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How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down

By SAM POLK
WHEN I was a 27-year-old bond trader at Bank of America, I went to dinner with a managing director and a high-profile client, both men, at a Brazilian all-you-can-eat meat restaurant in Manhattan. The waitress came by to see if we wanted another round of drinks. When she was out of earshot, the client said, “I’d like to bend her over the table, give her some meat.” They laughed. I forced a smile. On the way home, I fumed. I was troubled by the comment, and disgusted by the man who said it. But I was angry with myself. Why hadn’t I said anything?
For my entire life, I’ve heard men talk about women. On baseball fields, in wrestling locker rooms, at frat parties and in private conversations, I’ve listened to men dissect women into body parts. When I was younger, I did it, too. Casually objectifying women — speaking in an unguarded way, using language we never would in mixed company — brought us together.
Yet, the everyday sexism I saw, and participated in, during high school and college was nothing compared with what I witnessed on Wall Street.
During my first summer as a trading desk intern at Credit Suisse First Boston, I was walking through Midtown with a managing director when he sped ahead of me to look at a woman. “I had to get a look at those tits,” he said. I often heard men say about female colleagues, “I’d like to get behind that.”
Women on Wall Street widely report experiencing overt sexism. A bond trader friend received a smaller-than-expected bonus after refusing to sleep with her boss, and soon quit. Another friend sued her employer, a major bank, after it took away all her major clients on her return from maternity leave.
But most of the sexism on Wall Street occurs when women aren’t in the room. “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? There are many reasons that men still overwhelmingly populate trading floors and boardrooms, but this is one that has gotten too little attention.
A woman has never been the chief executive of a major investment bank. Only about 2 percent of hedge fund managers are women. During my years on Wall Street I never saw a woman run a trading or sales desk, which is the first step toward executive management.
Wall Street’s sexism isn’t just unethical — it’s bad for the industry’s bottom line. Studies show that investment groups that have more female managers perform better than those without them. In a culture that claims to value meritocracy, Wall Street is more like the Andover lacrosse team — meritocratic, perhaps, but only among a small subset of the population.
The promulgation of diversity committees and women’s leadership summits and inclusion training suggests that there is some institutional acknowledgment of this sexism. Yet, these things have resulted in little change. What we need is something simpler: individuals speaking up and challenging norms, especially when it’s uncomfortable. So far, women have done the heavy lifting. They’ve written the articles, filed the lawsuits and raised awareness. Men rarely do or say anything.
Why not? Because it feels really good to be in the in-crowd. A few years ago, when I heard reports that Yale fraternity brothers had marched through campus chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal,” I was aghast. At the same time, I understood the thrilling camaraderie those young men must have felt from joining together to say something obscene, and to recognize that our culture had granted them that power.
Men have been inculcated by dads and coaches with an ideal of masculinity and male bonding that includes, and even revolves around, the objectification of women. I knew from a young age that my dad was a “tit man.” My high school baseball coach often talked about which senior girls had the best bodies. In many ways, objectifying women was the rite of passage through which I entered the world of men.
That helps explain why I stood silent hundreds of times as men objectified and degraded women. Protesting would have violated the sanctity of the men-only space, and would have risked interfering with the bonding that goes hand in hand with the objectification of the other sex. It would have been embarrassing and emasculating. And it would have been bad for my career.
From the moment I began working on the Street, the crucial importance of fitting in was communicated to me. During my summer internship at Credit Suisse, the human resources representative told me that whether I received a job offer would not be based on my intelligence, but whether the traders liked me. It was a social test, not an intellectual one. The trading desk I worked on that summer consisted of 15 male traders, and one very junior female trader. To get a job, I needed to become one of the guys.
It’s hard to violate social norms; it’s even harder when doing so means jeopardizing millions of dollars in future earnings. For an intern, a connection with a managing director can mean a foothold in one of the most lucrative career paths in the world. And the pressure to conform doesn’t end once you get a job. The difference in pay between your current role and the one just above it is usually several hundred thousand dollars per year, and often several million. That’s partly why Wall Street, which is often portrayed as a swashbuckling, take-no-prisoners culture, is actually a culture of brutal conformity. Traders and bankers wear the same shirts and the same shoes, and almost never contradict their bosses.
In my experience, the misogyny often comes from bosses; denigrating women is the mechanism through which they connect with their subordinates. At one of the firms I worked for, a senior executive asked me, “Did you get laid last night?” When I responded no, he said: “Too bad. When I was your age, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.” I faked a smile — I felt that I had to.
But a few years after I left Wall Street, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we learned that it was going to be a girl, I burst into tears. My daughter would soon enter a world not just of unequal pay and unequal opportunity, but one in which almost 20 percent of women are raped, and a quarter of girls are sexually abused.
If you think that this violence has nothing to do with bro talk, you’re wrong. When we dehumanize people in conversation, we give permission for them to be degraded in other ways as well. And even if we don’t participate, our silence condones this language. I deeply regret remaining quiet while women were being disparaged during my eight years as a trader.
If hedge fund founders, managing directors and desk heads instituted a zero-tolerance policy for this behavior in their ranks, it would help engender a culture of respect for women on Wall Street. And if men of status in our wider culture — managers, coaches, politicians, celebrities — insisted that women were spoken not just to, but about, with respect, that would help create a culture where it’s not so scary to be the parent of a daughter.

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