Banking is an aggressive, competitive and challenging industry dominated by men. Women — especially Orthodox women — are noticeably absent from top positions in the financial industry. But it is not the workplace environment that is holding them back, says leading financier Judy Heicklen.
Ms Heicklen, who is Orthodox, is managing director at Credit Suisse and has sustained a successful career in finance for more than 25 years. Since the Los Angeles-born chartered accountant joined the international banking giant in 1986, she has had the opportunity to oversee decisions, travel the world and leave the office before Shabbat comes in each week.
But Ms Heicklen’s path is not typical of your average career woman, let alone the religious women who she says “are reluctant to break out of their comfort zones.
In general they are choosing a certain type of career that is more culturally acceptable, because of more flexible times and emotional needs.”
But Ms Heicklen insists that “it’s not harder in the workplace for Orthodox women.” She says “the cultural conditions are different. The general social pressure, from Golders Green to Stamford Hill, is to stay at home. That’s actually what makes it harder for women.”
She insists there is no longer any debate about women taking senior positions in financial organisations. “I don’t think the ability of women to lead is even a conversation any more. There are so many examples of women as lay leaders in their community and they are predominant on the board of schools — we just need to take that model and apply it to industries.”
Ms Heicklen, who grew up in an observant home, made her way up the career ladder because she “had to work. I was not very ambitious growing up, but I was financially independent and reliant on myself — that’s why I worked hard and focused on career building throughout my twenties. It was my only option. I would then get a reward, and so I worked harder. It’s a cycle and I sort of fell into accountancy — it wasn’t my passion, not by a long shot.”
But the 50-year-old now finds waking up at 5 30 every morning to work a 17-hour day easier because “I love my work. I love solving problems and get a lot of job satisfaction from managing people. I especially love that part of my job.”
Her passion is clear as she is determined to defend her industry even if “banks are not popular right now.
“We’re giving back a lot. Banks still have an important role to play and are critical to the smooth functioning of the economy,” she says.
Ms Heicklen has been posted across the globe, from Tokyo to Singapore and London to New York — where she is currently based.
During her four-year stay in London, she lived in Hendon where she attended the Ner Yisrael Synagogue.
This week, in her capacity as president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Jofa), which recently launched in the UK, she spoke about the role of women and leadership at a United Synagogue event at the Norrice Lea synagogue in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
“I do sometimes speak to girls in the religious community about pursuing jobs in finance. I would absolutely encourage them to pursue it if that’s what they want,” she says.
Having had the opportunity to travel the world, the divorced mother-of-three would “recommend it to anyone. Travelling is absolutely fabulous. My eldest child was born in Hong Kong, my second in London and youngest in New York.
“Not a lot of Orthodox women would volunteer to go to Japan, but I did. I looked into it and saw that it was possible to keep kashrut, and so I went for two years and also learned Japanese. I guess that I did have the feeling of: ‘I’m not going to do what everyone else does’.”
So can you have it all? “I don’t think you can have it all, but you can have a lot of it,” says Ms Heicklen. “I wish I had more time to breathe, more time for myself and my children — but I do love my job. And let’s be honest, the money’s good.”