It’s hard to imagine anyone describing Wall Street as a female-friendly environment. If, as a woman, you’re tempted to forget this basic fact, well, you can always turn to books like Susan Antilla’s Tales from the Boom-Boom Room, a chronicle of Smith Barney’s basement party room and how it reflected and came to stand for the worst elements of Wall Street’s macho environment.
The problem, some women say, is that the days of the boom-boom room haven’t been left behind. Three former trainee brokers in Merrill Lynch’s Manhattan office claim they were fired in early 2009 because the investment bank favored men, according to a lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court. Among the evidence they introduce is that they were told to read a book called Seducing the Boys Club – definitely not by Susan Antilla – giving them tips on how to get your own by flirting and flattery and being generally girly in an office setting. They women say they were also ordered to attend a talk by the book’s author, top advertising industry exec Nina DiSesa. (The case was dismissed by a federal court and has been refilled in state court.)
Clearly, DiSesa has never worked on Wall Street. And, the former Merrill Lynch branch manager who allegedly suggested that the women involved in the case “stick to their knitting” rather than try to bring in new business ideas has no concept of what it takes to build a career in finance. DiSesa’s book, as cited by New York magazine, contains such tips as stocking your desk with candy, beer and board games, so that men like to hang out there. Then there is the following gem, a way to manipulate men into helping with a project: “I play on their masculine pride and natural instincts to protect the weaker sex.
“‘I can’t figure this out, and I’m exhausted,’ I will say to one of the men at the office. ‘And if it’s not done by tomorrow, I’m dead.’ ‘I’ll do it,’ he’ll invariably say. But his rescue mission won’t be truly satisfying to him unless I show my appreciation for the sacrifice he is making on my behalf.”
Feeling a bit nauseous? I’d suspect you are, regardless of your gender. No man wants to feel as if he’s being manipulated, just as no woman wants to feel that the only reason she is getting ahead – and the only way that she can get ahead – has to do with the strength of her ability to manipulate, rather than her professional skills.
The truth is that women are still dramatically under-represented in the financial services industry and on Wall Street more specifically. Some of that almost certainly is due to the overly macho culture on Wall Street, which some women have compared, wryly, to that of the military. “Except that in the military, I got hazed but no one really questioned that I could do my job,” says one veteran who worked briefly on Wall Street, and asked not to be named as she is contemplating legal action against her former employer.
It’s true that women do now hold powerful Wall Street positions. But a lot of the conversation tends to revolve around those women who have chosen to leave: former star banker Zoe Cruz at Morgan Stanley; Sallie Krawcheck, who held a series of senior jobs at Citigroup and Merrill Lynch; Heidi Miller’s departure from the operating committee at JPMorgan Chase. (In at least one case, that of Ina Drew at JP Morgan, the cause for the departure clearly had nothing to do with gender: Drew supervised the “London Whale” and resigned as part of the house-cleaning that followed the revelation of that multi-billion dollar loss.)
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Those are the cases that grab the headlines, but other women have carved out independent niches for themselves, like Muriel Siebert and Alexandra Lebenthal, or have played a role in expanding the family business, like Fidelity’s Abigail Johnson, or have fought their way to the top, like a handful of elite bankers, traders and hedge fund managers.
More rarely discussed are those women who still hold senior jobs or who are rising through the ranks. Ruth Porat is CFO at Morgan Stanley; Ann Marie Petach holds the same job at one of the biggest asset management firms in the world, BlackRock. Mary Erdoes is a star at JP Morgan Chase, where she is one in a series of women to have headed the firm’s important asset management division. (In that job, she generated by headlines by profiting after taking the other side of the London Whale’s trades, essentially recouping some of the losses her own bank made with its house money.) At Banc of America Merrill Lynch, Candace Browning is an industry veteran who heads global investment research, once a male bastion. Julie Caperton runs the securitization business at Wells Fargo; women hold senior jobs at Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse.
The irony is that women who follow Nina DiSesa’s advice are never likely to rise to positions like this in the first place. While all of these women are exceptionally well-dressed (in a professional way), and do business while wearing feminine touches such as high heels, makeup and pearl earrings, anything girly or flirty is eschewed. That, says one veteran banker, is a sure way to ensure that your voice is ignored altogether in any group meeting, while striving (as DiSesa advocates) to be seen as either a little sister or a den mother is a recipe for being patronized, not promoted.
You may never hear women on a Wall Street trading desk talk about how much they drank on a Hamptons weekend, boast about their sexual exploits, or see them join a client outing to a strip club. But like Margaret Thatcher, many are just as ambitious and effective as their male counterparts. One veteran of Wall Street once told me that she simply needed to have a slightly thicker skin. After that, she added with a shrug, it boiled down to whether she could do the job. This particularly individual happened to be extremely bright, highly ambitious and became one of the youngest managing directors ever at her firm.
Women like this are mentoring the younger generation of graduates now starting work on Wall Street, aware that just as in any profession, women face gender-related obstacles that their male counterparts don’t. Some of those are related to Wall Street’s culture, but even in the brokerage business, that is changing as being a “broker” gives way to being a “financial adviser” or “private banker,” and the emphasis shifts (in response to regulation and litigation) to managing client relationships rather than generating fees from trading or selling in-house products. Women have thrived in that environment and make up a growing proportion of top-tier financial advisors. Consider Melissa Corrado-Harrison, who now oversees $1.5 billion of client assets for none other than Merrill Lynch.
It’s unlikely that any bank will begin doling out Susan Antilla’s books on Wall Street’s problems to young female recruits any time soon. But it’s also likely that the kind of behavior at the heart of the Merrill Lynch allegations – and a raft of other cases chronicled by Antilla in a recent article that haven’t generated as much buzz – are slowly becoming less common.
Wall Street still isn’t the place to go and work if you’re the kind of person who can’t put up with short tempers and hyper-competitive colleagues. Perhaps the book that should become prescribed reading for everyone contemplating a Wall Street career has yet to be written: one on how to grow a thick skin. Because the alternative – a kindler, gentler Wall Street – is about as probable as glancing out your window and witnessing a flock of flying pigs.