Jamie Fiore Higgins didn’t leave her job at Goldman Sachs planning to reveal the most personal, demeaning and, at times, outright scary moments from her 18 years at the investment bank.
But after resigning in 2016, having risen through the ranks to become a managing director — the second-highest role behind partner — conversations with people from outside of that world made her realize how shocking some of the things she’d experienced were.
And so in the book “Bully Market: My Story of Money and Misogyny at Goldman Sachs,” published last summer, she chronicled them.
Some anecdotes, from her early days in the late 1990s but also later, were sexist comments and inappropriate actions she characterizes as the “white noise of Wall Street.” She says a colleague created a spreadsheet ranking the body parts of female recruits. She recalls being told she had only been promoted “because of [her] vagina,” and a series of junior male colleagues making clear they would not respect her authority.
She also says she witnessed sex and drug-taking in the office, and work socials being held in strip clubs (she notes at the start of the book that some of the people featured in it, who are all given pseudonyms, are composites of various people she knew and the timing of some events has been compressed).
A Goldman Sachs spokesperson said the company “strongly disagrees” with the characterization of its culture described in the book, and what it called “anonymized allegations.”
“Had Ms. Higgins raised these allegations with our Human Resources department at the time we would have investigated them thoroughly and addressed them seriously,” the spokesperson told CNBC. CNBC could not independently verify any of the accounts made in the book.
Fiore Higgins also says that, despite the company offering rooms for breastfeeding, she was once told that using them would hold back her career. And that when she did use them after having a child, colleagues made “mooing” noises at her, performed crude gestures, and left a stuffed cow on her desk.
In another story, she recounts removing a colleague (who was having an affair with his client) from an account. She says he responded by pinning her against a wall and shouting into her face, spraying her with spit as he threatened her.
“I received hundreds and hundreds of messages from people, even now six months out, every day I get one or two saying thank you for telling this story, there’s so much of what you have experienced that resonates with me,” she told CNBC.
Fiore Higgins is also up front about the fact that she was there for so many years, in a senior role reached by far fewer women than men, writing that she was “tolerating and perpetuating harassment and abuse” and being “complicit in a broken system.”
“For those 18 years, I cared more about Goldman Sachs than I did my husband, my kids, my parents,” she told CNBC.
Staying for so long despite being pushed near breaking point multiple times came down to a variety of factors, she said. Contributing to her working-class family’s finances, and making her immigrant parents, who had faced their own struggles and placed pressure on her to succeed, proud.
In the book, when she first tells them about her six-figure salary in their New Jersey living room, her grandma drops her knitting needles in shock. Within a few years Fiore Higgins is on a million-dollar salary (though this, she says, was just one dollar more than a man working below her was earning at the time).
On top of that was the dangling carrot of a mammoth bonus, common across the financial industry.
Then there was the fear of recrimination; the normalization in the office of things that would appal an outsider; and addiction to the prestige of being “Jamie from Goldman.”
“What I realized that Goldman was so good at was really making you feel you were nothing without them, nothing without their name, nothing without their money,” she said.
Going against the family
A big part of what eventually pushed her to leave, using her meticulously-compiled “spreadsheet of freedom,” was when she claims she did report an incident. She reported to HR a colleague she had witnessed racially and homophobically abusing a bartender.
“Months later my review tanks,” she told CNBC. “I knew that they were going to make me pay for speaking out of turn, going against the family.”
A Goldman Sachs spokesperson told CNBC it has a zero tolerance policy for both discrimination and recriminations against employees for reporting incidents, and that any HR report is investigated thoroughly.
Fiore Higgins’ account represents one person’s experiences over a set period of time. But she notes others have spoken up; it is just that it remains rare, and “taboo,” in her words, to go into such detail.
Last November, it was reported that Goldman Sachs had paid more than $12 million to a former female partner to settle claims of senior executives creating a hostile environment for women. Top Goldman lawyer Kathy Ruemmler said in a statement to CNBC at the time that the firm disputed the original Bloomberg article.
The bank is also embroiled in a long-running class action lawsuit with around 1,800 plaintiffs alleging the bank paid women less than men and their performance reviews were held back. It is due to go to trial in June. Goldman has denied any wrongdoing.
Eyes wide open
Amid the #MeToo movement, wider societal forces and efforts from some senior managers, companies around the world have been making efforts, at least on paper, to promote diversity.
In Fiore Higgins’ view, things have improved in some areas, and there is a genuine desire among the C-suite to prevent systemic and casual discrimination. But institutions like Goldman could still apply the full force of their analytical and metric-setting skills to boost the number of women making it to partner level, she said, and create the kind of inclusive environment studies have shown can boost a company’s bottom line.
She’s also conscious of the importance of sending a message to some of her readers, including finding a trusted advisor well removed from the company.
“I’ve had the opportunity to talk at a couple of universities. I’ve spoken to people who were like, ‘I got a job offer, I read your book, I’m afraid to go’,” she said.
“It’s like, no, that’s not the answer. When I first started working at Goldman … their marketing thing was Minds Wide Open. I was lapping it up — and it was just a marketing pitch. It wasn’t what I saw in the lived experience.”
“So I say to these students that I’ve been talking to, men and women, you want to go in with your eyes wide open, you want to be very clear of what is possible. Be prepared with language around it, know how to respond and react when these things happen.”