Why International Women’s Day isn’t just about gender

Trader Talk

People say that the small things we do on a day-to-day basis ripple into larger acts of change, like recycling or simply saying hello to a stranger. But there are still those days when a cataclysmic event changes your world forever: a market crash or a global pandemic.

For me, an immigrant Muslim woman from Pakistan who came to the United States in the 1990s to study, work and build a better life, it was 9/11.

I knew when I left my home to attend college in Washington D.C. that I would have to work hard. I had no network in the U.S. and no family money to help propel me. I worked the night shift at my neighborhood Macy’s and did an unpaid internship at Merrill Lynch, all while keeping up with my studies. My goal was always to join the financial industry in which my father and brother both worked when I graduated.

They say timing is everything, and my timing was off. I was starting my career as a financial advisor right after the tragedies of 9/11, when the perception of Muslims in America was tainted. No way could I be successful when Americans distrusted my skin color, race and religion.

And then there was my gender.

“As the next generation of women enters the workforce, they will be part of a more accepting environment because society’s perceptions of women’s roles have changed drastically over the past two decades,” writes Ayesha Yasin, right, with her daughter, Alizeh Afzal, who has joined her practice.

While women were making great strides — female participation in the U.S. workforce hit a record 57.5% in 1990— and while the decade ushered in the first woman in space, the first female attorney general, the first female secretary of state and the first female CEO of a Fortune 100 company (Hewlett-Packard) — those gains weren’t equally felt in financial services. The wealth management industry, in particular, was still composed almost entirely of men.

But I am not someone who cedes to adversity. I kept my mind focused, gave myself pep talks, found a few mentors and pretended not to hear the whispers and sometimes outright insults.

My tunnel vision eventually landed me a job as a financial advisor, where I quickly brought on my first client, then my second and then my third. Now, 20 years later, at RBC Wealth Management – U.S., I have a four-person team and a thriving business serving high-net-worth clients.

As I built my business, I knew there might be a wall of stereotypes between me and prospective clients. But instead of addressing those biases head-on, I explained my story slowly from the beginning, helping each person see my mental fortitude, perseverance and, eventually, my actual talent in managing money.

Today, I am proud to say that as I continue to build my own business, I am also helping bring in the next generation of female advisors. My daughter has joined my team as a fourth-generation financial advisor and a first-generation American.

As the next generation of women enters the workforce, they will be part of a more accepting environment because society’s perceptions of women’s roles have changed drastically over the past two decades. This generation shouldn’t have to prove that they belong in the financial industry. Women, like my daughter, should be able to enter this profession equal to their male peers.

However, the struggle for women remains real. Just because some gender barriers have been knocked down doesn’t mean women don’t face other inequalities every day. Even in this day and age, there are still little immigrant girls who are told that their accents are too thick, their religion is wrong, their education is not good enough or they don’t blend in.

We must acknowledge and celebrate that women come in all shapes and sizes, from different races, religions and backgrounds, and we are all deserving of a fair chance to work and succeed.

Then — and only then — will we know we’ve truly achieved equality.

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