Fanny-grabbing, “slut jokes,” sexist pranking, demeaning name-calling. Is this any way for Wall Street traders to treat female colleagues? Is this any place for smart, ambitious women to reach the top?
On Bear Stearns’ trading floor, such sophomoric antics were SOP, and Maureen Sherry, who worked at the firm for seven years, is here to tell the tale.
What the former managing director in institutional equities has to spill is packaged in her witty novel, “Opening Belle” (Simon & Schuster), published last month. Reese Witherspoon is producing and starring in the feature film adaptation.
Set in New York City a year before and during the financial crisis, Bear’s fictional stand-in is Feagin Dixon, whose trading floor seems more like a raucous frat party than a business establishment.
When she left Bear in 2001, after 12 years on Wall Street, Sherry opted not to grab a check — or sign a nondisclosure agreement. That left her free to write about everything she experienced at the firm. To research the goings-on post-2001, she interviewed women who worked at Bear and other firms. Not too much has changed for the better, she told ThinkAdvisor in an interview.
Sherry, now 51, was a top producer in research sales, working closely with Larry Kudler, Bear’s then-chief economist, who accompanied her to client meetings. Meanwhile, back at the office, a raunchy environment held sway, with male traders improperly touching female colleagues and making crude sexual jokes at their expense.
Not wanting to seem wimpy in the tough world of finance, most women enabled the buffoonery by putting up with it; some provoked it by flirting or rocking titillating attire. A few, including Sherry, organized The Glass Ceiling Club, a secret circle aiming to help women move forward by changing the culture.
“Opening Belle” reveals what goes on in a man’s world that tolerates pressured male traders to blow off steam by sexually objectifying female co-workers and where the old-boy network blocks women’s advancement to the top.
The industry buys the silence of female victims of discrimination and sexual harassment with hefty private settlements, Sherry argues in the interview.
Ambitious protagonist Belle, Sherry’s fictional alter-ego, rationalizes staying at Feagin Dixon in the face of rampant harassment and gender favoritism: “The culture is the price I pay for the thrill of my job and the great paycheck,” she says.
At Bear, Sherry, a self-described team player, endured the same sort of “Animal House” hijinks that Belle stomachs. Worst of all was being excluded from critical high-level decision-making meetings to which only male executives were invited.
In the novel, Belle busily assembles tranches of subprime mortgages for her biggest client. Soon enough, Feagin Dixon crashes and is acquired by a Midwestern bank (Bear Stearns crashed and was acquired by JPMorgan Chase & Co.).
By that time, Sherry, well out of the fray, had earned a master of fine arts degree and was penning kids’ mystery books.
The Bronx, New York, native started out writing research reports at a small firm, Campbell Advisors. Two years later, she moved to Drexel Burnham Lambert as a junior saleswoman in institutional equities. By 1989, she had joined Bear. She is the mother of four with husband Steven Klinsky, founder and CEO of New Mountain Capital, a private equity firm.
ThinkAdvisor recently chatted with Sherry about the male-female dynamic at Bear Stearns/Feagin Dixon and the inequities of in-house arbitration. Here are excerpts:
ThinkAdvisor: Why did you write the book?
Maureen Sherry: I felt I almost had an obligation to tell the story. When I left Bear Stearns, I didn’t see how accepting gag money would help women coming behind me; so I didn’t take any. Later, even though so much time had gone by, it seemed as if nothing changed — and the story still hadn’t been told. On your first day in financial services, you opened a pizza box and instead of pepperoni slices, you found unwrapped condoms. How did you react?
I was embarrassed. Everybody was watching. I probably laughed, but I also turned red.
In your novel, the male traders familiarly touched and hugged their female colleagues. Did that happen to you at Bear?
All the time. But it was part of how [the job] was done, and you just put up with it.
Is the Wall Street environment today still rough on women?
Yes. The screenwriter for the [film] and I recently visited trading floors to interview women. I’d say that the outright harassment frat-boy stuff has either calmed down or gone to a more covert level. But what’s very much still alive is the prejudice and discrimination against women, and the old-boy networking that makes it impossible for women to break through to senior positions.
How does that manifest?
Being excluded from meetings, or you find out that you’re paid very differently from the man you sit next to. Bloomberg [Businessweek] did a survey that found [female] Columbia Business School grads hired on Wall Street at the same dollar amount as men, six or seven years later were down to 63 cents to 68 cents on the dollar [vs. men] for doing the exact same job.
How do firms get away with that?
[Pay checks are] so private. And you never hear the stories about egregious behavior. When there’s a class action organized by women – such as the 2013 case of thousands against Merrill Lynch – it’s all settled out of court.
In what forum should Wall Street employment disputes be heard, then?
The U.S. court system, where people will be able to tell their stories. I don’t see any solution other than to get rid of mandatory arbitration [stipulated in employment contracts]. Nobody really knows what goes on at the firms because of the secret way they operate. The banks are self-policing … in so many ways.
Is the new generation of women in financial services different from your generation?
One thing that’s definitely changed is what women will tolerate. The reason the number of women in senior positions hasn’t [risen] has a lot to do with the fact that, whereas the tougher-skinned women of my generation ignored [gender discrimination and sexual harassment], the younger ones are less open to putting up with that. They call the men on it – even sometimes to the point of overdoing it.
What do you mean?
When I was at Bear, for instance, one woman told me that a man continually complimented her on what she wore, and it bothered her. She said, “I always feel that he’s looking at me.” He was a good guy, so I said to her: “Sometimes, if someone says they like your dress, it’s because they like your dress.” But I did tell the men: “Let’s not make appearance remarks – period.”
Is it futile for women to try to change the Wall Street culture?
Absolutely not. Eighty-three percent of consumer decisions in this country are led by women, and women are the primary or sole breadwinners in 40% of American families. They’re going to be the ones that make the investment decisions. So to have no representation [in financial services] is just bad business.
Do you think the sexist culture is partially responsible for discouraging women to become financial advisors?
Yes. At the major banks, you feel like they’re their own little company, seated together off by themselves. It’s a funny thing – like a “girls’ section.”
Does anything stand out in your memory about female FAs at Bear?
One woman [advisor] had an incredibly shocking story. She was flying back on a private plane with a couple of other people after closing a deal with a large investor. Right in front of her, the men were graphically discussing whether or not her breasts were real. So you see why only the toughest ladies stay [on Wall Street]! The thicker-skinned people, the uber-professional women somehow shut it all out. Any uplifting true stories about FAs?
An advisor, a newly hired saleswoman and her boss were at dinner together. The boss was trying to become buddy-buddy with the advisor. So [when the woman was in the ladies’ room], he asked him, “Are you doing her yet?” The advisor stuck up for the woman. He’s a really good guy. I wanted to use his name in the book, but my publisher didn’t.
Did you feel abused at Bear?
[Other women and I] still can’t believe some of the things we put up with from the men. I guess that’s a form of abuse.
There are countless stories. A lot of my job was taking clients out at night and being in uncomfortable positions where sometimes men had an expectation that the night would go on a lot longer. It was learning how to leave early — being smart about knowing how to manage the outcome. Many of the younger women, especially, were a little naïve about stuff like that. Some women knew how to do it; others got caught.
There still doesn’t seem to be much mentoring of women in financial services.
This is a huge topic: Women don’t help one another. There are a few reasons. One is that this is an industry that attracts very ambitious women who have somehow gotten it into their heads that the way to be successful is to be man-like in this man’s world. And that doesn’t include helping and being soft on women coming behind you. The feeling is that since you have made it, they should be able to do it too.
You climbed pretty high at Bear. But did the glass ceiling thwart reaching your ultimate goal?
No question about it. I’m ambitious and always look for movement in my career. When I had my first baby and came back to work – after being in touch with the firm the whole time – I found that they had hired somebody who was sitting in my chair and was now my partner. That essentially gave me a massive pay cut.
Did you challenge that?
Yes. But they sent someone down from Legal who told me, “You’re promised a job here after maternity leave – you’re not promised your exact job.”
Were you aware of that when you went on leave?
No. But what would that have changed? Around the same time a man [at Bear] became ill and was gone for a longer time than I. But the reaction was so different: There was camaraderie – “We have to help him, let’s cover his accounts.” There was never any talk about taking things away.
You wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece that after giving birth, as you’d “walk to the nurse’s office with a breast pump, the male traders would make moo sounds” and that one “drank a shot of the breast milk [you] had stored in the office fridge.” That’s some office protocol!
All that was real. I worked at a firm that was very bottom-line oriented and liked people to produce at any cost. So they looked away from a lot of that stuff.
Did you aspire to become a partner at Bear?
It felt like a natural goal. But when I came back after my first child, I was sort of excluded from meetings. So you go from feeling the sky’s the limit to sensing that the decision has been made for you. Yet nothing had changed about how much money you were bringing into the firm – and that was very frustrating. Belle says that Feagin Dixon never would have gone out of business during the financial crisis if women were at the top. Do you feel that way about Bear?
Women are more likely to call something that doesn’t smell right. Women are more risk-averse than men – they don’t always need the home run. [With the mortgage crisis], there were a lot of [men] who were very competitive and wanted the home run. They said, “We don’t quite understand what we’re holding here; but if Goldman Sachs shows better profit growth in this quarter than we’re going to have, it can’t be wrong. We have to keep up.”
Did you foresee the mortgage meltdown?
No, but I was very wary. A lot of people were making a lot of money. You’d ask them about synthetic devices and how they worked, but they could never answer intelligently. It felt weird.
Belle says, “A small band of men…destroyed [Feagin Dixon] with greed, bad behavior and testosterone-fueled decisions.” Is that how you feel about Bear?
About the mortgage crisis, absolutely. There was a feeling that “We still have to crank these out because they’re very profitable; and everybody else is doing it, so it must be OK.” Yet, every cog in the wheel – including the deep association of ratings agencies with banks – smelled a little bit funny. They were all complicit.
But it’s very hard for me to believe that these very smart people never saw something coming.
Everyone was saying they didn’t know what was in the securitized bonds, though.
When I was doing interviews for the book, I asked, “Was it impossible to know what was in each bundle of bonds?” And people said, “I guess you could have researched it.” But nobody was doing that, I think because they didn’t want to know.
What do you believe set the stage for the mortgage debacle?
One woman in mortgage banking told me that they had “people coming in with fake Social Security numbers. But she was instructed: “That’s OK. They have some money in the bank. So you can just overlook that.” It was starting right there.
Do you miss working in financial services?
It’s very exciting to feel like you need to know the price of oil and whether the gold market is really up. It makes you feel very connected to the world, and I love the pace. I miss that very much. Obviously, I don’t miss the environment.
— Related on ThinkAdvisor:
- Greed, Sex and Drugs on Wall St.: Therapist to Financial Advisors Tells All
- Maria Bartiromo: More ‘Money Hammer’ Than ‘Money Honey’
- Female FAs Tired of Playing Musical Chairs: Ann Hughes