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Wall Street movie 'Equity' dramatizes unequal workplace

We asked several experts for their take on the issues the film raises.

Working on Wall Street isn't just a man's game, in life or on the big screen. The new financial drama "Equity" puts female characters front and center — and women who work in the industry say many of the protagonists' career struggles are true to life.

"Equity" follows veteran investment banker Naomi (Anna Gunn) as she fights to be seen as a rainmaker at her firm, bringing a tech start-up public with the help of junior banker Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas). Problems mount ahead of the IPO, and the two become embroiled in a securities fraud investigation launched by prosecutor Samantha (Alysia Reiner). The movie premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and opened nationwide in August.

Women take the lead behind the scenes of "Equity," too, writing, directing and producing the film.


We talked to several women in business about aspects of the movie that they felt accurately portrayed some of the issues women face in the workplace, and in the finance industry in particular.

  • Dorie Clark, author of "Stand Out." She is an adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, and a speaker and consultant for clients including the World Bank and Morgan Stanley.
  • Melissa Fisher, author of "Wall Street Women." She is a visiting assistant professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University.
  • Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and co-founder of digital advisor service Ellevest. Her prior roles include president of Bank of America's global wealth and investment management division and chief executive of Citigroup's personal wealth management division.
  • Lindsey Smith*, a mergers and acquisitions specialist with one of the Big Four accounting firms. (*Not her real name. She asked that her name be withheld to avoid running afoul of the compliance department.)

Anna Gunn stars in Equity.
Source: SonyClassics
Anna Gunn stars in Equity.

One of the compelling things about the movie, Fisher said, was that many of its plot points relating to career advancement and the glass ceiling are realistic — with the result that there wasn't a happy ending for many of the characters.

"It speaks to workplace issues that have been going on for a long time," she said.

For Smith, watching the movie generated one example after another of situations she's found herself in over the years, from inappropriately flirtatious clients to put-downs from the boss about her "confident" behavior.

"I thought it was extremely accurate in terms of what was portrayed about the challenges that we women face at work," she said.


Assertive, or aggressive?

Some of the recurring themes:

Throughout "Equity," protagonist Naomi has to walk a fine line: Acting as confidently as her male colleagues generates reprimands from her (male) boss that she's rubbing people the wrong way; holding back makes her seem like she's failing to compete. He makes clear that others' perception of her behavior is what ultimately loses her an expected promotion.

"[Naomi's] boss keeps saying it's not her year," Fisher said. "That's not unusual, being blocked by a male boss."

Women make up 43 percent of the financial services industry, but only 20 percent of senior roles and 9 percent of CEOs, according to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum. Many are stuck in midlevel roles.

And old habits die hard. In a recent Pew report, 56 percent of men say that the obstacles that make it harder for women to get ahead are largely gone, compared with 34 percent of women who think so.

Krawcheck said she came to the realization that to have her opinion count, she — unlike her male colleagues — had to come armed with research and numbers.

"I worked for years to figure out how I could speak so I could be heard, and I never thought of it as a gender issue," she said. "But as time goes by, I realize it actually was."


Anna Gunn stars in Equity.
Source: SonyClassics
Anna Gunn stars in Equity.



Pregnancy

Story lines in "Equity" around starting a family — childless Naomi has ostensibly picked her career over relationships, Erin is trying to hide her early pregnancy symptoms and Samantha struggles with remaining in a job she's passionate about or pursuing one that offers better pay to support her family — resonated with the women we talked to.

Despite regulations against pregnancy discrimination, the idea of a "motherhood penalty" hurting career prospects is still a significant concern, said Clark. There's no great consensus on whether it's something you should disclose in the process of applying for a new job, she said, or when to disclose your pregnancy in the workplace.

"Particularly in high-octane, cutthroat environments, there's clearly a strategic disadvantage if you're off for three months and everyone else is working on the big deal," Clark said.

Smith, who has a young son, said she — like "Equity" character Erin — hid her pregnancy for as long as she could. She feared not making her numbers and having bosses and colleagues cut her out of deals, and says that's exactly what happened as soon as she began to show.

"Six months before the baby came, I knew there were huge deals happening," Smith said. "I told them I wanted a piece of that. They looked at my belly, and said 'Well, when are you due?' They said they didn't want to have to replace people [working on the deal], but replacements happen all the time."