Career Advice

Why Goldman Sachs’ behavior in Bully Market by Jamie Fiore Higgins is just not that unusual

I have just finished reading Bully Market – the story of how Jamie Fiore Higgins rose to MD at Goldman Sachs while hating the culture but loving the money. It’s a fast fun read, not great literature but a compelling insight into the behaviors women have put up with in the last 30 years that are all too common, and yet still egregious enough to be shocking. She’s brave to write so frankly about what she experienced – hats off to her. You can read the NY Times review here.

The book brought back many so many memories for me. So many shared experiences, so many times I could not quite believe the behavior around me, and yet I never worked at Goldman Sachs. I worked in the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley which also had a male-dominated, good old boys culture generating wealth for the people who were willing to work really hard and put up with toxic cultures. And so many of the things she experienced I and many of my friends also experienced a world away.

When Jamie had her babies at Goldman there was a lactation center where she could, in theory, go to pump breast milk but her boss made it clear he didn’t want her taking the time out to do that so she weaned her twins. When I got pregnant with our first child there was no maternity leave policy at the company I worked at so I turned to working with HR to write one. When I came back to work after 6 weeks I was determined to try to breast feed our daughter but there was nowhere to pump breast milk except the ladies room – with nowhere to sit except on the toilet – and so I would lock my office door so I could pump in private. I would moo loudly if someone knocked on the door. I had to keep a sense of humor but I gave up after a few weeks.

When Jamie had a miscarriage her boss put pressure on her to come back into work before she was well enough. When my son was 4 weeks old my boss asked me to come into the office because there was a major reorganization going down and, as one of the executive team, I needed to be there. I agreed, but my son was not weaned and so I took him in with me, breast fed him in the meetings sitting at the board room table with the other execs while they didn’t know where to look. I then held him on my shoulder while he slept as I stood in front of my department of 150 people telling them about the new organization. Yes, it was insane, but I felt I had no choice. If I didn’t go in I would not be considered serious about my career.

Jamie recounted experiences of piggish behavior in her male colleagues and their attitudes towards women. I saw and heard it too many times. Being told the meeting with the customer would be at a strip bar – so I went to the strip bar with the guys, building up a tolerance for drinking shots. Learning about the golf tournament held for our customers which had topless caddies – and being thankful I was not there, but also very grateful to the customer who made a formal complaint. Walking into a bar in New York with a colleague and finding the Goldman Sachs partner who led our investment banking team in the bar, drunk, with four prostitutes. I confess I was merciless and sat down with him, engaged him in conversation, chatted with the hookers and watched him squirm as I, the client, witnessed his embarrassment.

Male colleagues attitudes to pregnancy were a mine field. As Jamie found, many men relate what you are going through to their wives’ experiences and if it is different then you must be misguided. One day, after struggling with my schedule and being asked to attend an offsite on the weekend I finally realized why my life seemed so much harder to plan than the rest of the executive team – I was the only member of the team whose spouse worked, and the only female. 

The hostile experiences were continuous. The customer who sat in meetings staring at my breasts, the customer who would always put his hand on my knee when he sat next to me, no matter how many times I took it off. The CEO of one of the largest US semiconductor companies who I sat next to at a formal dinner in 1991 when I was 6 months pregnant. He looked at my belly, then into my face, and told me he didn’t believe in promoting women because they just got pregnant and left. My boss, sitting on his other side, gave me a hard look not to say anything. Suck it up and smile. 

And as for the long hours, they could be appalling. I was usually the only woman in whatever group I was in and I would try to get in first and leave last. My hours even made it into the company comedy show one year. I knew it would take working harder and smarter than the men to get ahead. I knew I would be judged if I showed a moment of weakness. Too many men asked me if I’d come back to work after I had our first child. I was never confused about the pressure. Dinners, late nights with customers, travel almost every week in the US, to Europe, to Japan and no internet at home so it was hard to work from home. That meant dinners at the office, or out with customers and  dinner with my kids only at the weekend.

This was not unusual, for anyone. The experiences Jamie shares at Goldman Sachs were horrible but she was being paid in 7 figures. Goldman, and many, many other companies, could behave that way because they were paying so well, whether in cash or stock options. I admire that she put up with it so long, that she was willing to write about the hostility she felt as a woman in their environment and I hope it is slowly changing, but change will be slow until women are in equal power at the top and can create a new set of rules.

The bottom line is we live in a highly competitive world. Yes, you should not have to put up with blatantly sexist behavior at work or be excluded from client access because you are not a good old boy who likes strip clubs, but in the end we are all competing and you have to have your eyes wide open and be willing to tolerate the tough times to get ahead. We are competing with each other, we are competing with our competitors, we are competing with countries who want to take our market share and our industries. 

We get paid the big bucks to produce results, results that take hard work and long hours, and you must expect to work hard and suck it up plenty if you want to win in a competitive field. Balance is a myth at the top of the earning bracket.

Photo: Puglian medieval fresco © 2022 Penny Herscher