What It Was Like to Be a Woman at Goldman Sachs

A female former employee describes working in "a frat on steroids."

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Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Goldman Sachs has released its annual list of promotions to partner and managing director, and, not unusual for them, women represented only 14 percent of inductees into the highly lucrative lifetime partner positions. Jordan Weissmann's recent post here at The Atlantic, "Why Don't More Women Get Promoted at Goldman Sachs?" examined research by economists that sought to explain societal reasons why women in business don't make as much as their male peers. According to this research, Weissmann reported, children are largely responsible for the gap: "family obligations were in fact a huge part of the reason why females have so much trouble climbing the elite corporate ladder."

But Forbes's Helaine Olen raised another possibility: Perhaps Goldman (and other banks) discriminate against their female employees either overtly, through promotions, or through fomenting an atmosphere that makes it harder for women to do their jobs. Weissmann updated his post to acknowledge this possibility, noting that the gender discrimination case against Goldman is making its way through the courts as we speak.

In the go-go 1990s, I worked at Goldman Sachs. It was my second job out of college, one where I hoped to leverage my honors economics degree from Brown and make enough money to support my career as an aspiring writer. Unlike many of my Ivy League peers, I wasn't a rainmaker in the middle of the action. I worked as an editor in the Equity Research department—basically a disposable position that could be (and was) filled by any number of English majors who could pick up financial lingo. We were cogs in the wheels of Goldman's award-winning research department, where analysts made investment predictions in their specific industries (e.g., mining, pharmaceuticals, retail stores, etc.) and stock recommendations—buy, sell, hold—while we editors made sure all their quotes were grammatical and that they followed a prearranged style set both by the house and by industry journals such as Institutional Investor.

Obviously, this was a while ago, and memory can be faulty. But much sounds familiar to me in the gender discrimination case accusing Goldman of "hostility and marginalization" in equal pay and promotion. It cites an incident in 1997—my era—where one of the plaintiffs alleged she was sexually assaulted by a colleague after a Goldman-sponsored outing to a topless club—yes, topless club, yes, Goldman-sponsored. Those facts are not in dispute, and no one who has not been inside this world has any idea how normalized this misogynist culture is, especially for a firm like Goldman, which has always prided itself on its "classy" reputation.

When I used to get together with friends to discuss our jobs, the reaction to mine was always something akin to "It sounds like a frat on steroids." In one Goldman office, in the memos announcing a new crop of incoming female associates, instead of the usual corporate headshot, some joker used different semi-nude pictures of Playboy playmates. It was clearly thought to be clever, instead of puerile and wrong, but when I made noise about it, I was chided by a coworker for being "humorless" and that I probably read Ms. Magazine (I did).

Being an editor at least kept me in a marginalized, feminized enclave away from the mainstream where the hotness of the female junior analysts was judged on a daily basis. I remember being in the elevator once when one of the male analysts, wearing his Yale jacket, bragged to a junior female about his old Eli days where the august Sterling Library was great for "sex in the stacks." It was probably the least sexy thing I had ever heard, and from her face, she seemed to agree. One of my attractive coworkers was constantly dogged by one of the analysts, a middle-aged man. First, the man seemed friendly, always hanging out in the office. Then they were having long talks. Finally, she confided to us, he would sit in her office and cry about the horrible state of his marriage, the implications of which made her uncomfortable enough to request he not spend so much time with her.

The analysts indeed came and went into our doorless offices as if we had no personal space. In this servile position, like the scullery maids in Downton Abbey, we editors swam around people like billionaire Leon Cooperman (now, hedge fund CEO; retail company analyst, then), recently profiled in the New Yorker for comparing Obama's election with the rise of the Third Reich; or Bill Dudley, the economist who appears in the documentary about Goldman's role in the financial crisis, Inside Job.

Most of the analysts were men used to getting what they wanted when they wanted and never having their own behavior questioned. Their secretaries (almost all middle-aged white women) were almost wifely in their devotion and were rewarded with huge bonuses at the end of the year, new fur coats and diamonds making the place look like a Gilded Age opera house. Most of the big-name analysts treated us as interchangeable widgets, not learning our names, stomping into our offices while gobbling a sandwich, wordlessly handing us their garbage. Once, an analyst started flossing his teeth in my office and was affronted when I asked him to desist.

For being affronted, I was chastised for having poor social skills, the first black mark in my record (later removed when I challenged it—it actually said in its wording that I was not "submissive" enough). I was already on a kind of probation for breaking an unspoken but ironclad sartorial rule that it was verboten for editors and "above" (it was okay for the buniony secretaries) to wear sneakers in the building—as if wearing dress shoes to walk the mile or two that I did was an option. In fact, it was widely thought that it was a professional responsibility for women to wear heels, the higher the better. The most sartorially admired women wore tightly sheathed skirts and hobbled around on pencil-thin stilettos (I remember at a company Christmas party while the male analysts took town cars home, the junior women walked to the subway, half of them getting their heels stuck in the subway grate).

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Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a novelist who teaches at Columbia University and writes for Slate, Salon, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Follow her on Facebook.

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