What It Was Like to Be a Woman at Goldman Sachs

Even some of the more formidable women, who I thought at least because of their age if not their credentials would be exempt from these oddly retro gender rules, took to them enthusiastically. One woman in particular—she'd been in that first, barrier-breaking class of women admitted to Harvard Business School—was a conundrum to me.

My coworkers told me she'd been at the firm forever, a rising star. She was also one of the diehard Goldman believers, first in, last out every day. She appeared never to take a vacation unless she could wrangle, say, a visit to the Goldman office in Japan where she brought back cherry-blossom patterned scarves for the employees she supervised: a highly technical but ultimately clerical staff of all women, her "girls," as she called them in an affectionate but almost patriarchal manner. This woman, who must have been twice as brilliant as her male peers in order to make it into HBS, toiled tirelessly for the entity that was Goldman, almost as if its success or failure rested solely with her. Even during a bout with breast cancer, some coworkers reminisced, she was in the office, sometimes fatigued, wig askew. Once, one of them said, they'd gently had to advise her to tuck her prosthesis back under her camisole.

Obviously, from my ant's-eye view, I had no idea of the inner workings of the firm (back then, it was strictly a partnership), but it seemed to be a bit sad that this woman seemed to have drastically tailored her life to please Goldman Sachs: no spouse, no children to get in the way, and, de rigueur, wearing painful four-inch heels every day. Even more disturbing, in her own dignified way, she still joined the frat culture, laughing along when one of the retail analysts asked one of the few female analysts to shave her shapely legs with the new Gillette razor (and, this she did please the crowd, even zipping a credit card against her bare skin to demonstrate the lack of stubble when she was done). It was almost as if she had given Goldman everything, and in return, every year, the list of partners came out and her name wasn't on it. I have no idea if she was ever in the running, but I did know she'd plateaued not only at a middling level, but was shoved to side for a most unprestigious job, about as far away from the action as one could get, her light, by happenstance or design, kept under a bushel.

I don't know, then, what kind of woman is the proper type to succeed at Goldman. Even in benign ways, the place was a giant man-cave. The annual industry citations from Institutional Investor that the analysts strived for were all sports metaphors: making the "All Star" team, or, even better, to be chosen as a Hall of Famer. It seems to me that in order to be the kind of good-humored "team player" that would smilingly go to Scores or on a booze-filled golf retreat, you'd also have to be the kind of person to negate your extra X chromosome, i.e., you'd have to be the kind of person to negate who you really are. What woman, really, could sit in her power suit and convincingly enjoy a pair of breasts swinging in the face while her male colleagues and clients ogle g-strings?

When my writing career began to show the smallest sparks of life, I left Goldman as if a burning house. Even with the handsome benefits plans (I somehow made money every time I went to the dentist) and the work I could now do in my sleep, the place was just too soul-killing for me. Even Tom (not his real name), one of the partners, Wall Street celebrity but who seemed like one of the few kind, down-to-earth family men who even took the time to learn our names. Even Tom let me down, becoming the target of a sexual harassment suit by his assistant, who, it was not in dispute, had had sex with him, possibly in his office, which was bedecked by dozens of pictures of his wife and kids (for this, he appears to have been allowed to stay on until his retirement).

In 1999, not terribly long after I'd left, the firm went public, which was a jackpot for the employees, even down to the lowly editors. That could have been worth an NEA fellowship or two. People always ask me, did I regret leaving? Had I known, would I have toughed it out? I do know that a few of the longtime editors became wealthy. For me, I have no regrets. Just now, I Googled the Harvard Business School woman who so intrigued and bedeviled me. She has left Goldman and now works in a family business in the midwest. I wonder if she has regrets—or is she just grateful she realized in time that she was chasing something that would never be given to her, anyway?

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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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