Recently I was asked to give a talk at a conference focused on connecting female fund managers to institutional allocators, and I uncomfortably agreed. Uncomfortably because women need another 59-yo finance guy “giving them a talk” like a fish needs a bicycle, and agreed because a) I want so badly to help, and b) I think I can provide a useful perspective on the Narrative-world dynamics of women on Wall Street that is largely separate from my age and y-chromosome.
So when I say “women on Wall Street”, I’m focusing on ‘risk-takers’, which is a term that has a specific meaning in finance. It’s someone who is taking risk or recommending risk in the technical sense of the word, meaning a discretionary allocation of capital to a non-risk-free security. It doesn’t mean risk-taking in the sense of running a red light or putting it all on black at the roulette table. On Wall Street, risk doesn’t mean high risk, it just means that the money is at risk. The typical examples of risk-takers in this context are portfolio managers and discretionary/prop traders (not to be confused with execution-only traders, who are just following orders), but for our purposes today I’m also going to include risk-taker adjacent positions like allocators, analysts, and investment bankers. Finance jobs that are not risk-takers include anything in compliance, anything in sales, anything in investor relations. If you’re a lawyer, you’re not a risk-taker. If you’re a psychiatrist/performance coach at Ax Capital in Billions, you’re not a risk-taker. All interesting jobs and all part of Wall Street, but not my focus here.
And when I say “narrative-world dynamics”, I mean the changing structures and archetypes of the stories we tell each other and ourselves, stories that are both created and reflected by popular media like movies and television. I’ve spent my professional career studying these story arcs and narrative archetypes, especially those we tell ourselves in the investing world. Plus, I … ummm … watch a lot of movies and television. So I’ve spent the past few days tracing the narrative archetypes around female risk-takers in movies and television shows about the banking or investment industries, and here’s what I found:
Prior to 2016, dramatic portrayals of female risk-takers (in the Wall Street sense) do not exist!
There’s not one female portfolio manager or trader or allocator or analyst or investment banker – someone whose job is to put other people’s money at risk – in any dramatic movie or television series prior to 2016 of which I am aware. Wall Street (1987), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Boiler Room (2000), Money Never Sleeps (2010), Margin Call (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The Big Short (2015) … forget risk-takers, there are hardly any women in these movies at all who aren’t wives or girlfriends or hookers or assistants. It’s really crazy! The one significant professional female role in any of these movies is Demi Moore as the Chief Risk Management Officer (the opposite of a risk-taking job!) in Margin Call, where – as all risk management and compliance folks suspect will eventually happen to them – she becomes the scapegoat for all the bad things that happen. Margin Call is, by the way, the best movie ever made about Wall Street by a mile.
All of these movies embody a specific portrayal of women that I’ll call the Rounders narrative, after Ed Norton’s famous line in that film: women are the rake. Rounders (1998) isn’t about Wall Street, but the next best thing in popular mythology – gambling. Like movies about Wall Street, the notable thing about women in movies about gambling is that they don’t exist as risk-takers, as professional equals to men. And to the extent they exist at all in these movies – as wives, girlfriends or hookers – they are a distraction to the hero’s journey. They may be beautiful and loving (I mean, Gretchen Mol, Margot Robbie, Melanie Griffiths, etc. etc.), but ultimately they are a drag and a burden to the focused risk-taking that professional investing or professional gambling requires. As for whether women themselves are capable of that focused risk-taking that professional investing or professional gambling requires … haha! don’t make me laugh.