On Tuesday, two former Goldman Sachs employees filed papers in federal court in an attempt to bring a class action gender discrimination suit against the bank. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Cristina Chen-Oster and Shanna Orlich originally filed suit against Goldman in 2010, alleging that the environment was hostile to women, that the company was slow to promote women, that there was a 21 percent gender pay gap, and that Chen-Oster was sexually assaulted by a co-worker and then told not to report it. “Not surprisingly, strip clubs are mentioned multiple times” in the suit, Businessweek’s Sheelah Kolhatkar writes with an obvious tinge of weariness. In one instance, a male colleague set his promotion celebration at the Manhattan strip club Scores and invited all employees to join; Chen-Oster says she was assaulted at the end of the night.
Complaints of Wall Street bros doing business at the Penthouse Club are nothing new. Hydie Sumner, who won $2.2 million in a gender discrimination suit against Merrill Lynch a decade ago, told USA Today in 2006, “When ‘business activities’ involve the strip club, golf course or hunting ranches … discrimination is often perpetuated as those in power support and advance those with like minds and tastes.” Kolhatkar describes reading the suit’s allegations of exclusion from male bonding sessions and thinking, “The allegations almost have a banal feel to them: Find a Wall Street firm where those things don’t happen.” As New York’s Kevin Roose puts it, “Sound familiar? Probably. Almost every major bank has been sued for gender discrimination at some point.” (A Goldman’s spokesman says the case has a “lack of merit.”) Fictional accounts of Wall Street also lean heavily on strip club tales: In Bond Girl, a 2012 novel written by former Merrill Lynch trader Erin Duffy, male bankers leave their female colleague behind to entertain clients at a topless bar; in The Wolf of Wall Street, strippers are hired to waltz into the office to help bankers celebrate a profitable week.
When it comes to gender bias on Wall Street, strip club parties make for a conspicuous detail, but the reality is not always so obvious—at least, not anymore. Sarah Judd Welch, who worked for Goldman between 2008 and 2010 and has since left finance for the startup world (she founded the community development studio Loyal), says that she never observed any strip club activities at the bank or heard them referenced by anyone else. In fact, during that recessionary period, Goldman employees were explicitly discouraged from hosting any group activities outside the office because of perceived outside hostility toward the firm. (The Scores incident referenced in Chen-Oster and Orlich’s suit occurred in the late ‘90s.)
“Generally, though, there is definitely a ‘boys club’ atmosphere … dice playing on the trading floor [and] eating contests … which I definitely participated in to build rapport,” Judd Welch told me in an email. She says she worked in a group with a female managing director where women were promoted, but that “Even still, I do have distinct memories of once being told that I was ‘too aggressive and combative’ by a trader and another time that my dress was distracting.”
Strip club outings can be easily nixed to avoid the appearance of sexism, but the banks have a more insidious cultural problem that contributes to the discrimination against women. I asked Judd Welch: If Wall Street’s boy’s club behavior is as prevalent as it seems, then why aren’t there more lawsuits? She chalks it up Goldman’s culture of excellence, which is also the company’s strength. At Goldman, “exceeding expectations is expected,” she said. “If you ever wonder why you aren’t making the progress that you’d like, the culture makes you feel that it is due to your own inadequacy and average performance (which would be considered far above average anywhere else).”
On Wall Street, alleging sexism seems tantamount to admitting personal failure, and most women don’t want to jeopardize a great opportunity by speaking up. But the banks would be smart to start listening. They are aware that they are losing “bright, ambitious college graduates” to Silicon Valley and the startup world (though as the Tinder gender discrimination lawsuit shows, that company culture does not necessarily offer a utopia of gender enlightenment). If they want to stop shedding talent, the banks better shape up.