What it’s Like For a Woman on Wall Street
by Natalie Levy
“33, 34, 35, 36…!” I lifted myself off the trading floor, smiling, adrenaline still coursing through my body. I had bet the guys that I could do 35 consecutive, perfect-form push ups, and not only had I won the bet but I’d given them an extra push up for good measure. I was gleaming, but even in this triumphant moment I could not push away the nagging doubt: Is this where I’m supposed to be? Am I happy here?
At 5’4 and blonde, I definitely stood out amongst my colleagues. This was not a new feeling for me—as an engineering major I had regularly found myself surrounded by men both in the classroom and in most professional settings. I had always felt magnetized to the hype of Wall Street circa 2004, with its promise of wealth, power, and a good time, and the fact that it was a boy’s club wasn’t going to stop me.
Still, it was not exactly an enlightened environment. In the sales & trading culture, guys literally referred to themselves as Big Swinging Dicks (BSDs). Yes, you heard that right. Wolf of Wall Street-esque stories were shared on the trading floor freely and everyone laughed, myself included.
After all, the masculine energy was powerful. It was fun. We ate at the nicest restaurants in New York, but our wallets did not get a workout because our expense accounts did all of the heavy lifting. Well, we did pay for the Pepto Bismol to handle the nightly heartburn after a shellfish platter, a buttery ribeye, and an overflowing dessert tray. I preferred the Nobu meal to be followed by spa treatments. I felt like a kobe beef version of myself.
I felt accomplished to be earning a relatively high salary right out of college. The HR team at my firm reinforced this, telling our analyst class we were lucky to be in the seats we were in and that, if we stayed, we would be worth $10 million in the future. Mostly, I was proud to have landed a derivatives trading role when HR had tried to push me into a sales gig, ignoring the fact that I had excelled in advanced math. Of course, I looked like a salesperson—which is where they directed the vast majority of young women recruits.
I exclusively wore pants to work for my first two years on Wall Street. I was under the impression that if I hid parts of my authentic self and just “blended in”, then my male colleagues would treat me like one of them, mentor me, and include me in the comradery. Sure, we engaged in good stories and had a heck of a time, but I was hiding myself. I was not happy, and only occasionally did I understand that.
A few years in, I began to question my personal motives and the ethics of the structures around me. I did not feel fulfilled and when I took a step back to see the direction that my life was headed in, I did not see happiness, I saw money, success defined in terms of having multiple homes, and a job that rewarded a Pavlovian response to the news but did not foster a creative mindset. My mental and physical well-being was at risk too, as I was often sick from stress. I looked around for women that inspired me, not just in terms of their careers, but in terms of their lives. I could not seem to find one.
More than once, I found myself crying in a bathroom stall. I could play it cool on the floor, but the real me was starting to spill over. The casual sexism started to build. “Why are you always in flats? Why don’t you wear sexier shoes?“
One time, it was watching someone else cry in the bathroom that really impacted me. The guys on the trading floor would sometimes order singing telegrams for each other’s birthdays. This particular telegram was dressed as a chicken, and she wept as she pulled off her bird suit. For all I know, she was crying over a breakup, but the scene depressed me. This was a place that paid classically trained opera singers to mortify themselves for rich men’s pleasure.
It was not until I broke away for a transformative trip that I realized I needed to remove myself from the high life I was living on Wall Street for good. I embarked on a solo adventure out West: I tried skydiving for the first time, explored the beautiful outdoors rock climbing in Eldorado, Colorado, and relaxed into a much needed spa-cation in Santa Barbara. As I took the time to enjoy the world and myself, I gained a deep clarity. I knew it was time to leave my job.
It took me half a year to reset my internal clock after leaving Wall Street. I no longer had to wake up at 5 a.m., stressed about squeezing in a workout to mentally prepare myself for the jungle of the trading floor. I no longer had to restrict my creative side. I no longer had to brute-force my way through another work day that started before dawn and ended after dark, with me melting into the couch for an hour because I lacked the mental energy to do anything else.
The intensity of Wall Street was part of its attraction, and even though I left, I still carry the same longing for excitement and energy in the workplace; it is in my DNA. However, through new experiences, I have come to realize that I can apply my internal vigor and drive to a career that I am actually passionate about.
So from one professional woman to another, please take the time to ask yourself what it is that you want, what you REALLY want. And continue to ask yourself this throughout the twists and turns of your career and those momentous moments in life. Do you want to give up your time to a stressful job that detracts from your happiness? Would making time for a passion project or volunteer work materially improve your mental state while you grind at the 9-5?
If you find yourself questioning your current environment, whether it be the workplace, a relationship, or lifestyle choice, please do yourself a favor and dig deep. It is not easy to make a big change, but if you are even questioning it, you probably already have your answer.
I woke up this morning not to an alarm clock set at 5:00am, but to my sweet pup rolling over for her daily belly rub. With a huge smile on my face, I rose to meet the day feeling free and joyful in knowing that I am living life on my own terms, in a way that truly matters.