When Leaving Is the Only Option

In fiction and in life, the archetype of the woman who quits her job over sexism at work is all too common.

A few pages into Maureen Sherry's new novel, Opening Belle, chronicling a successful female managing director's time at a large Wall Street bank, I had a feeling I knew where things were heading. Spoiler alert: After simultaneously enjoying and enduring her work at the company, amid sky-high bonuses and rampant sexism, she would leave. And she'd go on to start her own firm.

Part of the giveaway comes from the knowledge that the book is heavily autobiographical, and that Sherry herself worked as a managing director at Bear Stearns for 11 years before resigning to get her MFA. But the main reason this ending was so obvious is that it has become the default conclusion for women grappling with overtly sexist organizations, both in literature and in life.

At the close of the novel, Sherry's main character cites Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article as one of the points of inspiration behind her choice, focusing on the theme that women can achieve an optimal work-life balance when they are the ones determining their own work environment and culture.

“She wants the fight,” said Amanda. “She hasn’t figured out the only truly successful women on Wall Street are at the small firms, where we can hold onto control.”

Sherry’s book follows The Partner Track, a 2013 novel by Helen Wan that documented the experience of an Asian American woman overcoming racial and gender biases in a cutthroat corporate law firm. That book’s narrative arc treaded much of the same ground as Opening Belle, and ultimately landed in the exact same place: After years of exemplary work, Ingrid Yung, the protagonist, becomes so fed up with her company's attitudes toward diversity that she opens her own shop and takes her best clients with her.

These characters' choices are framed as bold, empowering, and optimistic decisions—opportunities for women to excel professionally and make a unique mark on their industries while thriving in work environments that they build themselves. Yet for the reader, they can also feel otherwise, provoking emotions of both sadness and anger; it’s a shame that these industries are so inhospitable to women that their best, and ultimately, only choice is to leave. In the end, though these characters “succeed,” they really didn’t have much of a choice at all.

In a New York Times piece published shortly before her novel’s release, Sherry highlighted the inevitability of women ultimately departing from her former firm. She brought up the experience of a woman whom she recruited and who later sued the company as an emblematic example of why the problem persists.

My candidate took the job, and while she was passionate about her work, she was uncomfortable with the raucous trading floor environment, and lasted only five years. While none of us were able to see the details of her sealed complaint, I can easily imagine what it might contain. Many women have shared their stories with me, and they go far beyond exclusion from meetings and golf courses. There was the young banker who was groped publicly to settle a bet about whether her breasts were real, and the senior deal makers who found out their pay was a fraction of their male counterparts’.

Whatever her experience, her case went to arbitration. She signed a nondisclosure agreement and took a settlement check.

Banking and law are not the only industries in which this phenomenon has been observed. Across fields in which pervasive sexism has been repeatedly documented—in venture capital, Hollywood, and tech—many women choose to leave top positions at industry behemoths to start their own companies, one of the only ways they feel that they can both control the mission of their work and the day-to-day climate and schedule that they operate in. These reasons are consistent with those that many individuals, regardless of gender, have cited for striking out on their own. Women leaders who have gone this route, are, of course, not all motivated to do so because of problems with their existing environments, but many are.

As Bonnie Crater, the CEO of Full Circle CRM and a former senior vice president at Salesforce, Netscape, and Genesys, told Fast Company about her experience in venture capital, “I believe that there’s a dynamic inside these firms that makes women not want to stay … I think the dynamic is subtle, that it’s often hard to put your finger on, but I believe that there’s a lot of really confident women who were VCs and have left venture because the environment they worked in is not optimized to make it easy for them to function." Ellen Pao voiced several of these concerns in her lawsuit against former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in which she alleged that she had been passed over for a promotion on the basis of gender and then punished for speaking out about it. Other problems she cited, including a men-only ski trip and the sexual advances men made toward female colleagues, echo the alienating practices that Sherry highlights about banking.

In the tech industry, a similar pattern exists. In an Los Angeles Times article, programmer Garann Means explains the reasons for her departure from the industry after 13 years, “I didn't know how to move forward. There was a lot I had to put up with in the culture of tech. It just didn't seem worth it." That same piece cites a 2008 study by the Harvard Business Review that found up to 50 percent of women in science, engineering, and technology will leave their positions because of hostile work environments.

The number of women parting from established companies to open their own firms in banking, law, venture capital, tech, and show business is growing for a number of reasons. Jennifer Fonstad, who was previously a managing director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson, launched a new venture-capital firm, Aspect Ventures, with Theresia Gouw, a former managing partner at Accel, in 2014. Fonstad notes in a CNET article, “There’s been a significant inflow of newly wealthy women who are investing for themselves, becoming angels or forming microfunds with less than $4 million. It’s just more gratifying to work for themselves.” Other funds run wholly or in part by women include Golden Seeds, Cowboy Ventures, and Broadway Angels.

In Hollywood, too, powerful stars such as Reese Witherspoon (who is set to play the lead in a Warner Brothers adaptation of Opening Belle), Lena Dunham, Shonda Rhimes, and Eva Longoria are among the women who have started their own production companies in order to take creative and financial control over the types of films and television shows they create, and the choices they make in hiring people for those projects. In an interview with Variety, Witherspoon says that after sitting down with many studio executives in 2012 , “I think it was literally one studio that had a project for a female lead over 30.” She launched her company Pacific Standard, with Australian producer Bruna Papandrea, that same year and has since earned critical recognition and box-office success with both Gone Girl and Wild. “We will be producing some films with a very clear female voice,” she said upon starting the company, “I think it’s important for women who have attained a certain amount of success in this business to give back to other female writers and filmmakers and try and help facilitate their dreams.”

In all of these cases, women are conducting business on their own terms, by circumventing the barriers present in existing systems. For some, starting their own companies is the only alternative to hitting the glass ceiling at their current jobs.

Opening Belle does a powerful job illustrating just how fruitless it can seem to try to change a longstanding sexist environment. One of the toughest questions the protagonist asks herself throughout the book is whether, as a high-ranking woman, she should push her company to adopt more equitable policies and social practices, possibly risking her position in the process.

During a meeting that the CEO of the bank calls of top women leaders, she learns the futility of even trying:

“Maybe Feagin could at least take the higher road, and not reimburse expense accounts for entertaining at strip clubs?” I suggest, in a professional voice.

BG is ready. “People are going to go whether we reimburse or not. It’s where men want to go to have a good time and it’s mostly men who run these accounts. They don’t want to go to the ballet. These are men who work hard all day, who are under pressure all the time. What’s the harm in letting off steam? There’s nothing more bonding than when we entertain our clients and when we do that, in either banking or trading, guess who bonds with our trading floor? Guess what you get to bond with? Your bank account. If some women are that sensitive, they’ll never cut it in this business and don’t belong here.”

Sherry notes that since she left investment banking, things in the industry have gotten a little better after a string of wins for women in class-action lawsuits alleging gender discrimination (though sexism continues to persist with little recourse, as companies still ask their employees to sign private-arbitration clauses). Wan also says that she’s seen more diverse classes of students and lawyers entering schools and firms. And Pao has written about how she observes sexism in Silicon Valley improving, albeit slowly, as more women stand together to call out the issues.

While many women have gone outside the dated, discriminatory models in sexist industries to excel, often via smaller, boutique firms, the influence and power of industry giants within these fields remains unparalleled. These organizations, too, desperately need to change to insure that men and women have equal opportunities to achieve success. Perhaps the external pressure from women who’ve left to start their own companies and tell their own stories, like Sherry, will play a role in making that happen.