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New America NYC: A Conversation about Women and Wall Street

A Broadly Speaking Event

In Collaboration with Slate's Double X

Women and Wall Street

Listen to the full audio of this event:

Schwartz Fellow Liza Mundy gives her take on this event:

During the recent economic crisis and its lingering aftermath, two ideas were simultaneously floated about women in finance. The first—advanced by a number of columnists and commentators—was that global economic meltdown might have been averted had there been more women in top positions in banking and investment houses. Had Lehman Brothers been LehmanSisters—the argument went—there would have been less traffic in risky derivatives and subprime mortages. It was men with their high-risk, testosterone-poisoned investment strategies who got us into this mess, and women, with their caution and calm, who might get us out. This line of reasoning depended on the view that women are by nature more risk-averse than men are; that women invest for the stable long haul, men for the lucrative short term.

At the same time that this argument was being put forward, however, observers were uneasily noting that those few women who did hold high positions in banking seemed to be losing them, not always voluntarily; as a number of top women bankers resigned or were forced out, observers began to ask whether women, whose numbers at the top were thin to begin with, were being scapegoated in the wake of the crisis.

So what is the situation for women on Wall Street? Do women have a different—better--approach to money than men do, and if so, why has it been so hard for women to reach top positions and to keep those jobs in a time of crisis? Even as women are feminizing fields like law and medicine, and in many cases out-achieving men academically, the pinnacle of finance remains a male domain. Wednesday's panel included two women well-positioned to shed light on these questions: Melissa Fisher, an anthropologist whose new book, Wall Street Women, follows the first cohort of women to make their way in American finance, and Heidi Miller, the recently retired president of JP Morgan International.

Addressing this question of whether women do invest differently, Fisher argued that the first generation of women on Wall Street—many of whom in the late 1960s took jobs as researchers, a then-backroom job that became more prominent as the field became more complex and globalized—more or less consciously employed this argument as a way to convince men to hire them. Both Fisher and Miller seemed skeptical, overall, that it’s true. Both argued fiercely against another notion that seems to crop up from time to time, that women don’t like to work for women and that Wall Street in particular is full of “queen bees” who torpedo the careers of women beneath them. In fact, women have nurtured other women and brought them along; Melissa Fisher talked about the deep friendships she observed among the first generation of women financiers, and Heidi Miller talked about her experiences managing and encouraging women employees in the groups she led. They also talked about how women, as they rise through the ranks and become managers, do have to adopt a more institutional viewpoint: at the same time that they want to encourage women, they have to look out for the corporation when it comes to things like flextime and parental leave, and this is not always an easy balance. Many of the women Melissa Fisher spent time with felt the generation of younger women coming up behind them felt more entitled to ask for part-time work and flexible hours, which they sometimes saw as a lack of commitment. But Fisher also pointed out that many of these older women became radicalized in an interesting way: having begun their careers with a strong belief in meritocracy and individual achievement, many, as they went along, became less persuaded of the power of merit alone to help a person get ahead, and more attuned to the countervailing forces of bias and the reality of discrimination.
In response to questions from women in the audience about how to make their way in their careers, Heidi Miller talked about being true to your own style—including your style of dress—and being honest and straightforward if you think your ideas are being shortchanged. She recommended being brutally honest with yourself about the kind of work you are willing to take on and the kinds of hours you are willing to work. She urged young women to take risks, not so much with money as with their careers and aspirations: in her experience, women who have 80 percent of the qualifications for a promotion tend to focus on the 20 percent where they fall short, whereas men with only 20 percent of the qualifications often make a strong case for their own potential. She talked about how women need to be able to “sell the gap” and make the case for why they should be promoted. Women, she said, tend to stay in the same jobs longer because they don’t think to put their names in the hat for higher level jobs. She also said that women tend to think everyone else somehow has skills they don’t. She argued that most people who have made it into a very competitive organization are “smart enough” and “qualified enough” but that success has to do with personal skills, selling yourself, and luck. That said, she and Fisher also talked about personal biases on employment decisions: how there’s no conspiracy or cabal of dark and mysterious forces at work, no formal policy of scapegoating women, but that when push comes to shove, people are biased toward promoting and retaining the people who resemble them and with whom they feel comfortable. She and Melissa concluded with a lively discussion of quotas and whether it would help if there were quotas for women, both in management hierarchy and on corporate boards. Listen to the recording below to hear their answers!

In Collaboration with Slate's Double X

Women and Wall Street

Listen to the full audio of this event:


Featured Speakers 
Melissa Fisher
Visiting Scholar, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
Author, Wall Street Women

Heidi Miller
Retired President, JPMorgan International, JPMorgan Chase & Co. (2010 - February, 2012)

Liza Mundy
Author, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family
Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow, New America Foundation 

Event Time and Location

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 - 6:30pm - 8:15pm
New America Foundation
199 Lafayette Street Suite 3B
New york, NY 10012

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Event Materials