EQUITY – The First Film About Women and Wall Street In Almost 30 Years

Published on LinkedIn on January 27, 2016

In 2011, MissRepresentation premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and contained a quote from Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund. “You can’t be what you can’t see.” This quote went on to become the tagline of the film, and it is a succinct, accurate, and powerful description of some of the challenges facing women today in making women’s leadership and presence visible. In industries dominated by men, which is most, it is hard to convince young girls that opportunities await them when there are so few visible role models for them to aspire to.

This is a phenomenon I know well. When I started on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs in 1988, there were very few women in positions of power both at Goldman and in the financial industry at large. I was fortunate to have an extremely successful career at Goldman, being the first female trader and youngest woman to make partner in 1996, but as the years passed and I rose up through the ranks, I became discontented with the fact that so few women were coming up with me. I did all I could to help recruit, mentor, and guide women at the firm, and to their credit, Goldman tried to do a lot as well, but despite all of these efforts, the number of women in high ranking positions at Goldman remained stubbornly low.

If you look at the numbers, not much has changed since I left the industry in 2002. In 2013, women comprised only 29% of senior officials in finance and insurance, and of the 22 largest finance firms, that number goes down to 16.6% of senior managers. To date, there has never been a female CEO of any of the leading financial services firms worldwide, and studies have shown that women MBA holders actively opt out of careers in finance for numerous reasons, including the ones I laid out my TedxWomen talk in 2012.

Jacki Zehner and Alysia Reiner

Thankfully, the discussion surrounding how to improve these numbers continues, but in my view, it is time for a lot more than talk. In 2009, I worked in partnership with the National Council for Research on Women to create a road-map for improving gender diversity on Wall Street, and together we published a report calling for change in the finance industry. It is high time to revisit this call to action. It is time for a refresh and a second edition publication, because the statistics show that this issue remains as relevant as ever. From fixing the pipeline issue to improving working conditions for women once they’re actually in the industry, we have to do a better job to recruit and retain women in the financial sector. That being said, there’s one important area that has the potential for huge impact, but which has received very little attention to date. Thankfully, steps are being taken at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to rectify this.

People often underestimate the power of media when it comes to inspiring people with regards to career choices, despite this phenomenon being well documented. After the release of Top Gun, naval aviation recruitment increased 500%, while Twister prompted a surge in enrolment in meteorology classes in the late 1990s. Bend it Like Beckham triggered an increase in young women taking up soccer, and over 75% of today’s forensic scientist graduates are women thanks in part to the success of CSIBones, and Crossing Jordan and the large number of prominent female characters contained in these shows.

Whether people want to acknowledge it or not, movies and television have huge ramifications on society. The success of the film Sideways caused a 16% surge in sales for Pinot Noir for crying out loud. However, when it comes to depictions of Wall Street and the financial industry, it should come as no surprise that the protagonists are all men, men, and more men. And for the most part, they are not nice men. From The Wolf of Wall Street and American Psycho, to Wall Street with its creation of greed incarnate, Gordon Gekko, onscreen depictions of the financial world have very much been a man’s world. You have to go back to 1988’s Working Girl to find a Wall Street film with a women in the lead, and even then, where girl is literally in the title, Harrison Ford still gets top billing.

James Purefoy, Alysia Reiner, & Sarah Megan Thomas

It may have taken 28 years, but the next financial film starring a women is here, and just hours ago it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Equity, starring Anna Gunn as Naomi, a senior investment banker trying to get ahead in the high stakes world of corporate IPOs, is a welcome addition to the all too sparse collection of films that depict women in positions of power in the financial industry. The sophomore effort of director Meera Menon and written by Amy Fox, this film does address the issues present in its protagonist’s job simply due to her gender, but her gender is not her defining feature, yet another all too common problem with women’s depictions onscreen.

Not only was the main character female, but so were the two main supporting roles, the writer, the director, the producers, and the majority of investors! As is the tradition at the Sundance Film Festival, the whole crew came up front for a Q&A after the film, and it was #girlpower across the board. When an attendee asked male lead James Purefoy why he took the role, he responded that he was excited by the movie because Wall Street films often portray women as either hookers or housewives, but in this film they are neither. Thank goodness. It was a year ago that I met with Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas here in Park City to talk about the film, and to see them here, one year later, is truly exciting. They are fierce women who are on a mission, and mission accomplished!

Working Girl came out the year I started working on Wall Street, and when I think about what has happened in my life since 1988, I can’t believe it’s taken this long for another film like Equity to come along. Although, Anna Gunn did look strikingly like Melanie Griffith. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 28 years for the next Wall Street film with a female protagonist, but even more than that, due to its recent acquisition by Sony Pictures Classics, I hope that Equity reaches a wide audience and serves to inspire young women to consider a career in finance. You can’t be what you can’t see, and let me tell you, Gunn’s Naomi is someone who demands to be seen. One can only hope that there are more characters like her on the way.

First photo of me with Alysia post screening.  You can tell this was my 7th day of festing.  Second photo – James Purefoy, Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas.

For my #sundance happenings join me on twitter @jackizehner 

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