The women of Wall Street: how the arts are taking on sexism in the city

Published in The i on June 20, 2016

When you think of the world of finance, you probably think of a bloke in a suit: macho, aggressive, throwing money around. From Wall Street to The Wolf of Wall Street, Billions to The Big Short, Enron to American Psycho, we’ve no shortage of books, films and plays about the bad behaviour of the big boys making (and sometimes losing) big bucks.

But whither the women of Wall Street? Or Canary Wharf, for that matter? Looking at fictional financiers, you could be forgiven for thinking that the thing you need to play the market is a swinging dick. And when women do appear, they’re usually little more than trophies or set-dressing: The Wolf of Wall Street was widely castigated for its under-written bikini-babes, while The Big Short explained the complicated bits by wheeling out Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.

All that is changing: 2016 is offering new female perspectives on this most virile industry. Equity, written by Amy Fox, was a hit at Sundance: the financial crisis drama focuses on a hot-shot investment banker and her female deputy, frustrated at their gender slowing their progress up the greasy pole.

“It is a male-dominated world, but it’s odd to me that the portrayal has been so male, because there are women in it,” begins Fox when I ask her why we haven’t seen these women before. “I think it has more to do with where Wall Street lives in the imagination, the idea of it as a very testosterone-driven place of greed, excess and men behaving badly.”

Equity is not alone in redressing the balance. The Boss is the latest Melissa McCarthy comedy vehicle, in which she plays a megalomaniac millionaire, done for insider trading. The film may not be very good, but it does offer a glimpse of a rare beast in cinema: the phenomenally successful female lead. She’s the boss, not the wife.

In books, Maureen Sherry’s novel Opening Belle – drawing on her experience as managing director at Bear Stearns, pre-crash – sketches the scandalous sexism she encountered; a film is in the pipeline, with Reese Witherspoon snapping up production rights. On this side of the pond, Victoria Pease has just published a novel, Playing FTSE, under the pseudonym Penelope Jacobs; it’s a steamy tale based on her time on the trading floor at Merrill Lynch.

Meanwhile Headlong’s latest show, Boys Will Be Boys, opens this month in a co-production with the Bush Theatre at Bush Hall in west London; written by Melissa Bubnic, the play focuses on a tough female broker and a hungry new recruit, who finds success comes at a price.

These stories offer a rare look at what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world. And a man’s world it still very much is: a recent Treasury review found that, in the UK, women hold only 14 per cent of top jobs in finance and are paid on average a staggering 40 per cent less. Sixty-five per cent of women felt their gender had impeded their career, according to a recent survey. And discrimination cases are rife, particularly in the US. In 2013, Merrill Lynch settled claims of gender bias from some 4,800 women, to the tune of $39m (£27m). The mind, frankly, boggles.

It is perhaps unsurprising that endemic sexism is at the heart of many of these stories. Opening Belle may be a chick-lit comedy, but it exposes a world where women are hired for their looks and can expect to be groped by colleagues “on heat” during bonus season. Still, what she put in is tame compared to what she left out: Sherry has spoken of male colleagues sending her a pizza topped with unwrapped condoms, and mooing at her after she returned from maternity leave.

During her research, Bubnic heard several stories from brokers that she couldn’t stage in Boys Will Be Boys for fear that audiences just “wouldn’t believe them”. One woman was told by her manager that she wasn’t pretty, so she’d “better to be able to fuck and drink”; another recalled being called a “rice-eating yellow cunt” on her first day – and when she complained to her manager, was told to not to be “such a fucking princess”.

Bubnic points out that finance is a vast industry, and there have been big changes in many areas, with women in “back office” jobs rarely reporting sexism. But at the high-pressured coalface of trading and brokering, it’s still “incredibly male and old school, with an attitude of ‘no PC bullshit – I’ll be as outrageous as I want’.”

The stories all also tackle the fraught tension for women between cannily using their feminine wiles to get ahead, and being defined, even demeaned, as a sexual object. Both Boys Will Be Boys and Playing FTSE – which starts as a racy look at sex in the City, but turns darker – feature office pranks that turn into serious sexual assaults. Troublingly, Pease drew on the unexpectedly high instances of such abuse among her friends in the industry.

In Boys Will Be Boys, the only way women can get ahead is by not only being as ruthless and talented as the blokes – but by playing their sexuality too, flirting with clients to broker a deal. “It’s an impossible game to win,” says Bubnic. “Women have to sell everything they’ve got to make it.” Yet by only being able to succeed through trading on their sexiness, women are therefore deemed inherently less valuable than men. She thinks this is depressingly applicable across society: “We don’t live on a level playing field. [But] I’m trying to make the larger point that it’s really problematic if you reduce yourself to tits and arse.”

Still, her production wrests some power back into the hands of women, by having the men played by female actresses. Onstage, at least, women have power. And the aim is to encourage audiences to question gendered behavioural norms: why do we think it’s “natural” for men to behave so aggressively?

Equity, however, focuses on more insidious sexism: the unconscious bias or internal struggles that hold women back. Fox found, in her research, that the outrageous excesses of the 1980s – strippers on desks and the like – were a thing of the past. “There has been a lot of change in a positive direction. But there is still sexism, and it’s a lot more subtle.”

Equity shows a woman hitting the glass ceiling because – unlike a man – she can’t be seen to fail, even once. Fox was interested in “the pressure she’s under as a woman, how she can’t afford to mess up this deal. And also the pressure she puts on herself: in the research I did, generally speaking men seemed to relish blaming other people, whereas women internalise it.”

Still, both Bubnic and Fox say that they found it incredibly exciting to create tough, powerful parts for women. Putting words in the mouths of ambitious, smart female bankers – and then taking out any softening qualifiers from their speech – has even changed the way Fox writes in her own life. When she composes work emails now, she says she’s deliberately more assertive.

While there may be a long way to go before there’s true gender parity in this most macho of industries, these new stories also refuse to show women as victims. The women of Wall Street are – at last, at least – being given their say on the matter.

‘Boys Will Be Boys’ is at Bush Hall, London, 25 June to 30 July (020 8743 5050;; ‘The Boss’ is out now; ‘Opening Belle’ is published by Simon & Schuster (£12.99) ; ‘Playing FTSE’ is published by SilverWood books (£9.99)

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