced and offering advice for overcoming them. Arguably, in 2020, she should not have to do any of that.

But, it is not just about her. As she wrote on LinkedIn: “This ‘first’ is an accomplishment for us all, and with the many talented women in the industry, I am certainly a first of many.”

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