Whispers on Wall Street: How Women Must Navigate the Financial Sector

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May 4, 2022

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(RYE, N.Y.) — Rows of desks line up like a small army inside a large room, neatly symmetrical in contrast to the chaos around them. I stand in the doorway with a foreboding feeling while studying the list of clients I’m about to meet — committing their desk locations to memory. After mentally preparing myself for the mayhem that awaits me on the other side, I open the door and walk into the proverbial lion’s den.

After graduating from college, I accepted a position with a reputable New York firm, selling their liquidity trading platform. My days consisted of spending time on various trading floors helping clients enter electronic bids through our trading system. These floors were predominantly male. As a woman walking into this vast space, I had to steel myself for the ogling and inappropriate comments on a daily basis. 

Of course, there are many respectful men who work on these trading floors, but there are also those with no scruples and zero self-awareness. The ones who think every female who enters the trading floor wants to sleep with them. They feel an emboldened camaraderie with their male colleagues who behave in a similar disrespectful manner. 

“The lion’s den” — what my female coworkers and I called these predominantly male trading floors of Wall Street during my eight years in the financial sector — were places where antagonism, harassment, and innuendo were just part of the job. The predatory “boys club” behavior was not only tolerated, but expected. And, in my experience, any complaints to higher-ups came with the risk of having your accounts reassigned to a male colleague.

When you start out in the finance industry as a young woman, you quickly learn the rules. And once you learn the rules, you learn the game. Through conversations and shared information with female colleagues and clients, you learn where not to venture alone, who the serial harassers are, and who to avoid at all costs.

“It’s like a lamb being led to slaughter,” a former female colleague of mine said. She asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “Once you know who to stay away from and why, it gets easier.”

As of 2021, according to a survey conducted by employee platform AllVoices, 44 percent of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace, yet only 50 percent of those women have reported it to supervisors. This is why whisper networks form and have continued to operate for decades. Such networks are informal alliances among groups of women who warn one another away from serial assaulters. They’ve become instrumental in navigating an industry that’s 75 percent male. 

While these networks have long existed, they’re difficult for management or angry male colleagues to trace, allowing women to protect themselves and stay under the radar. They encourage women to speak openly about sexual assault and abuse in a safe environment. These networks have also evolved with the advancement of technology, affording easier access to information through anonymous online platforms. 

The most notorious abusers are well-known in the industry and openly discussed among colleagues. Yet, despite their abuse of women, they remain employed.

“Yes, it was mostly the same men who preyed on young women,” Maureen Sherry, a former executive at Bear Stearns told the New York Times in 2017.

In the 1990s, Sherry was part of an ambitious group of women called “The Glass Ceiling Club.” They met at local restaurants every few months to discuss how to make the workplace more female-friendly. 

“Of course, our conversations would revert back to sharing facts we knew about the men we worked with,” Sherry told The Times. The group would often discuss “survival hints” on how to avoid sexual harassers as well as advice on salary negotiations, office politics, and work/life balance.

My whisper networks were less structured, with back-office chats and coffee breaks, and impromptu sushi and sake nights. One evening, my colleague told the group that our boss had pulled her aside and asked her to give the newest female employee some “makeup tips” because she came across “a bit trashy.” 

The women in these whisper networks aren’t your best girlfriends, but rather your allies in an everyday battle that’s unfortunately so familiar in the financial industry.

“I haven’t been part of anything formal but other marketers and I will share when certain men are sketchy and when to be wary,” said a 35-year-old female executive at a New York hedge fund, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s usually a heads up, like you know that guy is shady, so be careful when you go for drinks.” 

Secrecy Protects the Abusers

While they are a lifeline for some, whisper networks also have several disadvantages. Most of these groups tend to be exclusive because credibility and trust must be established prior to exchanging information. This excludes many of the younger female professionals who are starting out in the industry — and perhaps most likely at risk for harassment. Also, because the group is built on secrecy to protect the victims, they also inadvertently protect the abusers.

“Finance is where the money is,” Kathleen Finlay, founder of the Zer0Now Campaign said. “That brings out superstar performers whose behavior often gets a pass, and money acts as an insulator to protect bad actors and organizations that enable them.”

Finlay, who was fired after reporting a sexual assault to her boss, believes the abusers have their own system of protection.

“The one thing that keeps the abuser flame burning is their support network,” Finlay said. “That’s the real whisper network, and women need to be concerned about it — along with the threat of retaliation if she speaks up and stands her ground,”

Whisper networks are designed like spider webs, intricate but delicate. On the other side, the abusers’ webs are like a tight ball of yarn. No communication leaves the circle and it’s difficult to pull apart. 

Levels of Abuse

Harassment can often be subtle, but some women in finance have reported blatant disrespect — even after #MeToo.

“I was told I was just a ‘PYT’ [pretty young thing] by a coworker in front of a client,” my former colleague said. “But, that’s still not as bad as being called the ‘C-word’ for outshining a male colleague at work. I had support, so I took it to management, and he eventually got fired.” 

When you are objectified and made to feel inferior because of your gender, it has long-term effects on your career and your life. I once trained an assistant trader on our platform while he continued asking me to go out for a drink. After my polite responses failed to deter him, I finally snapped and told him that I was there to train him, not date him, and if he wasn’t interested in learning about the job, I’d let his boss know. As his cronies started laughing at him, he eventually backed off. Incidents like these are a daily chess game — every move thought out and every outcome anticipated. 

In a 1995 lawsuit, known as the “Boom Boom Room,” 23 female employees sued brokerage firm Smith Barney for harassment and gender discrimination. Nearly 2,000 women joined the suit to expose Wall Street’s toxic culture. The firm later paid $150 million in settlements and arbitration awards to an unspecified number of plaintiffs.

“The promise of a large settlement comes with a price,” Finlay said. “One is a non-disclosure agreement. These legal contrivances allow the harm of assault and misconduct to last for years. They prevent healing and often empower the perpetrators to revisit their abuse on others while victims are threatened to keep quiet.”

Hope for Future Female Employees

Advancement in technology has afforded victims with options to access better information. The website Blind allows employees to sign up and anonymously chat about industry and office issues. BetterBrave offers an online guide to resources for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. And Callisto is a platform that allows victims to safely report abuse.

From time to time, I still speak with some of my former colleagues who have chosen to stay and fight the misogyny and abuse in order to continue their hard-earned careers.

I spent eight years in the lion’s den, the whisper networks providing the armor I needed. Now, I realize I’m still fighting, only this time, as I pivot to journalism, with words. 

As my former colleague said, “We have a long way to go. But the financial sector is a small world, and whisper networks eventually flush abusers out.” 

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