Wall Street Maven: Maureen Sherry, 52, formerly, the youngest woman Managing Director at Bear Stearns—switched gears to earn her Masters of Fine Arts at Columbia University, to become a writer and tutor inner city kids. Her latest work, “Opening Belle” addresses the challenges of what many women on Wall Street face in a male-dominated work environment. Here she speaks to Vanity + Trade on why this project has become more of a movement and how this phenomenon has already led Reese Witherspoon to option her story for a major motion picture.
You were the youngest Managing Director at Bear Stearns. What was your role and how was that like?
Even though my main job was selling stock and investment deals to institutional clients (professional money managers), we had flexible department boundaries so I dabbled in high-yield, international and convertible securities too. As I became more senior and then a mother, my job included interviewing and hiring new employees. I guess I’m saying the role was as fluid as your ambition desired. There were even fewer women in senior positions than today so ignoring background noise in the workplace, (harassment?) was a key attribute of the women who prospered to a certain point.
Leaving Wall Street was a major career change. What prompted this event?
There wasn’t one significant event but a slow build of frustration. Similar to the main character in my book, there was a daily feeling that after children, my career had been decided for me, and it really took the wind out of my sails. With each maternity leave (6 weeks), I had to rebuild parts of my business again. I no longer felt that the sky was the limit for me at work and found the raucous environment, as well as some of the types of deals we were getting involved in, to be more disturbing.
You’ve mentioned that having children changes you and how your (male) peers perceived you, can you describe that?
Most of the men I worked with were sole breadwinners. Many had more traditional views about women in the workplace and liked their partners to be home and raising their children. While they were happy to work alongside women, especially in the more junior roles, I think it’s fair to say there was tremendous unconscious and conscious bias toward the women who reproduced.
Give us a brief synopsis of Opening Belle. What inspired you to write about this?
The book takes the reader onto a Wall Street trading floor during the 2008 mortgage crisis. Belle is a mother and sole bread winner who gives a realistic account of the demands, the harassment, the unequal pay between men and women and shows how this happens. I wanted to write this because any complaints against a big bank are settled through arbitration so the details are never exposed to the world. Because I never complained nor signed a non disclosure agreement, I felt I had a unique chance to tell this story. Judging from the feedback from many Wall Street women, Belle’s experience was not unique to her nor that of other women in a plethora of industries.
Your book intersects the world of non-fiction and fiction however many of these stories are based on events that actually happened. Tell us one of the most outrageous true tales?
I feel I’ve had a unique chance to report on something and many of the office scenes Belle experienced were true. Once the book was out in the world, other women began to share their stories. Many were more outrageous than anything I’ve experienced, including the presentation of hotel room keys (with career advancement being the implication), groping of breasts and unrelenting bro-talk. Men daring one another to drink a shot of my breast milk (taken from an office refrigerator) was right up there on the list of men behaving badly.
What was the reception from the book? From Wall Street? Was it what you expected?
The reception of the book has surprised me. There were a few comments about the book being far-fetched however the response to that was the incredible support from other women telling their horrific tales- far worse than anything in the book. To me, this underscores the fact that harassment still occurs in banks, and people tend to look the other way. Some work cultures are totally professional so those fortunate women can’t relate and others remain stuck in a different era. Many readers appreciated that I used humor to tell the story and to not be too overbearing on the subject. I was also surprised by how readers reacted to a strong fictional female character who made a lot of money. Many authors worry that readers still find it unfeminine for women to discuss money so most of them won’t go there. I worry that this also reflects on the high financial illiteracy rate that exists in our country. Most women aren’t properly educated about how to manage finances and as a result, they invest poorly. Women retire into poverty at a much higher rate than men. Currently the stats are that 40% of American households with children have a woman as the primary breadwinner, so financial literacy among women must improve.
My biggest surprise has been the large amount of financial institutions that have invited me to speak. I’ve presented at large banks, hedge funds and private equity firms. To me this is an encouraging sign that there is more commitment now to changing the corporate culture.
In researching for the book, what did you discover through the process of speaking with so many women?
My research for this book was really enjoyable. Without fear of retribution, I found that many of the young women I spoke with were so open. The theme of not being included was really prevalent- of being on the outside and looking in. Non-inclusion was felt by watching the easy friendships men made with each other in a male-dominated world. Women talked a lot about not knowing how to break into that world. They also don’t appreciate being told to fight for bonus’, and to “lean in” and “speak louder”. In other words, being told to “act more manly because it’s a man’s world”. For working mothers the frustration was the highest. There seems to be an unspoken code to rarely speak of children or home life at work. Wall Street moms seem to fear that it makes them appear weak or distracted. The perception was that the men leaving early to coach a little league team made him a great guy. However, women leaving early to go to a pediatrician appointment? It’s better to tell your co-workers you have a meeting with a client.
In your Op-Ed in The New York Times earlier this year, you talk about the countless monies poured into educating the public on gender inequality in the workplace with diversity campaigns and policies to help women. However, what do you observe is still holding us back?
Two things hold us back. 1) Lack of transparency (arbitration, secret compensation, unclear factors contributing to promotion) and 2) lack of representation (16% of executive roles on Wall Street are filled with women but that includes more heavily female departments such as event planning, communications, etc.). When employees on Wall Street more accurately reflect the human race, many of the issues will go away. I also think women need to share these stories with each other. One thing that seemed familiar about Gretchan Carlson’s accusations against Roger Ailes was that many women at Fox news had similar complaints about him dating years back. There’s a female code of silence that has to stop.
Being a writer requires a different type of discipline than being on Wall Street. How were you able to write and remain creative consistently?
Financial markets change constantly and maintaining a business in a flexible world kept my creative juices flowing. Relaying the story of a company’s prospective growth to investors is not unlike writing non fictional parts of a book: In fact I liked writing reports on the trading relationships between high-yield bond and their stocks and did this on a regular basis for my clients. It helped me be better informed because I had to explain something fully. In my current writing I try to do the same thing. Yes, I wrote a comic novel but it took on needlessly complicated investments (mortgage bonds) and I tried to simplify the idea for my audience. The key to being good at both practices is daily attention and thoughtfulness. I try to write a little bit every day.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned while writing this book?
Unequal opportunities in the work place are not just a Wall Street problem but an American problem. Women shared so many frustrating stories from their careers so my biggest lesson was the extent of exclusion all around. On a positive note I also spoke with many men who want things to change. The culture of each place of employment sets the tone from the top, down.
What mistakes did you see (and continue to see) other women making in business?
I think it’s a mistake to rely too heavily on women mentoring other women. The successful women I spoke with all credited a male mentor that they found for themselves in an organic, natural way. In addition, micro-managing work relationships seem to backfire. I also think that women who are over-sensitive and take remarks or company decisions a certain way, have trouble seeing the bigger path to success. It’s important to not jump to conclusions and to give others the benefit of the doubt. Professional dress is another area that has varied interpretations and can send the wrong message to co-workers and bosses. Clothing tells a story, so dress according to the message you wish to send. Most of all I think it’s important that any insinuation of a quid pro quo relationship in the workplace has to be stopped without fear of retribution. It’s easier than ever with technology gather evidence and no worthy company in 2016 wants this in their space. Speak up.
Compare your power suit from being on Wall Street (typical high-power fashion outfit) to your power suit as an author.
I’m not ashamed to admit that the gym-to-work wardrobe has a prominent theme in my life. That’s what I live in when I write from home or am running to my kids’ schools. I’m on several philanthropic boards so I also have an office in midtown Manhattan. While there, I’m surrounded by professional dress so the Athleta clothing gets cast aside. I keep blazers in the office and have some great heels I can slip on for a lunch meeting. Dry shampoo manages to keep my bike helmet hair in check. When it rains on me? All bets are off.
As a mother of 4, what beauty products can’t you live without?
Having children has made me more vigilant about the environment and what is in and around our bodies. Organic coconut oil is a great all-over moisturizer. Try it and you’ll glow! I also have a love for Bobbi Brown BB cream for sun protection and something that borders on a fake tan without giving me an orange look. Garnier Sleek & Silk can smooth frizz in a minute so I keep it in my desk. I’m useless putting on makeup but someone gave me an Anastasia Beverly Hills eyeliner that even I can’t mess up!
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