Awful Stereotypes About Women Are Alive and Well on Wall Street

Today in the New York Times Luisita Lopez Torregrosa writes that while the top corporate roles like Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, and Hewlett-Packard's Meg Whitman stand as a win for women, the women of Wall Street are enjoying no such enlightenment. 

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Last week I wrote about 10 tropes about women that we should all stop laughing at. There's a caveat to that: If we're going to laugh, we should at least take a minute and ask why we're laughing, because much of the time a stereotype is not just a hyperbolic categorization, it's got something damaging at its core. This gets at a thing about tropes, or stereotypes. Sometimes they're very easy to identify, silly generalizations that have been made comedic on TV or in the movies, and that makes them easier to mock or call dumb or maybe giggle at without a lot of thought. But sometimes they're so engrained that they're just a way of lumping groups of people—women, for instance—together and keeping them down, keeping them where they are. All this is to say: Stereotypes are alive and well on Wall Street, and these are not stereotypes that we should be joking about.

Today in the New York Times there's an eye-opening piece (eye-opening in that way that it reminds us of what we already know but have likely pushed away from the foremost regions of our minds) about women on Wall Street. In her article, Luisita Lopez Torregrosa writes that while the top corporate roles of Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, Hewlett-Packard's Meg Whitman, I.B.M.'s Virginia Rometty, and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg stand as a win for women—though don't forget about the less-winning story related to Rometty at the Masters this year—the women of Wall Street are enjoying no such enlightenment.

Chief Investment Officer Ina R. Drew, for instance, was a casualty of JPMorgan's $3 billion trading loss this spring—the first "head to roll," a female one. But there were other "unceremonious exits last year by female executives on Wall Street," writes Lopez Torregrosa, "where the scarcity of women in top positions has become a bitter symbol of the low status women hold in U.S. corporate life": JPMorgan's Heidi Miller, Bank of America's Sallie Krawcheck, and former co-head of Morgan Stanley Zoe Cruz, to name a few. And women are CEOs at "fewer than 3 percent of U.S. financial companies, according to Catalyst, a New York-based global research and consulting nonprofit focused on women’s career advancement."

Why is this more pronounced on Wall Street? Wall Street is more pronounced with an old-boy culture featuring "really macho kinds of behavior,” Ilene H. Lang, Catalyst’s president and chief executive, told Lopez Torregrosa. That includes all the stereotypes we've seen in the movies, too: "people who swagger, people who will do the deal at any cost, people who will work day and night, hour and hour, for lots and lots of money and they don’t care about anything else.” People, of course, are men-people here. Those male stereotypes confront stereotypes about what women are supposed to be, and so, says Lang, "it’s very hard for women or men to picture women being that way because that conflicts with the stereotypic norms of what women should be like.”

Men who behave "masculinely" in this take-no-prisoners, success at all costs format usually don't face the same censure that women would for doing the same, particularly if they don't make mistakes that cause financial losses—in fact, they are more likely to be rewarded for aggressive behavior while women get "labeled with the ‘B word,'" says Lang. Lopez Torregrosa writes,

[Lang] called it a double bind. This fits an overall pattern, she said, that is specific not to Wall Street but exists wherever traditionally macho behavior is what it takes to be successful. Stereotypic bias runs through everything, she said, like lack of access to networks, lack of role models and gender definition.

Stereotypic bias is among the toughest barriers women face. It defines “what women should do, what they can do, what they’re good at,” she said. “Men are natural leaders and women are not; men are strong and women are weak; and men are in charge and women are caretakers. These are gender stereotypes. It’s what social culture is all about.”

So what do we do? In the corporate world, mentorship models exist. There are starting to be more women empowered that others can look up to. But Lang's overall take is a bit depressing. Things haven't, it seems, changed all that much. After all, there's a reason that the movie Working Girl, a relic from all the way back in 1988, still (minus the Reebok sneakers and big, poofy hair), kinda resonates—in that instance, a women with ambition has to work harder than the guys and sneak around to get what she wants, and another woman is the one who tries to keep her down as the men in power fail largely to even notice. More recently, there's a reason that a lot of women feel rather let down by Marissa Mayer, the newly appointed CEO of Yahoo, who's said "I don't think that I would consider myself a feminist," since the word is aligned with yet more stereotypes: "the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that," she says. 

These perceptions about women and jobs (where it's the norm to be the one woman in pumps surrounded by a bunch of guys in polished brogues) are not confined to Wall Street or banking, as demonstrated by a post by Allison Benedikt on Slate's XXFactor blog in which she asked "Is This What It's Like to Be a Woman in Government?" This's precisely why it's so disturbing when a woman who does "shatter the glass ceiling" as it were chooses not to align herself with the pro-woman or pro-gender equality principles that not only allowed her to be in a position to get there, but also, might help other women as well. Not to say that women should have to be "caretakers," but we're all in this together.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.