Sexism and Bullying in Investment Banking

This, as are most of my blog posts, is a reposting from my blog on the writing process, This was a blogpost originally written in 2006, when I was working in investment banking in London. At the time, I had to self censor the post, as there was a danger of myself and other colleagues being fired over it, after it was reposted without my permission on a then popular Wall Street industry blog. I only realised this when my hits suddenly went from dozens to thousands without apparent explanation. I have reworked and reposted it here, as the material may be of interest to some in the Znet community (I see very few articles about what actually goes on in investment banking from an inside perspective). I have also retitled it – the original, quoted below, was somewhat more… risque. It is refreshing to let this out of the bag after so many years.

2 February 2006, "Boobs and Banking"

Today one guy and five women, where I work in the desktop publishing department of a major investment bank, decided to devote a least four hours of the working day to discussing whether one of the young female bankers had received a bust augmentation operation… or not. There was speculation about the light shed on this question by her gait, her way of holding her torso and the particular motion of her chest made at particular times. There was even some pseudo-scientific discussion about how likely it was, given the general distribution of her body mass, that her chest would be the size it was.

Basically she was skinny and pretty with big boobs, and that was just not right. It was capped off by one woman's observation "well I bet I know where her bonus went!"

Of course, catty though this may be been, is just a bit of banter to pass the day. It is not meant seriously really, and I don't blame my colleagues for having a bit of a laugh about something daft sometimes. Investment banks are pressurised environments, and like many places with insane levels of pressure, you have to blow off steam somehow – and often in an irreverent and cheeky manner – otherwise you will just go potty. This, surely, much as it is not particularly mature or respectful, was an example of just that.

Yet there is another side to this incident that perhaps reveals something about the culture of investment banking, which is not necessarily one of Shangri La-like professional harmony. You see, the young woman my colleagues were talking about is usually rude and belligerent with the female staff in the desktop publishing unit – one of the only places in an investment bank where there are more women than men – but almost never with the male staff. My colleagues weren’t just having a laugh; they had all had to deal with abusive treatment from this junior banker more than once.

And this is actually a symptom of a wider malaise. To work in a support capacity in investment banking you have to accept that you will get a certain level of abuse from bankers, junior bankers in particular. Although it is never overtly stated, it is assumed to some degree that your hourly rate is higher than it might be, partly because of this.
Work long enough in a job like mine and you will start to notice that, while the young male bankers are usually unpleasant to both sexes if they are going to be unpleasant and difficult at all, the female bankers are typically far more unpleasant to the female support staff and can be a lot nastier than their male colleagues are to anyone.

There is a female banker who always smiles at me, and calmly and respectfully explains her needs whenever I work with her. A female desktop publisher sitting next to me can speak to the same woman ten minutes later and get lectured and practically insulted. Both my colleague and I do the same job, have the same level of skill and we are both polite and professional in our dealings with the bankers, so why the difference?

It might sometimes be a cultural thing, but from what I can understand from the research, men tend to bully everyone, and women more typically bully other women rather than men.

But why would they be bullying my colleagues at all? Perhaps the following example from the extreme end of the scale provides some answers:

There is one particular female banker who is universally unpleasant to the staff in my unit; she is the worst of the worst in what we have to deal with. I have worked for her on a number of occasions and I just dread hearing her name. Why? Because it invariably leads to hours of relentless torture, as she harasses you every 5-10 minutes with curt, rude demands and constant requests as to when she will receive the crushing, volumous expanse of document mark ups she has dumped upon you at the last minute, laced with incomprehensible instructions, badly worded comments, and personal insults with multiple explanation marks sitting after them.

I could never work out what the problem was; she just seemed like a genuinely unpleasant person rather than a banker throwing her toys when she didn’t get what she wanted. Then one day I was wandering around on the banking floor where she is based, looking for a banker’s desk. There I saw something that made it all make sense: a bevy of guys in suits, bellowing at her cruelly and insultingly, as though she was an incompetent house maid, let alone their colleague and equal.

She was the only woman in an otherwise all male banking team, and from the looks of it one of the more macho teams in the corporate finance area. I have seen female bankers being treated badly before, but it is usually at least a little more subtle… a persistent if not relentless lack of respect, or understated sexism, but nothing like this, which was out in the open, blatant and shocking to see.

It’s not rocket science is it? How unlikely is it that this woman may well have been behaving so badly all this time because she is being bullied, and reacting the way the bullied sometimes do – taking out their frustration on those even lower down the pecking order than themselves. Her banking sisters may not have been getting it quite as bad as this, but their behaviour towards my female colleagues suggests they are getting more than enough as it is.

Investment banks, like other corporate institutions, produce nicely designed brochures and have websites filled with happy photos and laced with big words about equality and team work and standards higher than the stratosphere – Sexism? Bullying? Never, not around here, we are all one big happy family, doing what we do well and making prosperity for all!

Perhaps that is their intention, but the reality is often nothing like the brochure – at least not in the four banks I have worked in. When is it ever? And why would it be?
An investment bank is a testosterone-driven environment dedicated to making insane amounts of money for whoever can last long enough in the system to get a decent share of the bonus pool; it’s all about competition, it’s all about winning, it’s all about being the best, the biggest and the richest in town. Nothing else matters and there are no excuses.

Wimps, whingers and people with the need to make excuses don’t last long in investment banking.

It is an environment where trainee bankers go through merciless intern programmes where they often work 18 hour days and seven day weeks. The culture is rigidly hierarchical and expects a military-like dedication from foot soldiers who are basically nothing and no one until they have ascended from the ranks. The trainee bankers often have to deal with tyrants, sometimes earning millions a year who have absolute power over their lives and they are genuinely scared of. They have to contend with the pressure of working on multimillion or multibillion dollar deals after days of having little or no sleep, where there can be no errors, in a constant state of paranoia of making a mistake that could cost them their jobs.

Until they reach a fairly senior level, they have practically live in and live for the bank and will have long periods where they hardly ever see their family and friends. They can get a call on Christmas Day and be expected to come to work, no questions asked, even if they are thousands of miles away. If they are ill they can expected to keep a bottle of aspirin by their desk and just get on with it.

There are always variances and exceptions, but in the final analysis, this is a uniquely brutal corporate culture that rewards and perhaps even creates in a high percentage of the survivors, a merciless, psychopathic approach to life. Even if it wasn’t a traditionally male dominated industry, it is an environment that almost seems guaranteed to be a breeding ground for the worst aspects of corporate male behaviour and indeed, the worst aspects of corporate human behaviour.

There are quite brilliant women working within banks, there are mediocre ones too, but only a handful of women of any description end up in the glass offices and able to go home at five o’clock to their mansions. If there is anywhere in the corporate world where window cleaners are needed to make the ceiling sparkle, it is probably in investment banking. It is changing; I have seen more female junior bankers coming into the system as time goes on. But it’s going to be a while before there are no boobs in banking, only brains in the bodies of folks all sorts of shapes and sizes.

And even then, I truly wonder whether how much difference it will make in a highly competitive industry where life itself is suspended for years on end in the merciless pursuit of landing a deal and getting a cut of amounts of money that seem obscene to ordinary people.

Leave a comment