Between Patricia Arquette’s rousing 2015 Oscar acceptance speech and the Sony hacking scandal, which revealed that Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars, Hollywood’s perceived gender problem has become a political lightning rod, with actresses, producers, and directors decrying an industry where women still play second fiddle to men.
Last year, The New York Times ran a magazine cover story about sexism in Hollywood with personal anecdotes and troubling statistics: In 2013 and 2014, for example, only 1.9 percent of directors in the 100 top-grossing movies were women. Even the feds are investigating gender discrimination in the industry.
Hollywood’s Kathleen Kennedys and Kathryn Bigelows are anomalies. Talking about the issue raises awareness, but how do you actually change the narrative?
One way is to rewrite it yourself.
That’s what Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner did when conceiving Equity, a thriller about female executives on Wall Street that is released this Friday. It’s arguably the first movie since Working Girl (1988) to feature a woman on the rise in the notoriously male arena of finance.
The women in Equity, by contrast, are hotshot investment bankers who command boardrooms and land deals. They’re professionally ambitious and they “like money,” as Equity’s protagonist, Naomi Bishop, declares early in the film.
“I am so glad that it’s finally acceptable for women to sit and talk about ambition openly,” Bishop, played by Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad, says while speaking at her alma mater. “But don’t let money be a dirty word. We can like that, too.”
Thomas and Reiner, both producers and co-stars in Equity, sought out some two dozen powerful Wall Street women—past and present—to finance the film and provide much of its material: stories about the challenges of being a woman in an alpha male industry.
Working with Thomas and Reiner, screenwriter Amy Fox and director Meera Menon rounded out the film’s all-female creative team.
Equity follows Bishop (Gunn), a top-tier investment banker in her 40s, as she woos a tech firm to secure their big IPO, keeping her eye on the prize despite sexist slights at every turn. She also has to contend with self-doubt on the heels of a recently botched deal.
Bishop knows she’s talented and focused enough to get it right this time around, but her gender works to her disadvantage in the predictable ways we hear about it working against other women in the workplace.
Early in the film, when she approaches her male boss about a promotion, he dismisses her: “This doesn’t look like it’s going to be your year. The perception is that you rubbed some people the wrong way.”
It’s the kind of remark that Barbara Byrne, a vice chairwoman of banking at Barclays who rose to prominence as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers in the 1980s, still deals with as an industry veteran.
“We’ve all had that experience of being a person who is rubbing someone the wrong way,” said Byrne, a co-producer of Equity, during a panel discussion after a screening this week. “Just a few weeks ago, I was told after a meeting that I’d been overbearing,” she continued. “I said, ‘Is that because I had an opinion or because I was correct?’”
The audience laughed at this shrewd retort.
“We use humor to diffuse the situation,” Byrne said, “but it’s not really funny when [those comments] are ‘otherising’ you. I’m turning 62 next month and am vintage in this industry. I would have never thought when I started in 1980 that we would still be having this conversation today.”
Sallie Krawcheck, another Wall Street vet who consulted on the film and has held top jobs at Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and Bank of America, spoke about the likability factor for high-powered women and female bosses, particularly in male-centric industries.
She cited Hillary Clinton’s likability issues, along with research that found likability and success were positively correlated in men, but inversely correlated in women.
“It’s funny how unlikable I was when I was running Merrill Lynch but how likable I was after I was fired,” Krawcheck said during the panel discussion.
Marissa Mayer, once the darling of the media when she started out at Yahoo in 2012, echoed Byrne and Krawcheck in a post-mortem interview with the Financial Times, having agreed to sell Yahoo to Verizon for $4.8 billion on Monday.
“We all see the things that only plague women leaders, like articles that focus on their appearance, like Hillary Clinton sporting a new pantsuit,” Mayer said. “I think all women are aware of that, but I had hoped in 2015 and 2016 that I would see fewer articles like that. It’s a shame.”
Equity broaches the career-and-motherhood balancing act with Bishop’s younger protégé, an opportunistic vice president named Erin Manning (played by Thomas). She successfully conceals her pregnancy from everyone but Bishop, who denies her a promotion before she discovers that Manning is knocked up.
Their mentor-mentee relationship becomes increasingly strained from that moment: Manning suspects being pregnant makes her even less likely to get the promotion. Her husband is beaming by her side during her first ultrasound, but she’s so singularly focused on climbing the corporate ladder that she scrambles for her buzzing iPhone.
In one darkly comic scene, Manning sighs while reading “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” on her phone in a town car, moments after the tech CEO makes an aggressive pass at her. Has she been “handling him gently,” as Bishop advised, or leading him on? Either way, he makes it clear that he never respected her for her work: He could have met with Bishop “if I wanted to talk business,” he tells her.
The fantasy of “having it all” may be elusive for most women, but Byrne said being a successful banker enabled her to have four children. “It is a very high-paying profession, even if you weren’t paid as much as the guys because they thought you might leave at any moment,” she told the panel audience.
Regarding harassment and gender discrimination on Wall Street, Krawcheck is “hopeful” that certain behaviors are less acceptable now than when she started her career in 1987. She recalled being in her early 20s and turning around in a meeting to see a male colleague miming a sex act behind her.
Looking back on her career and the gender biases female Wall Streeters have endured, Krawcheck acknowledged these are “first world problems.”
She’s suffered career setbacks, just as Bishop does in the film, but she’s never been at risk of going hungry. She, too, likes making money—for herself and for others. “We’re pretty fortunate to be able to make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.
Krawcheck has made it her mission to help close what she calls the “gender investing gap” with Ellevest, a female-focused digital investing platform that she launched in May, having raised $10 million from blue-chip investors like MasterCard CEO Ajay Bangaand and former PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian.
“We talk a lot about the gender pay gap in this industry, but the gender investing gap can cost women [in finance] even more,” she said, referring to the fact that men are more likely to invest their money than women are. “If we think of our retiring savings crisis as a woman’s crisis, the fact that this industry isn’t helping to solve that problem in a growth fashion matters to us beyond the fact that women should have equal opportunities.”
Despite what Bernie Sanders would like you to believe, Wall Street isn’t all greed and corruption. It drives the economy, of course, and investment banking allows people to grow their own assets.
Equity provides no tidy, happy endings—which makes it more realistic. For a film about the challenges of being a high-flying woman in Wall Street’s boys’ club, it deftly avoids clichés and melodrama. Sexism in Equity is pervasive but subtle: The men demean women, but they don’t mime sex acts in the boardroom. There’s plenty of backstabbing, corruption, and personal failure in Equity, but there’s also integrity in Bishop’s character.
“You don’t see any films about women on Wall Street, let alone films about women on Wall Street with honorable characters,” Krawcheck said later, speaking to The Daily Beast on the phone. “This is a pretty important film from that perspective.”
Byrne also expressed a sense of optimism about women advancing not just on Wall Street but all over the professional world.
“Things are changing,” she said, noting that many of the most elitist schools in the country—Harvard and Princeton, for example—have had female presidents in recent years. And while a woman has yet to be CEO of a major investment bank, she’s more likely to fill that leadership role now than ever before.
“Our last bastions are Wall Street and Hollywood,” Byrne said. “The importance of this movie isn’t just the story that’s being told, it’s the fact that as an investor, we’ve made it possible for women to tell the story, for women to direct the story, write the story, conceive the story, act the story. It has that tone. To me, that is really the gem of what we’re doing here.”