Anthropologist Melissa Fisher spent over a decade collecting the memories of the first women to break into finance. Joris Luyendijk weighs up what has changed for female bankers
This was life on Wall Street only 50 years ago: “The secretaries all had to wear hats and gloves. In the bathrooms, they had light bulbs with the partner’s [boss’s] name. The partner would ring you up. If you were in the bathroom, you had to run out immediately.”
One question on an entrance exam paper for a trainee programme at Merrill Lynch in 1972 read: “When you meet a woman, what interests you most about her?” The correct answer was beauty. Low scores were given for those who answered intelligence. There was, of course, no question about what to be interested in when meeting a man.
Yet a few dozen determined and tough women did manage to break into this world four decades ago. Now their stories are being told and analysed by Melissa Fisher, an anthropologist from New York University, in her book Wall Street Women. Fisher interviewed the women from the mid-90s through to the financial crisis of 2008 and the result is a compelling picture of just how far women have come – and how far they still have to go.
Over the past year I, too, have been interviewing, for this newspaper, dozens of women working in finance in London. Most are under 35 and weren’t even born when Fisher’s informants began their careers. It is striking how much has changed in two generations.
Today’s young investment bankers have been wined and dined by the major banks and financial firms almost from the first day they set foot in their top university. None of Fisher’s cohort came from prestigious institutions (Ivy League universities weren’t even open to women until the late 60s) nor was there a recruitment circus. Instead, the first women bankers and brokers found their jobs by responding to newspaper ads, or through friends. Once hired, they went to business school in the evenings, where they met other women. It was this support network that helped them figure out what to wear in a meeting, what to do at a social function and how to deal with difficult or sexist bosses. “This was before such words as ‘networking’, ‘coaching’ or ‘role model’ were even used,” Fisher says.
Forty years ago, a career in finance wasn’t glamorous, lucrative or controversial. Instead, banks were seen as boring – ambitious graduates preferred the business world. Today, the starting salary for an investment banker in London is around £45,000 plus bonus – making finance easily the best-paying industry for graduates. But the other side of the coin is that never in modern history has banking and finance had a worse image than now. This generation’s women bankers in London say it’s far harder to be a banker in society than a woman in banking.
Institutionalised sexism in finance seems eradicated, say young women bankers, as banks and firms fear expensive lawsuits and bad publicity. But on the top floor the glass ceiling remains, with women massively underrepresented in senior positions. Not a single global bank is run by a woman.
Virtually everyone I have interviewed says they want more women in top positions. But none is in favour of quotas, arguing that these fatally undermine women’s credibility in the daily office battles and would even prove counterproductive.
At the same time, Fisher says, the arguments for more women at the top of finance are shifting in fascinating ways. In the 70s, women gained entry into finance at the price of accepting traditional roles and norms. They played on traditional connections between femininity, motherhood and work, Fisher writes, arguing in interviews with her that being a woman made them good at analysing stocks: “They would tell me, ‘Women have a lot more respect for the concept of risk. This serves them well.'”
But now, after the financial crisis, a new argument is developing: might women actually be better stewards of the financial sector? Before emancipation, women were cast as too emotional and fundamentally unserious, and hence not suited for bearing heavy responsibility in society. After the crisis, it is now male traders and bankers who are portrayed in that light; driven by the emotion of greed and machismo, and slaves to the thrill of ever greater risks.
Will this shift in public discourse affect women’s chances of breaking through the remaining glass ceilings? Fisher describes in her book how women reacted with alarm and despair when, following the crisis, the three highest-ranking women on Wall Street all lost their jobs in rapid succession. A disproportionate number of lower-ranking women were culled, too.
Fisher’s book ends with mixed feelings. Looking back, the first generation is immensely proud to have made it. But they are frustrated with the tenacity of male domination, with some of the women embracing the idea of quotas. They are also frustrated with what they see as the new, more individualist generation of women in finance who don’t seem as committed to take the fight to the next level, viewing their rights as “entitlements” instead. As one of the most successful pioneers puts it in the book: “Some women open the door, the others walk through”.
Melissa Fisher will be discussing her book and the glass ceiling in the comment thread on Monday 20 August at 8pm.
Over the past 12 months the Joris Luyendijk Banking Blog has interviewed dozens of women in finance in London. This piece talks about what it’s like to be a woman in today’s financial sector in London.