What It’s Like for Women on Wall Street

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Have you ever wondered what it’s like being a woman working on Wall Street?

In 2009, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff eloquently pointed out that our economy might be in a very different place had it been Lehman Sisters and Brothers rather than merely Lehman Brothers. In his piece Mistresses of The Universe, Kristoff highlights how Wall Street is a place “where senior staff meetings resemble the waiting room at a urologist’s office.”

As someone who spent a brief (and not entirely happy) period of time in NYC working for a global investment bank in the early 1990s, I concur with Kristoff’s analysis. So when I first heard about Nina Godiwalla’s new book, Suits: A Woman On Wall Street, I couldn’t wait to see what, if anything, had changed since my days in the ‘hood.

An Insider’s Perspective From An Outsider’s Point Of View.

Billed as The Devil Wears Prada meets Liar’s Poker, Godiwalla’s Suits provides a lively and heartfelt insider’s perspective on investment banking, delivered from an outsider’s point of view. It also presents a poignant and insightful snapshot of an immigrant family with big dreams. Suits is a gripping read, especially if you’re of multicultural heritage or interested in why there are so few women in the upper echelons of high finance. Quite literally, I could not put this book down. It hit on all the issues I personally struggled with—wanting (unsuccessfully) to fit into a culture that is profoundly male in every way, shape, and form—while also wanting to earn the same financial fruits from my intellect that men were.

Who This Woman Is.

Nina is no ordinary young woman—she’s an academic superstar. Nina has an MBA from Wharton School of Business, an MA focused in Creative Writing from Dartmouth, and a BBA from University of Texas. After spending a decade working for blue chip Fortune 500 firms like Morgan Stanley and Johnson & Johnson, she now lives in Austin, Texas, where she runs MindWorks, a consultancy providing stress management and meditation training to corporations and other professional organizations. Nina speaks nationally on leadership and diversity in the workplace and has been featured in several major publications, including USA Today, ABC News and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

Reading Suits brought many questions to mind, so thankfully Nina was kind enough to answer them:

Early on in the book, you describe a group outing with peers from work where you ate little and consumed no alcohol—and your surprise at being told that your portion of the “shared” bill would be $130. Did your peers ever talk about their personal finances, and if so, in what way?

Several of my peers came from very wealthy backgrounds. Some even had their parents pay most of their bills and used their sizable investment banking paycheck as spending money.  Since they didn’t have to worry much about money, there was little conversation around it.  At the time, I envied them.

You describe arriving on Wall Street for your first internship with four suits and two pairs of shoes. Of the clothes you had brought from Texas, you said, “My 100% polyester houndstooth T.J. Maxx suit stood out like sweatpants at a wedding.” In the world of Wall Street, do you feel your external appearance was judged more harshly because you are a woman or because you are Persian-Indian?

Being a minority or woman in investment banking, where there are few of either, is similar to walking into a cocktail party where you don’t know anyone. It’s not impossible to navigate; however, it takes more effort. As a woman or minority, you often have to prove yourself rather than getting the benefit of the doubt.  Since the industry is so focused on perception, the way you dress and carry yourself plays just as important a role as your work.

At one point in the book, you reflect back upon the benefits of working part-time at the mall while you were in high school, saying, “Money bought me the ability to make more of my own choices.” After your experience on Wall Street, how do you feel about the role of money in your life today?

Money can buy you a certain level of independence, and I’m grateful I have the education and means to provide for my family. Not everyone has that. But money has its limits. In New York, it often felt like no amount of money is enough. There’s typically a ladder you’re climbing and someone’s always ahead of you. I remember some colleagues getting depressed during bonus time because their bonuses (even when they were in the millions) were lower than their counterparts.  Money is important to me, but I don’t want to get mixed up in allowing it to define me.

After months of grueling, 80-plus-hour work weeks, you pondered, “I was beginning to wonder how to redefine success. Until now, I’d just assumed that people who had money, prestige, and power lived perfect, happy lives. If they didn’t, why would so many people, including my parents and many from my Parsi community, spend a lifetime inching closer and closer to these things?” How do you define success now?

Now, my definition of success is more balanced. Unlike before, happiness now plays a major factor. There’s a certain threshold of money needed to keep me content and after that, there is a diminishing return.

Towards the end of the book, you say, “In college, I would’ve laughed at the idea that being in business could be different for women than for men, but only a few weeks into my Morgan Stanley experience, I completely understood.” What advice would you give a woman leaving college and starting a career in business today, and would that advice differ if she was of recent immigrant heritage?

I’d heard the banking experience would be “challenging,” but I didn’t expect it’d be so hard to break into a conversation of men in their late 40s sharing their rowing memories from their East Coast summer camps. My advice to anyone who’s not part of the majority (women or minority) is to make an extra effort to build a strong, strategic network of people who support you. Now, when I start a new job, I set-up one-on-one meetings with people all over the company. Doing a good job will be expected of you, but it’s the relationships that help you succeed.

For more on Suits and on Nina, visit her website and her Facebook page.

Have you worked in financial services?  If so, what has your experience been?