A woman and the wolves of Wall Street

From being handed a pizza box with condoms to a co-worker drinking her breast milk on a dare, a former investment banker shares tales of discrimination and harassment on the trading floor

I still think about a female job applicant I interviewed more than a decade ago, when I was a managing director at Bear Stearns and she was fresh from the Wharton School of Business.

"So how do the women who work here find this environment? Tell me the truth," she said.

Her question rocked me for a moment. She was a hair's distance from landing a six-figure job. We sat overlooking a giant trading floor, a sea of men punching keyboards or barrelling across a room bathed in testosterone.

Here and there, you could see a woman in a tailored suit. Clearly, I didn't work in some sharing-and- caring girlfriend club where women confided in one another. We didn't gossip, we didn't mentor, and sometimes we even saw one another as the competition.

"What exactly do you mean?" I replied.

She noted, correctly, that few of the female traders and analysts at the firm were mothers and that even fewer had made it to the executive level.


A 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek survey that tracked MBA graduates from 2007 to 2009 shows that female graduates of Columbia's business school, a significant proportion of whom land on Wall Street, earned nearly 40 per cent less than their male counterparts. PHOTO: REUTERS

I needed a moment to answer her carefully. I was then 11 years into my career, and seven months pregnant with my second child, and I hoped her journey would be different and better than mine.

Of course, she would have to avoid stereotypical female behaviour, so she could never cry. She would work long hours and hide her pregnancies and her pre-schooler's art. One of my co-workers even hid being married. When confronted, she practically swore never to reproduce, and she never did.

I did not mention my first maternity leave, from which I returned to find a curly-haired stranger sitting at my desk, his feet propped on a cardboard box with my client account list packed inside. I had to re-earn the contents of that box, starting that morning.

I didn't mention the "moos" from the traders when I headed to the nurse's office with a breast pump, or the colleague who on a dare drank a shot of the breast milk I had stored in the office fridge.

I thought of the guy known for dropping Band-Aids on women's desks when the trading floor was cold because he didn't "want to be distracted", and the many times I had heard a women share an idea at a meeting, only to see later that same idea credited to a man.

But I didn't bring up any of that. Women like me were "team players", and I was often complimented on my thick skin. Like members of a dysfunctional family, we kept our secrets to ourselves.

Instead, I kept the conversation light. I shared a funny story about my first day on Wall Street, when I opened up a pizza box to find condoms instead of pepperoni slices. Unwrapped. I was "the new girl", and the guys just wanted to see me blush. I did blush, and I lived.

"It's not that bad any more," I said with a laugh.

She was horrified. "How could you stand that?" "Stand what?" I thought to myself.

I remembered one guy telling me we should hire only "women who have brothers". I asked if she had any brothers. The pizza incident was nothing compared with everything else she was about to experience. I truly thought we were offering her the job of a lifetime if only she could let the bad stuff slide.

THE PRICE OF MONEY

At that time, women on Wall Street were earning 55 to 62 cents to every dollar a man in the same position earned. Afterwards, Bear Stearns imploded in the mortgage market, and I left, though I stayed close to the markets and the people who worked for them.

Children gave me perspective about the price of money. The women labelled stellar successes were giving up more than I was willing to part with. With the benefit of some perspective, I began to think more deeply about what I and my female colleagues had experienced.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid out to Wall Street's victims of gender inequality and harassment. Countless books and articles have coached women to lean every which way, to share their domestic duties 50/50, to demand the bonuses they have earned.

Harvard Business School started an initiative to promote the advancement of women. Investment banks formed diversity committees and have taken a more generous stance on maternity leave, and Morgan Stanley, after being forced to settle a US$46 million class-action discrimination suit in 2007, set up policies to help women succeed.

And what is the result of all these steps? While female MBAs seem to be paid almost the same as men in their first job, the chasm appears quickly. A 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek survey that tracked MBA graduates from 2007 to 2009 shows the women earned, six to eight years later, on average 20 per cent less than the guy who sat next to them in class; even more tellingly, female graduates of Columbia's business school, a significant proportion of whom land on Wall Street, earned nearly 40 per cent less. How can everything have changed and nothing change at all?

Here is one explanation. Like most employees on Wall Street, my young candidate had to sign a U4, an arbitration agreement that binds a worker to settle any job dispute with her employer in-house. Most people are so happy to have the job, they aren't worried about having to settle complaints in-house, usually with arbitrators friendly to the bank.

In fact, roughly two of every three cases are decided in Wall Street's favour. In addition, half of the arbitration costs are borne by the complainant and what would be a few hundred dollar filing fee in court can quickly escalate to as much as US$150,000 out of pocket. It's a lot to lose should things not go your way. No wonder this practice is an effective gag for many would-be whistle-blowers.

And when the bank is on the losing end? In a deep-pocketed industry like finance, it's considered cheaper and more efficient to settle than to risk having tales told in a court of law.

A Bank of America-Merrill Lynch gender bias case that received class-action status was settled in 2013 with as many as 4,800 individual payments totalling US$39 million (S$55 million).

Many bankers will tell you that a lot of these complaints about harassment and discrimination are false. Indeed, while researching a novel about a woman working on Wall Street, I was told by people in banks' human resources departments that men are now often afraid of hiring women because of the potential litigation. They fear that even innocently intended comments can result in expensive complaints; that if a woman isn't working out, and doesn't get promoted, the male employer has a legal problem on his hands. More than once I was told that it's just easier to fire a guy or - my favourite line - that "there's just less drama with men".

LAWSUITS AND DIRTY LINEN

Mr Jonathan Sack, a lawyer adept at representing both sides of these disputes, told me: "Men are being told they need to raise the ranks of women and minorities in their departments, but should someone not work out, especially at the more senior levels, employers worry they'll have a legal issue to contend with." Mr Sack's firm handled 80 such cases last year alone. I asked what he estimates the number of disputes against investment banks to be last year. "Easily 5,000," he responded. Something is very broken.

Fake complaints likely do pollute and confuse the real ones. But this is one reason even the banks should embrace a change. If these complaints were aired in public, instead of behind closed doors, maybe banks would be less quick to settle, discouraging the opportunistic from lodging a false complaint. More important, lawsuits would shine a light onto the hidden stories, the family secrets that prevent banks from moving forward.

The US needs to ban mandatory arbitration and let employees decide if they want to hash out their differences in a conference room or demand their constitutional right to a day in court.

Banks won't like it at first, but an end to this practice - through legislation or the courts, if necessary - would be a more effective cure for discrimination than their current habit of writing cheques too meagre to hurt them and too useless to root out the problem.

Women in the US now receive the majority of college and graduate degrees, and we make the vast bulk of consumer decisions and purchases. Forty per cent of households with children under 18 have a woman as primary or sole breadwinner. For future generations of women to do better, we must change the culture of institutions like Wall Street.

My candidate took the job, and while she was passionate about her work, she was uncomfortable with the raucous trading environment and lasted only five years. While none of us were able to see the details of her sealed complaint, I can imagine what they might be.

Many women have shared their stories with me, and they go far beyond exclusion from meetings and golf courses. There was the young banker who was groped publicly to settle a bet about whether her breasts were real, and the senior deal makers who found out their pay was a fraction of their male counterparts'.

Whatever her experience, her case went to arbitration. She signed a non-disclosure agreement and took a settlement cheque. Another case closed. Another brilliant woman's career on Wall Street ended.

NEW YORK TIMES

  • Maureen Sherry, a former managing director at Bear Stearns, is the author of the forthcoming novel Opening Belle.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'A woman and the wolves of Wall Street'. Print Edition | Subscribe