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by Derek Loosvelt | July 11, 2016


It's been many moons since I worked in investment banking as an M&A analyst and associate. And so, in this day and age, I'm sure that things like this don't happen anymore: holiday parties that end at strip clubs, male bankers asking each other if they'd "[insert your favorite expletive]" this or that female banker, male bankers taking long lunch breaks to "see their chiropractors" (a/k/a get massages that end happily). Or do they?

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Sam Polk, a former Wall Street banker (who also wrote another widely read Times op-ed a couple years ago on wealth addiction), writes that sexism, misogyny, and something he calls "bro talk" are indeed alive and well on Wall Street.

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.

Polk goes on to say that, although many top investment banks have been making efforts through affinity groups and other diversity measures to fight sexism, "these things have resulted in little change." He also connects "bro talk" with the lack of female leadership at investment banking and hedge fund firms. There has never been a female CEO of a major Wall Street bank, for example. Which should raise some eyebrows, as we could very well see three of the most powerful Western nations in the world (the U.S., Germany, and the U.K.) being run by women at that same time before a single woman runs a major bank.

Although some of what Polk writes about in his op-ed isn't exactly news—it's no secret that Wall Street is still largely, and definitely at the higher levels, made up of white males (or, as Polk describes it, Wall Street is "like the Andover lacrosse team—meritocratic, perhaps, but only among a small subset of the population")—the meat of his op-ed is worth highlighting. According to Polk, here's why, in part, Wall Street hasn't advanced much in recent decades when it comes to being more welcoming to women:

From the moment I began working on the Street, the crucial importance of fitting in was communicated to me. During my summer internship … 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.

And so, conformity often means standing by silently when that "bro talk" is being tossed about. Which is what Polk did. He stood by silently when he worked on Wall Street, is ashamed of it, and now, after leaving the industry, he's talking about it. He encourages others to talk about it, too. But, of course, it's going to be very difficult to talk about unless you no longer work in the industry, especially if you follow Polk's creed that conforming is essential to suceeding. In any case, Polk believes that this "bro talk" has wide-ranging effects. Which, of course, are not good.

[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.

What Polk doesn't mention is that Wall Street has hardly cornered the market on "bro talk." Since I left investment banking a few presidential administrations ago, I've worked in a handful of other industries, and I can tell you that "bro talk" is also alive and well in industries other than Wall Street, if not as alive and well.

And, further, if all the reports and studies and lawsuits and demographics are any indication, perhaps the one industry that's on Wall Street's heels when it comes to bro-related problems is technology. They don't call it Sexism Valley for nothing. And so, let's hope Polk's message resonates inside but also outside the world of banking as well.