It’s hard to read Maureen Sherry’s account of how women were treated at investment bank Bear Stearns. It’s almost even more heartbreaking to read how they treated each other.
The few women who managed to get hired at the once-prestigious Wall Street firm were mercilessly hazed by their male colleagues, Sherry writes in a piece published in The New York Times this weekend.
Women at the bank were essentially forced into the femininity closet — hiding all signs that they were female humans with lives. Worse, they were buried so deep in those closets, they didn’t come out to each other and talk about the sexist horror show that was their workplace.
“Women like me were ‘team players,’” she writes. “I was often complimented on my thick skin. Like members of a dysfunctional family, we kept our secrets to ourselves.”
Sherry is certainly talking now, and in her Times piece she underlines something that we should all take to heart: Without women speaking up, it’s hard to fix these problems at work. She particularly takes issue with banks’ current practice of settling discrimination complaints privately, out of the public eye. This, she says, only serves to further bury women’s real experiences and keep them feeling isolated, frustrated and even more alone in industries where they are already hard to find.
You really cannot discount how important it is at work to have colleagues and friends you can look to for support. That’s especially true for women and other minorities who may feel out of place in a white, male-dominated culture. It’s not easy finding these allies. Over the years, I’ve actively sought out other women to lean on — asking them to coffee during the day, chatting them up at the water cooler and even ambushing them in the ladies’ room.
Sherry’s now an author, and her experience at the bank, which happened over a decade ago, should merely be another shocking bit of women’s history from a far distant past. But there’s little reason to believe much has changed in the years since she quit the firm. (She left just before Bear Stearns imploded, taking the global economy along with it at the start of the financial crisis in 2008.)
Yes, things have changed a bit since Sherry’s days. More firms are now concerned about the lack of women in finance, with special conferences and philanthropic efforts and a lot more talk about the importance of “diversity.” And big banks are even improving maternity leave policies — J.P. Morgan just beefed up its leave last week, following others in the industry.
Still, for all these efforts, the percentage of women employed in the industry tells the true tale: Women enter finance at the same rate as men, but they don’t last. There are very few women at the top.
All of the CEOs at the top 10 biggest banks in the U.S. are men. In the more rarefied world of private equity, women are extremely tough to find, and the percentage of females hovers at around 10 percent at the most prestigious shops, according to recent data from Bloomberg.
Sex discrimination suits are not uncommon — and would probably be more common if not for onerous contracts employees must sign pretty much giving up their right to sue their employers, as Sherry points out.
Even as more firms are putting formal mentorship programs in place for women and people of color, informal networking is vital. And if you’re looking for true support and mentorship, you have to be honest about the sexism you’re seeing and experiencing. That’s doubly true for women at the top, where the pressure to tow the corporate line is going to be the most intense.
Sherry, for her part, didn’t reveal the truth about what it was like to be female at Bear Stearns, depriving younger women of critical knowledge and setting them up for huge disappointments. Instead of being open about what it’s like to hold down a prestigious job at a Wall Street firm and raise children, she hid her pregnancies and felt she couldn’t display her kid’s art. One of her co-workers hid being married.
But Sherry had it worse than just feeling like she couldn’t talk about her family: When she started on Wall Street, she was presented with a condom-topped pizza. And on a dare, a male colleague even took a shot of the breast milk Sherry had stored in the office fridge.
Pause to think about how hurtful, insensitive and disgusting that is.
Fewer men are drinking the breast milk these days, to be sure. But Wall Street still looks like an old boy’s club, and with so few women around it’s hard to see how things can get all that much better.
The few women who are in the industry really do need to stick together, or at least feel comfortable enough telling each other what’s going on. If we don’t air these stories out, all the corporate diversity efforts in the world probably won’t help much.