Why There Are So Few Senior Women on Wall Street

Why are there so few women in senior management in the banking and investment industry, also known as Wall Street? In spite of a plethora of diversity committees, women’s leadership programs and retreats, and inclusion training in Wall Street firms for at least the last two decades, the representation of women in senior positions has not changed much. A major investment bank has never had a female CEO, and only 2 percent of hedge fund managers are women. Sam Polk, a former hedge fund trader, explains in an article in the New York Times that the hypermasculine culture of Wall Street firms remain unchanged because “men rarely do or say anything” to challenge the overt and covert sexism all around them. The pressure to conform and fit in to be promoted is reinforced from day one. The overt sexism that women experience, such as pressure to sleep with bosses, retribution when they don’t, and loss of opportunity after taking maternity leave, is one type of sexism that creates barriers for women, but it is covert sexism that Polk is most concerned with in his article. He explains that “most of the sexism on Wall Street occurs when women aren’t in the room.” He calls this “bro talk,” where men casually talk about women as sex objects and body parts as a way of bonding with each other. Polk reflects on his own experiences in high school, in college, and as a bond trader on Wall Street where he heard men who were role models—fathers, coaches and bosses—denigrate women. He notes that while he felt uncomfortable hearing and participating in this type of talk, he never said so because “it feels really good to be in the in-crowd.” Protesting would have been “embarrassing and emasculating” and, he admits, bad for his career. Now the father of a daughter, Polk regrets his silence and explains, “‘Bro talk’ produces a force field of disrespect and exclusion that makes it incredibly difficult for women to ascend the Wall Street ladder. When you create a culture where women are casually torn apart in conversation, how can you ever stomach promoting them or working for them?” He urges men to be allies—to finally bring about change in the Wall Street culture and other organizational cultures they are in, men must insist that women be spoken about with respect. He makes the point that a relationship exists between “bro talk” and the rape and sexual abuse of women and girls. Polk states, “When we dehumanize people in conversation, we give permission for them to be degraded in other ways as well. . . . Our silence condones this language.” In another article describing the new movie Equity about female executives on Wall Street, author Melena Ryzik interviewed women who are currently investment bankers who agree that the culture of hypermasculinity still exists. They detail a number of sexist assumptions and double binds that create barriers for women:

  • The assumption that women will leave to marry or have children so there is no reason to promote them.
  • The demand that women have to continually prove themselves before they get promoted, while men are given a chance to prove themselves after promotion.
  • The conflict between being too tough or too pliant and being called overbearing when expressing an opinion.
Barbara Byrne, an investment banker at Barclays and a producer of the film, asks, “When do we get our fair share, when do we get a seat at the table?” It will take both women and men to change the culture of sexism. Let’s hope that many men heed Polk’s call for an end to their silence. Are you a man, or do you know a man, who speaks out when other men are demeaning women behind closed doors? We need men to stop participating in “bro talk” and challenge other men to stop, too. It will help us all to hear your success stories.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Helpsg.  ]]>