On Wall Street, an open bar and a closed stock market

Editor’s Note: In the 1990s, Maureen Sherry was the youngest managing director at Bear Stearns. After 12 years on Wall Street, Sherry left, but she couldn’t shake her experience there. She was, after all, one of the few women in a field dominated by men — a field with a long history of overt sexism.

Opening Belle by Maureen Sherry

“Opening Belle” – Maureen Sherry

For tonight’s Making Sen$e segment, economics correspondent Paul Solman sat down with Sherry to discuss her experience on Wall Street, glass ceilings and the steady stream of sexual harassment lawsuits in the field. Sherry eventually wrote a book about being a female trader on Wall Street, a fiction that follows the trials and tribulations of a character named Belle McElroy.

As Sherry told Paul, “If you can’t get the story out of your head and can’t let it go, you have to put it to paper.”

Below, we have a short excerpt from “Opening Belle.” For more on the topic, tune in to tonight’s Making Sen$e, which airs every Thursday on the PBS NewsHour.

— Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

I’ve been to this holiday smackdown nine times. I know the drill: drink one glass of wine and lots of water. I’ll swerve around the room, chat up some partners I don’t speak with often, then head for the door and be gone — slipping on home to Bruce and our diaper-clad chaos.

Steps from the entrance I instinctively pause, summoning a more impressive version of me, trying to get her to show up tonight. I stand taller, trying to find inner fabulousness, while I mentally tick off names of men, because they are all men, who will determine my fiscal year–end bonus. Which of the graying white guys on the executive committee have I not spoken with in the last few weeks, and how can I casually remind them of my biggest deals?

I rehearse before the curtains rise. I think potential drama through and summon a false calm, just the way I do when my four-year-old’s shrieks threaten to shatter glass. I search for that kind of counter-Zen that gets the men to lean forward and listen. Avoiding the hysterical-female role — the stereotype men I work with have of women — is the key. Staying cool and professional and never slipping into some gossiping, pretty-girl mode is a strategy that’s gotten me places.

I mentally list the men with whom under any circumstances I shall not, will not, no matter what they can do for my bank account, dance with tonight. The inner caveman comes unleashed when all of us are together with an open bar and a closed stock market. I imagine every place of employment has a list of suspects to avoid at a party, but the problem with Feagin Dixon — or the problem with men making big money anywhere — is that they can get casual with wedding vows. It’s not that they don’t love their wives — I think they do — but the headiness of that money sucks the scruples right out of them. If ever there was a time of year these men are in heat, it’s now, just a few months before bonus season.

The trading floor, the place most of us work, sets the stage for a mating dance. Daily. A grid of attached desks sits in a space a quarter the size of a football field. There are no walls and no cubicles to separate us. During work hours, everyone is either on the phone or flirting. A trading floor has everything to keep adrenal glands pumping cortisol: breaking news, tragedy, money, racism, sexism and a little less overt sex play than in the past. The blow-up dolls that floated around in the early nineties have been deflated, and the deliveries of erotic chocolates have ceased. As my closest friend, Elizabeth, says when she visits me at work, “I feel like you work in a nightclub.” She compares us to the technology start-up where she works and says that Wall Street’s just in a more evolved stage of lawlessness than her world.

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