women at work

‘The Glass Ceiling Absolutely Still Exists’: 8 Wall Street Women on What Equity Gets Right

Naomi (Anna Gunn) fights for a promotion in <i>Equity</i>.
Naomi (Anna Gunn) fights for a promotion in Equity. Photo: Sony Picture Classics

Last week, around 40 women got together for a Friday-night screening of Equity at Lincoln Plaza Cinema. All were members of the Financial Women’s Association, a nonprofit supporting women in the financial-services industry, and they were there in part because Candy Straight, a member of their organization, was the film’s executive producer. But they were also there to celebrate a rare milestone: the first female-driven movie about Wall Street, an industry where female representation is usually something along the lines of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.

In Equity, it’s the women who make things happen — both on- and offscreen. The film was produced by leads Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner, written by Amy Fox, directed by Meera Menon, and funded by 25 female investors, mostly Wall Street alums. The movie stars Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn as Naomi, a steely senior investment banker trying to prove herself with a major tech IPO after being passed over for a recent promotion. Her right-hand-woman, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), is also angling for a promotion, but worried that her newly discovered pregnancy will get in the way. Meanwhile, Naomi’s college friend Sam (Alysia Reiner) is now an attorney investigating securities fraud, and Naomi’s sleazy boyfriend (James Purefoy) is in her crosshairs. It’s a slick, unflashy thriller and a subtle exploration of fraught gender politics.

I spoke to eight women in the industry about their thoughts on the film. They included Karen Elinski, a 25-year industry vet who serves as head of government relations and public policy for a financial-services organization; Janet Handal, a technology management consultant who has worked in the industry for over 25 years (including as the chair of the task force on information technology during the Clinton administration); Deborah Kaye, a 61-year-old regulatory attorney specializing in Wall Street who has been in the business for 36 years; Rachel (a pseudonym) a general counsel and chief compliance officer who has been in the business for 30 years; Martha Goss, 67, an independent director of several companies and formerly the first female treasurer of a major worldwide insurance company, who has been in the industry for 43 years; Susan Harper, managing director of a financial-services consulting firm; Christine, an HR professional who has worked in the industry for over 30 years, and her 25-year-old daughter, Anna, who worked at a Manhattan-based trading platform for a year before moving into an education job. (Many women chose not to share their ages, citing pervasive ageism in the field.)

Here’s what they took away:

The film was an uncommonly realistic portrayal of what it means to be a woman on Wall Street.

Karen: “To me, it just felt more real than any other movie I’ve seen about Wall Street. There’s nothing glamorous about working 20-hour days, except maybe if you’re at the very top and you can go on your yacht while everybody’s working. Working on Wall Street is really hard work. It’s unrelenting and it’s stressful.”

Rachel: “It asked a lot of really good questions. For instance: Why is it still important for women to be likable? It’s certainly something women struggle with all the time. The fact is, people have to like you. It’s not fair. But you can either acknowledge that and accept it and work with it, or you won’t get promoted because people don’t like you.”

Pregnancy can be a real obstacle (although things have improved over time):

Martha: “When I was interviewing to go to Prudential in 1981, I did not realize I was pregnant at the time. I discovered I was pregnant the same day I received the offer. When I told the man who made me the offer, he said, ‘Okay, I’ll call you back tomorrow night.’ And I knew exactly what he was doing, because I had it confirmed years later. He called the head of human resources and said, ‘Can we rescind the offer?’ And the head of human resources said, ’No, you can’t.’”

Deborah: “In my day, in the childbearing years, I remember many women hiding it as long as they could. You knew that if you did have children it was probably going to be a problem advancing. I don’t have children. A lot of the women that I know that survived to the level that I did don’t have children.”

Karen: “I’ve heard so many discussions like, Well, this person is having kids. Do you really think we should promote them? I’ve been in those conversations. I just glare at the person and say, We’re not going there.”

Janet: “I think that if you were talking 10 or 15 years ago, I think it’s a very different story than it is today. Especially at the big banks, you have HR people that are very talented, and so the policies are in place to protect people and provide them with what they need.”

At one point, Naomi’s boss chastises her for “rubbing people the wrong way,” which rings true. Women’s behavior continues to be policed in a way that men’s behavior doesn’t seem to be.

Rachel: “I’m extraordinarily strategic in anything I say to people about my scope of authority, my compensation, and my expectations. I’m the only senior woman here — I’m practically the only woman here — so I stick out like a sore thumb. I’ll use words in my emails that undermine the assertiveness of my message. And I resent having to do it, but I know I have to do it: Would you please, could you possibly, would it be okay if … I also know it’s my job to be nice to everybody. I’m not going to bring in cookies — I refuse to bring food and I won’t make photocopies — but I do make the affirmative effort to be the nice person in the room, because I know that’s what’s expected of me as a woman.”

Janet: “Men have more permission to behave badly in business than women do. Or to, you know, just lose their temper. Women need to have a sense of finesse. You just have to be much more finely attuned to the emotional dynamics in the room and how hard you can push and when you need to back off. “

Deborah: It’s a fine line for women in terms of being tough and then being called the B-word. If you’re nice then you’re seen as either too soft or flirting. You just can’t go and say ‘Hey, let’s grab a beer’ with a client because he might take it the wrong way. As a female you always have to be thinking about how you’re going to be perceived, which is tiring.”

Rachel: “If I were Naomi, I would never wear big diamond earrings to the office. Because it makes the women jealous and it makes the men think that they pay you too much. That was a piece of advice I got from [a well-known former bank CEO] — never wear expensive jewelry because it just makes you look frivolous. He didn’t use that word, but if a woman is wearing expensive jewelry, she’s not investing her money properly.”

Anna: “I certainly had people comment on what I wore to work, whether I looked good or not good that day, that definitely happened often. If I was more casual or had been up late at night or maybe wasn’t dressed as nice, people were quick to comment on that.”

Both Naomi and Erin are repeatedly passed over for promotions, bumping up against a glass ceiling that very much still exists.

Martha: “Early on in my career, I had a boss who was trying to encourage me and he said, ‘I’m going to nominate you for a management role.’ And he had to come back to me a week later and say, ‘Well, some people are concerned men wouldn’t be able to work for you.’ So I didn’t get the management role.”

Deborah: “What happens as you go into the higher levels is the pieces of the pie get more expensive, and they’re thinner, but they’re worth more and the guys don’t want to share it anymore. They kind of gang up on the women, and I see the women getting kicked out earlier than the men.”

Rachel: “The glass ceiling absolutely still exists. At the end of the day, most men don’t really want women in the C-suite. There are very few opportunities available for women. And a lot of women also don’t really understand the challenges of breaking through the glass ceiling: They continue to try and bang it with a sledgehammer, not realizing that the way to do it is to have somebody — probably a man — who is willing to create some space for you. Naomi’s problem is that there is no one in the movie who seems to be on her side.”

“I am so glad that it’s finally acceptable for women to sit and talk about ambition openly,” Naomi declares early in the film. “But don’t let money be a dirty word. We can like that, too.” Yet, women’s ambition continues to be taboo.

Deborah: “I think women tend to fear the power of money. When I talk about some of the decisions that I’ve had to make with some of my female friends not in the business, they’d love to have the salaries that we make, but then when I talk about the realities of dollar amounts and the risks and all this stuff, they wouldn’t want this job for anything in the world. Even though they might like to be able to buy everything that the salaries and the compensation comes with, they wouldn’t want to live Naomi’s life or mine, for that matter, in order to get it.”

Karen: “I do lean-in circles at my company and for the FWA, with all these younger women and one of the topics I brought up at one of the lean-in circles was: Are you ambitious? Let’s discuss. Every one of them said no, they’re not ambitious. I said, ‘Why do you consider yourself not ambitious?’ They don’t think it’s an appealing characteristic. They don’t think it makes them sound good to work with and they don’t want to own their ambition.”

Rachel: “Women still can’t talk about money. I don’t think you could go into a corporate firm and tell them the reason you want the job is because you’re ambitious and you want to make money. Men can talk about what they’re worth; women still need to talk about it in terms of the value that they bring to the firm.”

Things have gradually gotten better for women in the industry:

Martha: “I think now the young women who are coming into these mid- and upper-mid-level positions have role models, they can see that there’s no reason that they can’t become a CEO or CFO. That was missing when I was coming along.”

Janet: “The progress that women have made has been very much a part of collaborating and networking with each other, as we do with FWA. Men sort of have these all-boy networks that exist at the golf club or this or that. They have these informal networks, and women have to be more deliberate in forming these networks.”

Christine: “Young women coming out of college today are very different than they used to be, in terms of how they’re socialized. Unfortunately, the workplace has not caught up on that. So they come into the workplace thinking, Ain’t life grand, I’m equal with the boys. And they’re much more naïve about what it takes to get ahead because they’ve been raised pretty much as equals. So they miss signals initially and finally when they pop their heads up, the guys are already ahead, because the guys seem to pick up the signals much quicker about being political, who I affiliate with, what it takes to get ahead.”

But we still have a long way to go:

Susan: “During the Q&A that we attended, the very first question was from a man who asked: Why did they pick a woman who was heavy as the lead character? And the woman who was the lead is not heavy at all. She looked normal! Like a normal person, sitting there, going to work. He got booed. I was horrified. I was like, What? That’s the reason why we needed this movie.”

8 Wall Street Women on What Equity Gets Right