Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
This is the summer of a “woman in a man’s world.” There’s a lot buzz around the new movie Equity, which is the story of women navigating the male-dominated world of Wall Street. New U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May was brought in to work through the Brexit mess. And, oh yeah, last week Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential nominee for a major political party.

I’ve spent my career as a woman in a man’s world. I was the CEO of Smith Barney and of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, and I was the chief financial officer of Citigroup. So I’ve been there.

And when people ask me if being a woman in a man’s world helped or hurt my career, my answer is always “Yes.”

First, the negatives. We see practically daily that women have to be "better” than men to succeed in those male-dominated environments. It has been embedded in fiction: In Equity, the main character, played by Anna Gunn, is just so much better at her job than everyone else, on pretty much every level. Not perfect, mind you, just better. And then in real life, Hillary Clinton is certainly the presidential nominee with the most experience of any candidate in history — you have to agree with this, regardless of your political leanings. She’s running against the candidate with perhaps the least relevant experience in history. And it’s still neck and neck.

So it’s understandable that the assumption is that being a woman in a man’s industry can hurt you. I experienced some of that. Some of it was overt: When I was a new investment banker, someone left pictures of male nether-regions on my desk almost every day. Other things were more you-know-it-but-you-can’t-really-put-words-to-it-because-it’s-hard-to-pin-down, such as the new boss who wouldn’t hold eye contact with me. (FYI, he wasn’t a middle manager; he was actually a CEO.)

Big sigh, right?

But that’s not the complete story, and it’s not that black-and-white. Because, let’s be honest, there were times when being a woman in a mostly male industry was actually a positive for me. When I was an equity research analyst covering the financial services industry, being a female made me more memorable. And since success was pretty easily identified by the nature of the job (i.e. did my stock analysis help clients make money?) the combination of being memorable and being right was a strong career boost.

Being a woman probably helped me land what was maybe the biggest moment of my career. I was on the cover of Fortune Magazine in 2002, labeled “The Last Honest Analyst.” At the time, I was CEO of Sanford Bernstein and had withdrawn from businesses that I thought were in conflict with our clients. I was told again and again that I should have figured out just how to deal with it, and that I was a dope for giving up millions in revenue...right up until when New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer found troves of emails at our competitors that proved that others’ clients were being taken for an expensive ride.

Seeing yourself on the cover of a magazine is a pretty otherworldly thing, and it changed the trajectory of my career and, therefore, of my life. I’m pretty honest with myself that I probably wouldn’t have been on that cover if I hadn’t looked so different from the rest of the industry — if I had instead been another balding, middle-aged white guy. (To be fair, of course, I also wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t pursued a different-from-the-industry business strategy, and if it hadn’t worked. So there’s that.) But score some points for being a female.

Shortly thereafter, I was offered the opportunity to run Smith Barney, a storied Wall Street business that had been damaged by that same investment-banking scandal. In this instance, too, I believe that being different, looking different, and having a different approach were key to being put in charge of the turnaround. Some might argue that such an assignment was putting me out on the “glass cliff.” But I was pretty okay with being on that glass cliff, because, let’s face it, that was the only way I — or any outsider, of any gender — was getting that job.

The same was the case when I was offered the job to run Merrill Lynch; it was in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and the company was suffering historic levels of attrition among its employees. Again, this is a job I likely wouldn’t have gotten under business-as-usual conditions. (The firm's symbol was a bull. Doesn’t get any more male than that.) My being female wasn’t the only reason I got the job, but it sure made me stand out.

So how did I cope in this man’s world? Well, I worked really hard — perhaps harder than the guys, or anyone else. I came to the table with facts and numbers to ground my arguments. And, perhaps surprisingly, I found humor worked well. I always figured if the team and I were laughing together, that meant we were doing something together, and that was a great start.

Should Wall Street become more inclusive? Yes. Should politics? Yes. In my opinion, the research is pretty clear that this would be a good thing, not just for the women in those fields but for those industries themselves. (Does anyone really think the financial crisis would have been worse if there had been more women on those trading floors?) In the meantime, for the women crashing those glass ceilings, it’s not all dire or all black-and-white, and the opportunities to have fascinating, compelling careers exist. And for those who say being a woman in a man’s world is a negative, I have a whole career that says that’s not always the case.

Sallie Krawcheck is the cofounder and CEO of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women. You can sign up for VIP access here. She is also the author of the forthcoming book Own It, to be published early next year.


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