What It's Really Like For Women On Wall Street

A former investment banker opens up about surviving the frat-boy culture.

Most of the books about the financial crisis of 2008 are, let us all admit, fairly boring.

Maureen Sherry’s novel, Opening Belle, released this week, tackles the subject with a more charming and madcap sensibility -- one that includes tantric sex, a jilted bride and jokes about inappropriate footwear. The New York Times called it "breezy." A movie based on the book and possibly starring Reese Witherspoon is in the works.

The book features a good-looking, blonde investment banker named Belle dealing with a blatantly discriminatory frat-boy workplace, three young kids and a layabout husband with six-pack abs. 

Belle pretty quickly figures out that all the fancy mortgage bonds her fictional employer is peddling are going to destroy the economy, but she's one of the few female leaders at her firm -- or on Wall Street -- so no one pays much attention.

Maureen Sherry says the sexism on Wall Street is less blatant these days -- but that it still exists. 
Maureen Sherry says the sexism on Wall Street is less blatant these days -- but that it still exists. 

Sherry, who was a managing director at Bear Stearns in the 1990s, told The Huffington Post that if more women had been running things on the Street in the runup to the financial crisis, the crash could have been prevented. "It's not even a discussion anymore," she said.

Sherry left Bear Stearns in 2000, eight years before it fell apart. She spoke to HuffPost by phone from New York, where she lives with her husband, who works in private equity, and four kids.

Your novel’s main character, Belle, gets a $3 million annual bonus. Is that what you were pulling in at Bear Stearns?

I didn’t make $3 million. I wanted something realistic for 2007, and that number was reasonable for that time.

Why should anyone care about a woman making this much money?

You’re not supposed to feel sorry for her. But it’s interesting that she’s so wealthy and doesn’t feel that way. She’s in this odd, hyperbarically sealed Wall Street world. You lose perspective on how much is enough. Some people have taken issue with her making so much money. If she were a supermodel or a celebrity, I don’t think people would mention it. People react differently to an ambitious woman.

How early on did you realize that women on Wall Street were treated differently than men? Was it immediate?

No. In your early 20s, you’re just happy to have a job. I loved the markets and the trading floor atmosphere. As you get more senior, the pay disparity, the accounts being unequally distributed becomes more apparent. It bothered me. The little frat boy jokes stuff was a constant drumbeat. It didn’t get to me that much. As I got into my 30s, I was bothered more by seeing young women come who were talented and leave because of the environment.

You wrote in The New York Times that a guy at Bear Stearns actually drank your breast milk on a dare.

It was embarrassing. He was performing for the other guys. Not to hurt me. It was just showing off. One woman last week told me that at her office, if someone wore a short skirt, there was a guy who -- if he was in front of a lot of other men -- would throw himself on the floor and look up her skirt. It’s the same mentality.

Sounds bad to me.

Yeah, it’s bad.

Do you think things have gotten any better since you left?

I’ve heard that it has. People say it’s less blatant and more covert. Three banks have asked me to come and speak. I do think they want to do better.

What do you think about some of the changes the banks are making now -- banning working overnight, offering protected no-work weekends and more parental leave?

It shows they realize it’s been a problem. Banks are struggling with this. These are jobs that are typically not that balanced. You end up with miserable investment bankers. That’s not really what a workplace should be.

Why set your novel in 2008, long after you left the Street?

Because the mortgage crisis was a very important time in our history. I wanted to explain it to a wider swath of people.

Why not write a memoir?

Then you get people in trouble, you’re naming names. That’s not what I set out to do. This takes it on a bigger scale.

The New York Times called your book "chick lit." What do you think of that?

There’s nothing wrong with chick lit. But I want to start a conversation about something bigger. Someone called it historical fiction. I have a 16-year-old daughter and, after she read the book, she asked me, "Did the mortgage crisis really happen?" Hopefully, young women will pick it up and learn.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.