Last Stop, Wall Street

Like most New York lawyers, I know many people who work in the financial sector. Most of the guys are generally fine people, but turn into puerile misfits when around their work friends. When asked why they went from relatively normal human beings to animal house rejects, I was told that it was just the atmosphere of Wall Street, where everyone behaved poorly, childishly, boorishly. And they were, well, okay with it.

One of my closest “Wall Street” friends wasn’t a guy, but the mother of one of my son’s best friends from elementary school.  She didn’t enjoy the boorish behavior, but then, Wall Street had made her quite wealthy. She earned far more than her husband, who wasn’t doing badly himself, and they lived very well.

“Why do you put up with the shenanigans?” I asked her when we were sitting on the second floor porch of her house overlooking Long Island sound.

“For the money.”

Former Bear Sterns Managing Director Maureen Sherry wrote of her experiences of life in the pit, via the odd device of questions from a woman she was interviewing.

I needed a moment to answer her carefully. I was then 11 years into my career, and seven months pregnant with my second child, and I hoped her journey would be different and better than mine.

Of course she would have to avoid stereotypical female behavior, and so she could never cry. She would work long hours and hide her pregnancies and her preschooler’s art. One of my co-workers even hid being married. When confronted, she practically swore never to reproduce, and she never did.

I did not mention my first maternity leave, from which I returned to find a curly-haired stranger sitting at my desk, his feet propped on a cardboard box with my client account list packed inside. I had to re-earn the contents of that box, starting that morning. I also didn’t mention the “moo” sounds that traders made when I headed to the nurse’s office with a breast pump, or the colleague who on a dare drank a shot of the breast milk I had stored in the office fridge. I thought of the guy known for dropping Band-Aids on women’s desks when the trading floor was cold because he didn’t “want to be distracted,” and the many times I had heard a women share an idea at a meeting, only to see later that same idea credited to a man.

None of this behavior, and, frankly, much worse, comes as a surprise.  The custom amongst these Masters of the Universe is to act like the brattiest, most offensive, of children.  They do it to each other, male and female alike, as if they’re hysterically funny. The closest anyone ever came to offering a quasi-rational explanation is that it’s how they blow off steam in an extremely high pressure environment. It’s not a good explanation, beyond the “this is how we’ve always done it” sort of rationalization.

Sherry contends that this climate doesn’t change because women are precluded from suing for gender discrimination by Form U4.

Like most employees on Wall Street, my young candidate had to sign a U4, an arbitration agreement that binds a worker to settle any job dispute with her employer in-house. Most people are so happy to have the job, they aren’t worried about the prospect of settling complaints in a conference room, usually with arbitrators chosen because they are friendly to the bank.

In a follow-up letter to the editor, an employment discrimination lawyer adds that the form is but one limitation. Employment contracts create multiple barriers to redress.

Sherry writes that it’s not just the physical treatment, the outrageous “pranks” played on women (as well as men), but the salary that distinguishes women on Wall Street.

At that time, women on Wall Street were earning 55 to 62 cents to every dollar a man in the same position earned. Afterward, Bear Stearns imploded in the mortgage market, and while I stayed close to the markets and the people who worked for them, I left. Children gave me perspective about the price of money. The women labeled stellar successes were giving up more than I was willing to part with.

According to a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek survey that tracked M.B.A. graduates from 2007 to 2009, the women earned, six to eight years later, on average 20 percent less than the guy who sat next to them in class; even more tellingly, female graduates of Columbia’s business school, a significant proportion of whom land on Wall Street, earned nearly 40 percent less. How can everything have changed and nothing change at all?

How, indeed? Nobody goes to work on Wall Street to save humanity.  Just as my friend told me, it’s for the money. At 20% less, even 40% less, they are earning far more than they would earn otherwise. They earn more than most men. They earn more than most women. They earn a lot of money.

Nobody forces a person to choose business school, to take a job on Wall Street. Nobody puts a gun to their head and tells them, “sign the employment contract, the U4, or else.” Nobody tells them they can’t have children. Nobody forces them to tolerate the infantile behavior, the offensive climate, that continues to permeate the culture of Wall Street.

They do it for the money.

The rejoinder is that women should not be forced to endure discriminatory treatment in any position. And, indeed, they shouldn’t. No women should ever have to tolerate a guy touching her breasts as a “joke.” It’s not merely repugnant, but criminal. When male friends tell me stories of their “pranks,” I’m disgusted, and tell them so. They laugh, and tell me that I just don’t get it. That’s for sure.

But if any woman called the cops on a co-worker for the sexual assault, that would be the end of her career. When they claim discrimination, they will never work on the Street again. And yet, plenty of women tolerate this world, and plenty more want a piece of it, knowing what they will face from their colleagues.

Why does this continue? Why do they tolerate it? Why does anyone tolerate it?  For the money. Nowhere else will someone hand them a $5 million bonus check. Or, if they’re female, and only get 60% of what males get, a $3 million bonus check.

17 thoughts on “Last Stop, Wall Street

  1. losingtrader

    having been in the business (and never received a bonus), you might find it interesting that it’s not the U-4 arbitration that an employee need about. It’s the U-5 termination, giving the reason you left the firm.
    The firm has absolute immunity -for whatever BS they put in your record. That will give the employee second thoughts.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      At some point in your life, you need to stop being afraid of the “permanent record” bogeyman. At least, the non-governmental version. It’s OK to have nightmares about being labelled a sex offender.

      1. SHG Post author

        In certain tightly knit industries, reputation as a trouble maker is the kiss of death. That a trader would be labeled a sex offender probably would be far less of a problem than if the trader was labeled disloyal.

        1. Patrick Maupin

          My bad — assuming it was a stock form rather than looking it up and realizing it is something the SEC cares about. Yeah, that could hurt.

    2. Marc R

      Unless the U5 says “termination” or “permission to resign” then it’s not of much value…most firms negotiate a “voluntary” U5 because you can sue your firm for defamation if any part isn’t true. The U5 affects insurance pulls and can kill a career. Also, you can expunge a U5 through a court filing.

      I don’t see a U5 being a bar to Title VII gender discrimination.

      To SHG’s point, I take issue with the amounts affecting the complaint. 60% is 60% of the same 100% of work. The female financier shouldn’t have to do with breasts being touched; that’s straight up battery in the tort world and fireable even in investment banking. And obviously it’s a crime. But professionals drinking breast milk shots, making crude jokes and playing pranks is simply wasteful and annoying behavior. Nobody could justify it but anyone smart enough to advance in that field knows that this behavior is par for that course.

      Anyone quitting a $3M job because of the feelz isn’t objectively rational enough to work in these markets. It’s not about liking the behavior, it’s about knowing $3M for 365 days of pranks and mean words is always an advisable risk for that opportunity.

      1. SHG Post author

        He wasn’t saying the U5 was a bar to a discrimination or defamation suit. He was saying that what a firm put on a U5 would mean that the person would never work again on the street, which is a far more influential threat.

      2. Joseph

        >Anyone quitting a $3M job because of the feelz isn’t objectively rational enough to work in these markets. It’s not about liking the behavior, it’s about knowing $3M for 365 days of pranks and mean words is always an advisable risk for that opportunity.

        Who died and made you arbiter of people who are “rational enough” to work in finance? If you’re doing $3M work you’re doing work that’s been priced by your employer at $3M. Neither detesting sexual harassment enough to quit after five years or, say, being an insane paranoid with an imaginary friend disqualifies you from doing that work unless it’s actually impeding the quality of your performance. This is just a cheap rhetorical potshot designed to ridicule people decide spending the rest of their working lives being passively harassed is not for them.

        1. SHG Post author

          Who died and made you arbiter of people who are “rational enough” to work in finance?

          Who died and made you arbiter of a reasonable analysis of the facts when it offends your delicate sensibilities? How do you even type when crying all those sad tears for a world that just won’t be the way you think it should be? Don’t be a hypocrite, Joseph. To ask you not to be a fool would be too ask too much. Would it break your heart to learn that most of those women working on Wall Street would kick your pathetic butt across the room without the slightest thought to get their paycheck? They don’t need you to be their white knight.

          1. Joseph

            Yes, I have been promised a chance at emotional and possibly physical intimacy by supposedly high-powered but actually emotionally fragile women working on Wall Street who need a big strong man to defend them on the internet, and that’s why I have leapt to their defense. My sex voucher is already in the mail.

            At the end of the day the arbiter of what constitutes “a reasonable analysis of the facts” in an online discussion forum is made by the commentariat, though I guess in this case since it’s your blog and you arbitrate the comments it’s actually you (I see you’ve declared a winner) – but the point I was getting at is that unless there’s a substantial public interest in who gets a certain job, determination of fitness for employment in a particular industry that’s solely up to the employer.

            The public has a valid interest in keeping emotional, paranoid, or “irrational” people out of jobs such as policeman, federal judge, or public policymaker – and the public has a strong case for claiming that a certain kind of person needs to be kept far away from those jobs – but this doesn’t seem to fall into that category. It’s like saying that smokers and fat people aren’t fit to be doctors, a pointless moralizing potshot.

            1. SHG Post author

              I didn’t declare a winner. I declared that you don’t get to be censor. I know, but still.

              Enjoy that sex, but if she pulls out cuffs, make sure it’s what you really want.

  2. David M.

    It’s important to remember that after you adjust for hours worked, the pay gap shrinks by a lot. Once you factor that in, across the entire American workforce, women make about 95% of what men do.

  3. Joseph

    While it’s hard to get worked up about filthy rich people having to suffer indignities in the pursuit of filthy richdom, I think there’s still a more general social problem remaining where a woman is told “if you want to reach the commanding heights of the economy, you must put up with sexual harassment” that extends beyond the easily dismissable individual problems of any individual woman making $3M a year.

    1. SHG Post author

      This is a very different point than your last comment. Save your tears for the deserving. Whether they want them or not, at least you aren’t squandering them on people who would really prefer you just go away.

      1. Joseph

        I would just like to note that I wrote this comment at the same time as my other one, having left the browser window open, and had not read my reply to the previous comment when I made this comment (which I intended to be independent of my reply to Marc above, and where I am suspecting myself of rapidly digging a hole.)

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