I Ran Merrill Lynch, And the Movie “Equity” is Soft on Sexual Harassment on Wall Street

I'm talking about things like photocopies of my male employees' nether regions left on my desk and sex acts simulated behind me.

The new movie Equity, which tells the story of women on Wall Street, is an important one. For years, we’ve seen women portrayed in all of their complexity as professionals on TV and in the movies: as doctors, as lawyers, as journalists, as “fixers,” as the president of the United States — think Kerry Washington in Scandal and Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder. Some are likable, some not so much.

But name a businesswoman cast in a favorable light. Or a woman on Wall Street. In the movie Equity, the lead character, Naomi, played by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, is the first woman-in-business character in a long time (ever?) that I can root for.

It’s not that she’s likable in the traditional way — there are no soft edges here — but boy is she good at her job. And she tries to do the right thing. It’s the junior woman in this movie who is the less appealing character. Usually in movies, the younger woman is the heroine, in contrast to the dried-up older woman (see Working Girl, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, among others).

This representation of women matters. For younger women, it’s the “you can’t be what you can’t see” adage, so seeing women in professional roles opens up that possibility for them. Accurate representation is also important in combatting the perspective that successful women are, you know, such pills. Successful men, in contrast? Well, who doesn’t want to hang out with a successful guy?

So that’s the great part about this movie. The less-great part: how hard it appears for women to succeed on Wall Street or in business.

Having spent my career on Wall Street and having run Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch, I’ve been asked again and again whether the movie is representative of what it was like to work on Wall Street. The answer is no. That’s in part because I lived through worse.

How do you react when you’re a young banker, hunched over a colleague’s spreadsheet to help him work through a sticky math problem, and there’s another guy behind you pretending to perform a sex act on you?

How do you react when you arrive at work every morning to find lewd pictures on your desk? Lewd as in: pictures of male nether regions. Photocopies. With all kinds of detail.

How do you react when your boss (actually, your boss’s boss’s boss) is caught in a sex act with a woman in his office — by another woman he’s having an affair with — just a handful of yards from your desk?

(All of these really happened to me.)

The answer is: I put my head down and worked while some of the guys were clowning around. And not just on weekdays; I put in a lot of Saturday and Sunday nights, too. I became a number-one ranked research analyst in my field and the guys, well, they didn’t.

Then, later in my career:

How do you react when one of the senior, most influential men in your department takes an instant dislike to you, and you can tell that your very act of speaking grates on him like nails on a chalkboard?

How do you react when another senior man can’t hold eye contact with you?

How do you react when yet another senior man tells you that you “attract too much attention” and that it must be because you’re “too flashy”? (And the “too much attention” he is referring to is a favorable mention on CNBC about my division’s strong quarterly results.)

How do you react when your 360-degree performance review comes back telling you that you are both “too direct” and “not direct enough”?

(These all happened to me too. As I became more senior, the gender issues became more subtle.)

The answer is: I kept putting my head down and working hard. I also recognized that as hard as I worked, there were some battles I simply couldn’t win.

For example, I honestly don’t think there was anything I could do to make the guys with deep-seated gender biases come around, but I could play my own game. So when I discovered that the crew at Smith Barney had sold what they thought were low-risk investments to clients when they were actually high-risk and had been pretty much wiped out in the financial crisis, I fought to return funds to clients even though my new boss told me to stand down. Honestly, the fact that he wouldn’t look me in the eye, or call on me in meetings, made it easier to go up against him because I knew I could never win with him, anyway.

But I also lived through situations that were better on Wall Street than they were in the movie. I was given my first real promotion when I was six months pregnant with my daughter. Visibly, heavily pregnant. I was mentored by some legendary businesspeople. And I worked on some teams that were highly functioning, creative, excellent and actually a lot of fun.

Would I recommend a career on Wall Street for young women today? I often do. I do because having more women in the industry is important to changing the culture of the industry — an industry that, after all, led us into the financial crisis of 2007/2008. And I do because these careers can be engaging, amazing, fulfilling, impactful careers. Now, would I want my daughter to take a job as the only woman on a sprawling trading floor with no women? Probably not. But I would be happy for her to take a job in departments that have made some progress on the gender front (and that simply means looking around to see if there are any, you know, women that you can see).

Will Wall Street change on its own? So far it hasn’t. In fact, gender diversity on Wall Street decreased in the wake of the financial crisis. That’s right: decreased. I was there and watched it happen. The wagons were circled. I kept hearing, “We really need people we can ‘trust’ in the key jobs.” And the people who were “trusted” were almost always people who looked a lot like the person who was doing the “trusting” — the guys in charge. Maybe it will get better from here, with movies like Equity shining some light on Wall Street’s gender issue.

But maybe it won’t. And I think it might not matter. Because financial services is not a monopoly, and the opportunity to start businesses that compete with the industry is available to more people than it ever was before. That’s in part because the cost of starting businesses has declined. Think cloud computing instead of mainframes, hiring freelancers for certain jobs instead of full-timers, renting short-term at WeWork coworking spaces instead of signing long-term leases, and using video-conferencing as opposed to taking business trips.

There are real opportunities to compete with financial services in its blind spots, which may themselves be driven by lack of diversity, which can result in blind spots. Is it honestly any surprise that an industry that is so male does a better job for male clients than for women, and that men thus invest more than women do?

I saw that opportunity and created my startup, Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women. Other examples of opportunities that the traditional financial services industry has missed are businesses that simplify processes such as buying insurance (like Policy Genius) or reducing the cost of student loans (like Earnest) or make raising money to start a business easier (like Indiegogo).

I would tell young women to look at career opportunities on Wall Street and in financial services. But I would also tell them, particularly if the industry doesn’t change, to look for opportunities to compete with it.