Question-and-answer site Quora tweeted a link this morning to a thread called
“What is it like being a woman on Wall Street?”
An anonymous Ivy League-educated woman, who says she worked on Wall Street for 10 years, has a fascinating response full of anecdotes from her time in finance. She left Wall Street more than five years ago and notes that things may have changed.
In her response, she describes challenges she personally faced, like when men in the office would address internal mail with her bra size next to her name, or when married traders would get smashed and call her up late at night and hit on her.
The anonymous former finance worker also says that it was difficult to report bad behaviour in the industry because she was afraid she might lose her job. She writes about how one of her married superiors “got too physical” over cocktails and she slapped him in front of another male colleague. She said she was the one who had to apologise for the incident.
Her response doesn’t paint a totally grim picture for women working in Wall Street.
She says that she really liked working in finance and that she learned extremely valuable skills. She also says that there were several instances when male co-workers would stand up for her.
Here’s her full response from Quora:
I liked working on Wall Street, in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by men, and very smart people who are amply rewarded. It’s fast-paced, exciting, brash, and you have to be on top of your game, all the time.
But there are many challenges. I worked on Wall Street for over a decade; and following is a very small sample of what I experienced:
- I would get anonymous notes. We worked in a high-rise with many floors, so originally I thought there was an error in finding my correct mail zone. (good-natured speculation, I’m sure — someone would write 34D? 36C? 38C! etc. on my mail, on the address label next to my name – got very annoying after about the 4th time, because we were on the 26th floor; there were only 30 in the building.). I finally spoke to the folks in HR about it; it stopped.
- I was regularly sexually “harassed” and felt up every time there was an office party. Harassed is probably going a little too far; a little teasing, maybe, more sexual innuendo, like that. Maybe “felt up” is a stretch, too. In case you were wondering, it’s called “harmless flirting” and “being someone’s good friend” when hands grope and go where they shouldn’t, like on your arse, your thigh or brushing up against your chest, or when somebody has their arm around you, and then it slips. I see it happen all the time among my male co-workers – oh, wait, maybe I don’t. This isn’t Europe, they’re terrified to touch each other, beyond a handshake, or a pat on the shoulder when they’ve lost their dog, or their mother.
- I got drunk phone calls at 3 am from time to time from traders wanting to “stop by” that I’d have to shut down; and then got to listen the next day as they talked to their wives about their $US3M Darien remodel and then, on the next call, set up “dates” with Paris hookers — good times. Never did get the chance to party with some of those guys.
There are many more stories like this; none particularly awful, I guess. Heck, that’s why I got an Ivy League education and graduate degree, so I could learn how to brush aside that kind of nonsense. Right?
These were a few of the lessons learned:
- Either going or not going to the strip club with the guys is a problem.
- Always apologise first. Men have egos, especially when it relates to women and sexual advances. One evening out, one senior married colleague’s behaviour got so bad and was heading so far out of line, I slapped him, because I didn’t know what else to do, in front of one of one of his subordinates. He got too physical with me, and it wouldn’t stop, no matter what I said. The next day, I apologized, laughingly, ’cause, you know, it was awkward and I guess I drank too much. And I ran the risk of losing my job if I didn’t.
- If you complain about this kind of behaviour, then neither men nor women will ever talk to you again. The men won’t because they’re afraid of becoming the next target; the women won’t because they’re just afraid. As one woman put it “I can’t tell anyone! I’ll lose my job”. Simple, really, and true. And you can’t sue, because if you do, your career in the industry is pretty much over, unless you have family in the business to protect you, or clients who will stay with you, no matter what. And then, people think you must be sleeping with the clients. You develop a “reputation”. For some women, that’s OK. For me, it just wasn’t.
- Whatever the situation in your company in the United States, if you travel outside of Europe and Australia, especially, for business, you will encounter additional, higher levels of discrimination, sexual innuendo, and harassment. Or you will be ignored. It’s good to travel with men who can help — unless, of course you have your own contacts, preferable family or school relationships. I recall sitting in a very, very crowded first class lounge in the Sao Paolo airport, all business travellers. There were two other women there, travelling for a mobile carrier, out of easily over a hundred men in suits and ties, waiting for their planes. It shouldn’t matter; but it does. It’s difficult.
There are some clubs I don’t want to be a part of, even if they’re elite and powerful. I think similar rationales are part of the reason why there aren’t more women, still, in the most senior ranks of Wall Street.
There were also times when the men I worked with stood up for me, set me up for promotions and supported me professionally and personally, in ways that I can’t begin to repay them for.
One time, at a dinner at a very nice NYC restaurant, while we were waiting for a table and I was at the bar, some guy wandered over and started trying to hit on me. I could see my boss’s boss watching from a table in the cocktail area. I couldn’t shake the guy. So, finally, my boss’s boss walked over, and said “hey buddy, can’t you see she doesn’t want to talk to you?” The guy looked at him and said “what’s it to you? you like her boyfriend or something?” And my boss’s boss just called the bartender over and said “this man is leaving. pick up the tab and get out of here”. And the guy pulled out his black card, paid the tab and left. My boss’s boss was very good at keeping expenses down. Some of those guys were like my brothers; and I respect and adore them and their families, and stay in touch.
Occasionally, even positive feedback could be awkward; there’s a slightly bitter flavour to the promotion or the bonus that comes with -” you’re good at this, better than john and bill and bob. Our performance/numbers shows it. Plus, you’re nicer to look at.” All you can do is smile, and say “thank you.” Because, you know – that matters.
Things may have changed, or maybe it’s just become subtler and more insidious. I left over 5 years ago, because my husband got a job offer in another place. He finally got to a point in his career where he was making close to as much money as I was; even though the opportunity for increased financial success in his career was much less than my potential earnings at the time, we wanted to have a family, and I wanted to have a family life. That wasn’t possible so long as both of us were working in highly competitive, stressful jobs. For me, living a full life isn’t about the money, or the adrenaline.
The skills I learned while working on Wall Street were invaluable, and to some extent, transferable. Selling yourself, getting people to trust you, and making the client feel good about themselves has a lot to do with success in business. I learned how to do that with my co-workers and supervisors as well as with clients, on Wall Street.
The real secret of success on Wall Street, as almost anything, is to persevere and consistently add value; and find a place and space that welcomes you, recognises your contribution, and treats you with the respect that you deserve. There are some incredible female role models on Wall Street; they are extraordinarily talented, hard-working, and lucky, and often have made significant personal sacrifices. There are companies that have a culture that supports and foster talent, no matter gender. There are many sacrifices you make throughout your career, no matter what your gender is. What’s acceptable and fun at one point in your life might not be so positive, later on; and vice-versa. Things change. And maybe, patterns of sexual harassment and discrimination on Wall Street have changed for the better, too; but maybe they’ve just gone further underground.