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Did Being a Woman in Business Help or Hurt Me? Yes

Did Being a Woman in Business Help or Hurt Me? Yes

This has been the summer of a “woman in a man’s world.” There was the launch of the movie Equity, which is the story of women navigating the male-dominated world of Wall Street. New UK Prime Minister Theresa May was brought in to clean up the Brexit mess. And, oh yeah, Hillary Clinton is the first woman to be nominated for President by a major political party.

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

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

First, the negatives. There is the view that woman have “to be better” or "work harder" than men to succeed in those environments. It has been embedded in fiction: in Equity, the Naomi character is just so much better in her job than everyone else, on pretty much every dimension. Not perfect, mind you, just better than everyone else. And we’re seeing evidence in real life: putting aside your politics or what you think of the candidates themselves, Hillary Clinton is certainly the Presidential nominee with the most experience of any candidate in history; she’s running against a candidate with much less relevant experience. Would a woman have gotten as far if the experience levels were reversed??

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: I had Xerox copies of male nether-regions left for me on my desk almost every day when I was a new investment banker. And some of it was you-know-it-but-you-can’t-really-put-words-to-it-because-it’s-hard-to-pin-down, such as when a new boss of mine 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. For example, 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 the stock analysis I did help clients make money – the combination of being memorable and being right was a strong one.

And being a woman probably helped me in what was then the biggest moment of my career. I was on the cover of Fortune Magazine in 2002, as “The Last Honest Analyst.” I was CEO of Sanford Bernstein at the time, and had exited us from the conflicted business of investment banking to focus solely on equity research and our equity research clients. It was a controversial decision at the time, because we had to give up so much revenue. But when then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer found investment banking conflicts of interest were hurting the research industry’s clients (complete with damning emails proving the conflict, in colorful terms), we were the one firm that stood out as having pursued a different, more client-focused path.

Seeing yourself on the cover of a magazine is a pretty other-worldly thing, and it changed the trajectory of my career and, therefore, of my life. I’m pretty clear 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 itself had been damaged by that same investment banking scandal. In this instance too I believe that being different, looking different, having a different approach were key to my being offered the job and being charged with the turn-around. Some might argue that such an assignment was putting me out on the “glass cliff” (the phenomenon in which women are likelier than men to be put in leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest). But I was pretty ok with being on that glass cliff because, let’s face it, that was the only way I – or any outsider, of either 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 amongst its employees. Again, this is a job I (very, very, very) likely wouldn’t have gotten under business-as-usual conditions and had I been a business-as-usual candidate. (This is a firm whose Financial Advisors are 80%+ male and whose symbol is a bull. Doesn’t get any more male than that.) My being female wasn’t the only thing, but it sure made me stand out.

So how did I cope? Well, I worked really hard, and perhaps harder than the guys – or anyone else. I studied what made me more effective in those more-male environments: bringing facts and numbers to the table was one way, as it grounded 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 fields 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, in my opinion, mostly male businesses have left significant market opportunities for those who can see things differently; that's the reason I founded Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women. It's to tackle the gender investing gap that a more-male investing industry has not fully addressed.

This article originally appeared in LinkedIn.

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

(Photo: Flickr, piropiro3)

An edited version of this article was originally published in Refinery29


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