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by Derek Loosvelt | June 08, 2011


Earlier this week, Heidi Miller, the 58-year-old head of JPMorgan's international operations, announced her retirement. Miller, who will step aside in the first quarter of 2012, has worked alongside JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon for two decades. She worked with Dimon at Citigroup and Bank One, and joined him at JPMorgan seven years ago as the head of the bank's treasury and security services business. Since then, she's been named one of Fortune's “Top 50 Women in Banking” and one of Forbes’ “100 Most Powerful Women.”

heidi millerAs usual when one of the few, high-ranking female Wall Street executives announces her departure (or her departure is announced for her), a discussion ensues about the lack of women in senior roles in investment banking. This discussion typically centers around work-life balance: Women, the discussion goes, who are historically the primary caretakers in families, do not want to compromise their family lives for their professional lives. And so, given that the investment banking industry is one of the country's most demanding, both time-wise and stress-wise, female bankers often opt out at some point during their careers to spend more time with their families. And this is why you see mostly men at the top of org charts and not women.

But I call B.S. on this.

Instead, I'd argue that while work-life balance surely does keep some women from wanting to stick it out in banking, what really keeps them from wanting to stick it out, and what prevents them from progressing, not to mention getting into the industry in the first place, is men. And, more specifically, men like Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Anthony Weiner. That is, sexism is the reason women aren't on top.

Once upon a time I worked in investment banking. I worked as an analyst and an associate. After that, I decided to switch careers. Why I did had a lot to do with the lack of respect I felt for many of the people I worked for. That is, the men I worked for. In my four years in banking, only one woman ever ranked ahead of me.

Here's one scene I remember. I'm a first-year analyst and working on a deal with two associates -- one male, one female -- and a VP, a male. I'm called into the VP's office. The male associate is already inside. The door is closed. A B.S.-ing session begins. Yankees, Mets, Knicks, girls, etc. After the VP tells us his latest racial joke, he asks if we think the female associate is a lesbian. I have no idea, I say. I don't think so, I say. Then he asks if we'd shag her if she'd let us. Of course, he doesn't use the word shag. I don't answer. I try to change the subject. Then he says a bunch of other stuff I'd rather not put in print.

Here's another scene. I'm an associate, working at a small investment bank. And here's the (unofficial) itinerary of our company Christmas party: happy hour at a nearby bar, dinner at a downtown restaurant, massages at a Midtown parlor, and drinks at an uptown strip bar. (As I recall, the two women in the office were encouraged to attend all parts of the party aside from the part involving the massages.)

I could, of course, go on.

Granted, this was more than a decade ago, so times may have changed (though I doubt it). And, of course, there are numerous male bankers who do not fit the generic mold of lewd fraternity boy. However, what I'm getting at is Wall Street's still, for the most part, an old-boys club. And still not that much different than a fraternity of men (incidentally, I was in a fraternity in college, and one of the associates who was instrumental in hiring me out of school was a member of the same fraternity at this same college).

And, even if there has been progression made to hire more women in banking, there certainly hasn't been enough. Think about all the professions/industries where women do work tons of hours and have families and still rise to the top. Publishing is one. Public relations is another. Media and entertainment is yet another.

Here's some quantitative data. This year, in Vault's Banking Survey, being administered now to the 75 leading investment banks in North America, of those surveyed thus far, 75 percent are men, 25 percent are women. Last year, the stats were similar: about 75 to 25, male to female. In executive roles, the number of females thins out. Last year, the ratio in senior roles stood at 89 percent male to 11 percent female.

Here's some qualitative data (comments from bankers surveyed this year): "Jokes and comedy concerning minorities are accepted and there's little or no sensitivity training"; "Still the old-boys club"; "Some managers make inappropriate remarks regarding female employees"; "Female recruiting, particularly at the MBA level, needs improvement -- the difficulty lies in growth and retention of female employees once hired."

Others do cite the family issue: "Being a working mother and/or pregnant is frowned upon"; "Working mothers are often penalized in pay because they might not be 'in the office' after hours but working from home"; "There are issues in retaining women who want to balance career with private lives (that is, children)."

To be fair, there are scores of other comments from survey respondents that speak to how investment banks do attempt to go to great lengths to hire and retain women. Often, these respondents cite the women's groups and women support networks that banks now operate.

But, when a great majority of these comments are coming from men, and the stats continue to point to the shrinking percentage of women in banking both at the top and bottom of org charts, and men in powerful positions (albeit not quite on Wall Street but not all that far away either) continue to get accused and/or busted for sexist acts involving hotel maids and Twitter followers, who, and what, is a girl, or boy, to believe?

(WSJ: Most Dangerous Job on Wall Street? Female Executive)

(Vault: 2010 Banking Rankings: Diversity With Respect to Women)

(Related: Where the Women Aren't: The Banking C-Suite, Why Investment Bankers Are Satisfied With Their (Long) Hours, Cube Life Is Killing Me)


Filed Under: Finance