A typical Thursday morning on the trading floor of an energy firm begins in 6:30 a.m. darkness, illuminated only by a few corner lights. As I settle in to review the morning news, the sounds of early morning conversation provide a familiar backdrop to my work. One trader raves about last night’s NBA game with obscure sports terminology, two others debate about the possibility of a breakfast taco run and another blasts a bluegrass version of “Sweet Home Alabama” from his desktop computer. Somewhere in the middle of all the chaos, people are speculating about market gas prices for the day.
The trading floor at an energy firm is full of, well, energy. It seeps from the very back of the room where the meteorologists are competing to predict the weather, to the other side of the floor, where a lively debate about the appropriate betting odds for some sport involving a ball is in progress. The environment is dynamic, fast-paced, vibrant. Purely through osmosis, I accumulate more sports knowledge in my first two weeks than I do the entire spring semester with my sizeable group of male friends.
But there is still one glaring thing that is largely missing from the trading floor: women. A few from human resources occasionally came through with papers or friendly hellos, and the various departments devoted to support work have their share of women, but the absence of female traders is a striking phenomenon.
There were admittedly perks to being a female intern. I never had to wait in line for the bathroom, and I always got to be the first one on or off the elevators. But at the same time, I knew the unspoken rules were always different for me. Prior to my summer internship, I had never worn makeup, preferring those extra five minutes of sleep to an extensive beautification process. But on my very first day of work, as I dragged myself out of bed for my morning shower, the advice of a friend resonated in my mind: “Every woman on Wall Street wears makeup. Every one.” On a split second decision, I decided to forego my hasty breakfast to apply eyeliner, dab on a smear of eyeshadow and carefully dot my lips with professional, non-glossy, J.Crew-magazine-cover lipstick. This became a routine I kept up all summer.
In a way, the lack of women makes sense considered within the context of the trading environment. The “old boy’s club” culture is present and very clearly defined. Don’t get me wrong, there was never any outright harassment, but when I was included in a direct circle of people, I could feel the atmosphere change. A few weeks into my internship, I was in a meeting when someone made a mildly dirty joke. The whole room cracked up. Although I didn’t find the comment especially entertaining, I laughed along until one of the guys paused to comment, “Hey now guys, we have a lady here.” Cue another round of laughs; the meeting then went on as usual. But that second of being singled out, while not uncomfortable in the moment, was a clear testament to the unspoken rules of the trading world.
The funny thing is that the predominantly male culture is neither obviously good nor bad. It would be great if more women went into trading, but I see why the work naturally appeals to traditionally male personalities: it involves a good deal of risk-taking, an ability to be fast on your feet, and a quantitative bent. These talents are still viewed as “masculine,” for better or for worse. Maybe women just haven’t had a chance to explore these interests, since academia naturally segues us into more humanities-heavy majors. According to a June New York Times article, only 17-18 percent of computer science and engineering degrees are earned by women. Perhaps, however, part of the intimidation comes from trading floor culture itself. It will change — it is changing, as my presence and that of other women in the field indicate — but it’s changing slowly, and with great difficulty. The complete evolutionary process won’t happen at all unless it happens unforced, cushioned by a general shift in attitude that has to be endemic to all of Wall Street and the financial industry. And that’s only possible with strong diversity outreach programs and the presence of visible female mentors at the very top rungs of the finance world. Until that change is complete, female interns and new hires who find themselves amidst a sea of male coworkers will never feel completely comfortable with the unspoken rules of the trading world.
Joanna Zheng is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .