Five Questions with Maura Cunningham

October 22, 2019
In “Five Questions,” Maura Cunningham, founder and CEO of Rock The Street, Wall Street (RTSWS), discusses the importance of increasing girls’ confidence in the M in STEM, engaging the next generation to pursue a career in finance and her journey in building RTSWS.

1. Tell us about why you decided to form Rock The Street, Wall Street (RTSWS). 

In a word, aloneness. I was often the only woman in the room, or part of the same small group of women each year, at national financial industry conferences. This was true for 25 years. After retiring from the industry, I thought, “What could have been better about my experience in finance?” And it came to me – more female colleagues and friends. I believe that I would be a different person today if I had more women around me at work, rather than always being the sole female. In my practice, too, I noticed that no matter how hard I tried to get my clients’ wives or daughters interested in the financial affairs of their family, they’d brush it aside with a comment like, “That’s for the men.”

I started examining the reasons behind why there are so few women in the industry. I went back to graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in civic leadership, thinking I would find out why and when girls lose interest in finance. My thesis examined why girls’ interest in math starts to wane at age 9 in the U.S. I researched the cultural influences behind this problem, which is unique to America and Western Europe – they don’t have this problem in China, Russia and Eastern European countries. I implemented a community solution, which was a financial literacy program designed to re-engage girls with math in a more tangible way. What was once a one-time experiment is now a national nonprofit organization with programs in 28 high schools across 15 cities.

2. RTSWS makes the M in STEM more approachable to students by giving them the resources, tools and education to close the gender gap in finance. Why do you think many girls and young women lack confidence about finance and math?

A combination of societal influences in the U.S. stacks the deck against girls when it comes to math. Unconscious biases are ingrained in parents, teachers and kids. At home, many parents still encourage their sons to study math and science and their daughters to pursue dance and literature. In elementary school, many teachers – 90% of which are female – have little to no certification in math. Teachers will even say, “I hate math.” Their “math anxiety” transfers to the girls in the room, but not the boys. (There are 12-year longitudinal studies on this by the University of Chicago.) The girls begin to think that it’s socially acceptable for them to opt out of math.

By high school, girls develop a mindset where they say to each other that they “can’t do math” and see their girlfriends downplaying their math competencies. By college, this results in girls opting out of finance and economics classes – women represent only one in 10 students in these classes. I have an employee who graduated from college a few years ago, and she was the only female in her calculus class of 50 students at a university with more than 25,000 students! When I was in college, I was the only woman among a class of 35 men, so the needle hasn’t moved at all.

Girls need more visible female role models who can encourage their math interests, show them that much of finance is nothing more than first-year algebra and provide a realistic picture of what a math-oriented career looks like.

3. What advice or experiences do you share with girls and young women to encourage their interest in financial literacy?

It’s all about relevancy. When researching my thesis, I conducted 24 field interviews with academics, who repeatedly stressed the importance of relevancy when teaching. We refresh our curriculum every summer and pull in news headlines on issues that our students are concerned about and on companies whose products they consume. Our alumnae tell us that they used to tune out of math because it was mostly irrelevant, boring word problems. Now, they find themselves following the news and understanding the usefulness of what they are learning in math class. It’s critical for them to understand that finance isn’t archaic and mysterious; we provide context for how finance affects their personal lives and the role that it plays in supporting their families, communities, businesses and governments across the globe.

The next generation entering the workforce – both girls and boys – is passionate about social activism. To attract younger talent, the financial services industry must do a better job of demonstrating how it contributes to improving communities and emphasize how employees can help “make a difference” in their roles. When you provide that connection, it changes perceptions. Regardless of the career path they ultimately pursue, we arm girls with the knowledge that understanding the basics of finance gives them power – both personally and professionally.

4. Why do you think a disproportionate number of RTSWS’s graduates go on to pursue a career in finance or economics?

Part of the problem is that girls avoid math and finance because they don’t see women in the field and don’t see their girlfriends selecting it as an option. Our program is intentional in its female-centric approach – all the volunteers who teach our classroom-based workshops and serve as mentors are women working in finance roles. This approach provides girls with real role models to whom they can ask pointed questions and offers the social infrastructure to start them on their future career journey.

We create an environment that counters the negative perceptions of finance as a “man’s world.” In addition to teaching financial literacy, we help girls separate fact from fiction about women in finance – for instance, how financial institutions with a more diverse workforce in key roles, such as portfolio managers, tend to outperform those that don’t. Girls leave the program understanding that the financial industry desperately needs more women, and we provide visibility into the type of job opportunities that exist. Our mentoring program is quite powerful, enabling girls to receive 1-to-1 or 2-to-1 guidance to answer their questions about choosing the right college or career path, finding internship positions and addressing other curiosities they have about finance careers.

It’s an encouraging, supportive environment that allows girls to speak – and think – more freely than they might in a mixed gender classroom.

5. What advice would you give your younger self?

I would say, “Have a headset of abundance, rather than a headset of scarcity.” When I was on Wall Street, women worked under the assumption that there was room for only one of us at the top, because there were so few of us. A headset of abundance creates a more easygoing atmosphere in which to work. We need to have a little more fun with work. Network more with other women at work – reach out to a female colleague to grab lunch, play tennis or find another fun activity outside of work that can help strengthen your relationships. Another option is to find group volunteer opportunities. Each of our schools has a sponsor – and that company typically supplies most of the volunteers for that program; our volunteers tell us that they not only enjoy the feel-good benefit, but it gives them a chance to meet and connect with other women in the firm who work in different departments.

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