By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
Networks can provide many means for support – a way to find out about new jobs or projects, a group of friends with whom to laugh or cry, your own private strategic advisors – and sometimes all of these things at once. The first generation of women on Wall Street learned this very quickly.
“I think networking is critical for advancing in any position, and probably more so for women in finance,” explained Melissa Fisher, author of the new book Wall Street Women.
Fisher’s book is an ethnographic account of the first generation of women to enter the world of finance as professionals. She began following their careers more than two decades ago, and the book relates their career challenges and triumphs from the ‘60s and ‘70s onward. One of the key strands her research revealed was the value of networking – from the very start of their careers and all the way through to today.
“These women are still relatively young, in their 50s and 60s,” Fisher pointed out. “We should be using them as a resource to understand women in the workplace. This is a generation that opened doors – and we need to keep the door open. We can learn a lot from them.”
Value of Networking
Fisher’s book is about the pioneering generation of women who made it onto Wall Street in the 1960s and 1970s. The story of these women’s lives and careers is particularly interesting, she explained, because it dispels common myths about how women entered the industry.
“They started out on the lowest rungs in roles that were not particularly glamorous,” Fisher explained. “But into the ‘90s, they had reached high levels – like managing director – and were using their influence politically or philanthropically.”
Many have assumed that this first wave of women had been following the footsteps of wealthy fathers or other male relatives onto Wall Street, but, Fisher points out, that wasn’t a common experience. Most of the women she followed came from more modest backgrounds and had attended state universities or small women’s colleges. They didn’t have connections that propelled them into plum jobs from the start – or really any connections to speak of whatsoever. Thus, they began to form their own networks.
What started out as informal friendships grew into something more official. For example, more and more women began to attend the meetings of the Financial Women’s Association of New York, which had been founded in the late ‘50s. They also shared news about new jobs and advice on how to deal with working in male dominated offices.
“Remember – these were women in their 20s who founded these networks. They were able to be successful in part because networks gave access to people who had job openings and in part because they provided each other support – like what to do if you have a bad boss.”
Fisher continued, “I think the women I followed mentored each other – there was no one to mentor them.”
She also pointed out that the research suggested the importance of having different kinds of networks. “These networks were attached to Wall Street but not necessarily in Wall Street. This points to the idea in sociology about the importance of strong ties and weak ties.”
Fisher explained, “You don’t only want strong ties. Weaker ties can also be a great help. Those contacts may have other contacts, but with strong ties you probably have the same contacts.”
Some members of this group of pioneering women were close, but some had only fleeting relationships with one another, and that was beneficial because it helped the network grow and kept it dynamic. It also provided women access to different firms, rather than just one or two.
Fisher is quick to point out that her research on networks is particular to this generation of women, who usually remained at one firm throughout their career and had different goals than generations of women who began their careers in the ‘80s or later, who tend to move around a lot more.
Learning and Mentoring
Fisher, who followed the women for two decades, began her study when she was in her 20s at Columbia University. Her subjects were, at that time, mostly in their 40s. Twenty years later, the women were dealing with the fall-out of the 2008 financial crisis and Fisher returned to study how they were faring.
“I hope the book opens up an understanding of how women navigate career paths,” she said. The interactions with these women also influenced Fisher herself.
She explained, “I was always going to be an anthropologist and an academic, but as I’ve become more senior I’ve been more acutely aware of what it’s like to be a woman in a male dominated workplace and how important it is to make your voice heard.”
“It’s very different being in your 20s studying women in their 40s, and now I’m in my 40s. It was like I saw a life ahead of me.”
Her experience studying women’s career progression gave her insight into what it means to be successful and ways to deal with work life challenges. “The idea of ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’” was a big one,” she added.