Equity: how fictional tales of women on Wall Street shed light on reality

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“When is it my fucking year?”

The line you’re most likely to hear quoted from Equity, one of the summer’s most memorable movies – and one of the best movies ever made about Wall Street – is the actor Anna Gunn’s hymn of praise to the joys of money. “I really do like money,” says Gunn, playing the role of investment banker Naomi Bishop. “Don’t let money be a dirty word.”

But while that call resonates – she tells a group of young women that it’s OK to be rewarded for being tough, talented and working twice as hard as the men around them – it somehow lacks the power and the energy of the challenge levied by a furious Bishop to her boss, the global head of equities at the investment bank where she works. He’s retiring. She wants his job, and knows she deserves it.

The problem? Although she’s a superstar banker, Bishop has recently, inexplicably lost at the last minute to a rival bank. Now, all that anyone wants to talk about is what went wrong.

She’s told: “You rubbed people the wrong way.” What does that mean? Well, a bemused and annoyed Bishop finds out, it might have been that “I wore an awful dress” on one occasion.

It has now been two decades since one of the worst cases of blatant harassment and discrimination against women on Wall Street hit the headlines. The “boom boom room” was a real place, a basement party room at a branch office of Shearson Lehman (later Smith Barney) in Garden City, New York. What took place there, and at other Smith Barney brokerages, ranged from outright sexual assault to the kind of harassment that is almost mundane for women who work on trading floors, such as strippers showing up to celebrate birthdays.

Adding insult to injury, many of the 2,000 or so plaintiffs in what – against the odds – became a class action lawsuit, earned lower salaries, saw commissions handed to male colleagues and weren’t given the materials they needed to prepare for exams.

Smith Barney, now part of Citigroup, paid $150m to settle the claims. Along with other banks, it did everything it could to burnish its image as an attractive place for women to work.

It hasn’t really worked, at least if you judge by Maureen Sherry’s new novel, Opening Belle, published early this year by Simon & Schuster. (It, too, will soon be a movie, starring Reese Witherspoon in the title role.) And there’s no reason not to pay attention: Sherry worked at Bear Stearns and has mined her own experiences for material.

Sherry’s autobiographical heroine is Isabelle McElroy, 36, a highflyer at Feagin Dixon (a very thinly disguised Bear Stearns run by a very thinly veiled composite of Ace Greenberg, bald head and all, and Jimmy Cayne, although with a drug habit that carefully isn’t cannabis). After joining a group of unhappy women – the Glass Ceiling Club – and after a mysterious individual begins sending emails alerting all and sundry to the most egregious behavior at the firm, Feagin Dixon’s Greenberg/Cayne composite convenes a lunch meeting of all his senior women to discuss issues that concern them.

Equity: the cast and crew on the women of Wall Street

The valiant Belle is the only one to speak up, however. “I don’t want to hear slut jokes all day long. I don’t want to work in a frat house. I want to be paid equally. I want my input on abnormal rates of risk we take to be heard.”

The examples Belle gives of what she endures precisely mirror those that Sherry herself described in an op-ed. Colleagues who uttered “moo” sounds when she used a breast pump after maternity leave, and one who drank a shot of her breast milk on a dare. A trader who supplied women on the desk with Band-Aids to cover their nipples when it was cold, because he didn’t want to be “distracted”. Instead of brooding over it all, or getting angry, Sherry advised her younger female colleagues on the importance of handling an important client making a pass at her without annoying him. She prided herself on thick skin.

“We’re ambitious and we aren’t overly sensitive,” a friendwarns her at one point. “They know how to work with us. The guys aren’t going to change. It’s too late for them. The women just need to deal with it.”

But do they? Or should they? While most of Wall Street’s senior women have indeed grown thick skins, they aren’t necessarily “dealing” with it.

One woman, Megan Messina, received a bonus a third the size of a man with the same title and similar responsibilities at her employer, Bank of America. That seems to have been the moment when she asked herself when it was going to be her year: although her bonus was a lavish $1.5m, more than most of us can expect to earn in a decade or more, she says the bank’s “bros culture” ensured she wasn’t taken seriously. Her first conversation with her new boss, according to a lawsuit she filed, included him asking her whether she colored her hair.

Just how many gender bias cases does Wall Street want to settle? In 2013, Bank of America forked over $39m to women who had worked at Merrill Lynch, in the latest in a long string of discrimination cases involving women and racial minorities dating back decades.

Many other cases are settled out of the public eye, through mandatory arbitration. But discrimination, whether it’s subtle (the result of a woman wearing a dress that somehow, inexplicably, a client dislikes) or overt (a woman being forced to share her commissions and clients with a younger man) is still a reality. So, too, is harassment.

It’s also worth noting that when most of these women make it big, they don’t do so within big Wall Street firms. Maria Elena Lagomasino was chairman and CEO of the JP Morgan Private Bank, and became CEO of WE Family Offices, a global wealth management firm. Sallie Krawcheck became chief financial officer of Citigroup, then moved to Bank of America Merrill Lynch to head its asset management division.

When the bank’s CEO, Brian Moynihan, eliminated her position – in spite of the fact that Krawcheck had produced profits for the then struggling bank – she moved on to acquire a professional women’s networking group that began as a Goldman Sachs alumnae organization, and now is launching Ellevest, a new investment platform aimed at women. Another high flyer, Blythe Masters, left JP Morgan Chase to launch her own blockchain company, Digital Asset Holdings.

In Sherry’s view of the world, a few smart women on Wall Street’s risk committees might have prevented some of the mayhem of the financial crisis. In Equity, Bishop is the principled investment banker who wants to do what it takes to raise capital for her clients to get money from investors to entrepreneurs. Traders’ greed and her colleagues’ games bemuse her.

Maybe, just maybe, all this will trigger a serious discussion about women on Wall Street, rather than more propaganda. It’s not likely to change attitudes on a day-to-day basis, but in this kind of environment, doing away with mandatory arbitration, so that the worst offenders can be publicly named and shamed in lawsuits, would be a fine start.

Because at some point, it has to be their fucking year.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Suzanne McGee, for theguardian.com on Sunday 14th August 2016 15.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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