How Hollywood is Making Wall Street Look Like a Much Better Place to Work as a Woman

Sexual harassment may be current and topical, but a hashtag alone does not make something a new trend.  Sadly, inappropriate workplace behavior has been all too common, and yet only recently, women of all ages and varying degrees of success are finding their voices and speaking up about encounters from their pasts and in turn, destroying the careers, reputation, and likely marriages of many, many men. 

We have heard from women – and men - from Hollywood to New York City.  We now know details of horrific stories from print and broadcast journalists, film and tv stars, waitresses, bartenders, and even strippers.  Men responsible for the careers of many of these women have been quickly and not-so-quietly dismissed from major studios and networks before more truths can surface.

You know who we have not heard from?  The women of Wall Street.

Now, there could be a few reasons for the relative silence.  First, I would argue there are fewer women across Wall Street – investment banks, asset managers, hedge funds, etc – than there are in all the television & movie studios as well as broadcast and print media, so purely based on numbers, there are fewer women to come forward. 

But we know sexual harassment happens on Wall Street.  The old school movies are full of sexist language, behavior, and represent epic degradation of women.  I know it happens on Wall Street because it has happened to me and to plenty of my friends.  But that’s beyond the scope of my thesis. 

I do not believe sexual harassment is as prevalent on Wall Street today as in the past because I think the industry has been aware of the issue for some time now and for lack of a better metaphor, has “already taken its medicine”. 

I would like to think this is solely thanks to so many brave women who have come forward and told their stories to Human Resources and supportive managers.  Although this has undoubtedly happened and will continue to, I do not believe this alone is responsible for the wide-spread clean-up of the locker room.  Instead, I think it is more a result of the regulation and excruciating scrutiny the industry has suffered in the last ten years. 

Thanks to constant eyes and ears on everyone’s emails, chat conversations, and phone calls, inappropriate language and behavior is often flagged and more importantly, dealt with, immediately.  In my experience, there is a zero-tolerance policy.  Things taken out of context or in response to a topic/joke someone else may have initially broached are not seen as a defense.  The result is dismissal, and for cause.  As such, bankers and traders across the Street have been literally scared into better behavior for fear of a permanent mark on a regulatory record and forfeiture of years of deferred compensation.

For those with a political slant, the right has been arguing in recent years that the wealthiest are no longer the titans of Wall Street.  Instead, it is Hollywood – which largely leans left – who has all the financial power and leverage.  Many of us who have sat on trading floors have also wondered why the oversight has been only on our industry.  I’m curious, what new committees, regulators, and agencies have been formed since 2008 to keep tabs on movie studios and broadcast networks?   Do any exist which focus on newspapers, magazines, and blogs? 

I am fully aware and understand the First Amendment to the Constitution; yet freedom of speech is not referring to the words employees - regardless of gender - can use to discuss what colleagues are wearing, doing, or how they are making them feel. 

Perhaps Washington should consider some degree of oversight of industries who have not been held accountable for what is not only inappropriate but illegal behavior.  Sexual harassment did not boil into an issue overnight, and nor will it be eradicated in such a time frame but there are ways where a tighter leash and shallower pockets can spark change. 

Today, Wall Street has a bigger problem than men verbally or physically abusing women.  In my opinion, the bigger problem is sexual discrimination. 

Wall Street firms have been working to create a better workplace for female employees for years and in many ways, they have done so.  They have achieved relative gender balance when hiring from undergraduate levels; they have in many cases extended paid maternity leave to four months; they have diversity councils and women’s networks and host conferences and outings to empower and foster morale with female employees.  So far from a birds-eye view, they seem to be coming out of the last few weeks in a relative position of strength. 

Yet I believe another reason women on Wall Street do not come forward when it comes to sexual harassment is because if they do, and if the news gets out, the victim will forever be branded as the girl who got “so and so fired”.  Furthermore, she will become a target for every promotion she is granted, or account she gets, or deal she closes.  She will bear the weight of the asterisk of “oh she only got that because of you know what.  They wanted to keep her happy.”   

She may no longer be a victim of sexual harassment, but she will become a victim of subtle or not-so-subtle sexual discrimination.  And this is where buy and sell side firms struggle to find a solution to “the female problem”; this is what ultimately drives the women out the door and too often, out of the workforce.

No amount of electronic surveillance and regulation can fix the predisposition of the men in the room conducting the interview, or the bias of the committee selecting candidates for promotions, or capture the camaraderie that is born at the bar on a Thursday night or on the golf course on a Friday afternoon. 

Therefore, until the glass ceiling that is the old-boys club can be cracked, women will continue to be under-represented on Wall Street, particularly when it comes to the more senior positions and executive committees.  And although today plenty of women across financial services may find themselves frustrated for any number of reasons, I can confidently say it is SO much better than it used to be.  More importantly, I and so many others are committed to pushing the agenda forward.   

In the meantime, thank you, Hollywood.  Thank you for allowing women on Wall Street to realize that while the playing field may not be as level as we would like it to be, at least it is relatively clean

Megan Philbin