Women and the Wall Street Culture

Following the financial meltdown, I’ve had many occasions to reflect on the research Julie Johnson and I have been doing on differences in how men and women perceive, define and pursue satisfaction in their work, how they are motivated and where they find meaning. Both our interviews and our quantitative research suggest that insights gained from our study can help us understand what has happened and help lead us out of the present mess.

I was reminded of this yesterday when, following the uproar over the bonuses paid out at Merrill Lynch in the waning days of 2008, I read a piece in the New York Times written by a former Merrill banker about the culture of the bonus on Wall Street. One of his observations caught my attention: that the people he worked with felt gigantic bonuses were required because they “justified the days on end of working into the wee hours, the months on end without a single day off, the never-ending ‘fire drills’ — when a client wanted something and wanted it now, whether it was 7 p.m. or 7 a.m. — that kept the stress and adrenaline levels high.” The writer also noted that, no matter how outsized the bonus, it was perceived as satisfying only if it was bigger than what was being handed out to everyone else.

This struck me for two reasons. First, our research suggests that the high adrenaline levels he referred to have a different impact on women than on men. Neuroscientists find that women are more likely to experience excessive adrenal stimulation as highly stressful rather than motivating. Men are more difficult to motivate—their motivation point is set lower and they are more prone to distraction—so a flood of cortisol really gets them going. Women are more easily motivated, less in need to adrenal stimulation, and more likely to be pushed by cortisol into overload.

Neuroscientists also find that women’s neural networks receive more positive stimulation from social interaction than from the prospect of monetary rewards. This data is supported by our own study, which indicates that women place a high value on affiliation and connection in the workplace and a lower value on material rewards than men in similar sectors and at similar levels. Women in our study reported that achievement was important to them, but were less likely to see it in the context of competition, whereas men associates status with winning out over others.

What does all this have to do with the meltdown on Wall Street or culture of bonuses? I would suggest quite a lot. The distinguishing aspects of pre-bust Wall Street have been an habitual reliance on adrenal stimulation to motivate people; an assumption that extremely high financial rewards can compensate the most talented individuals for a daily existence based on unremitting stress; and a belief that compensation had to be based on competitive measures. Julie had in fact seen evidence of this last characteristic in her work with financial services executives. One company she observed used to hand out bonuses of, say, $1,000,001—the $1 being the signifier that confirmed the superior status of whomever received over coworkers who received a mere $1 million.

Our research suggests that the Wall Street culture that led us into the meltdown was in part the result of male values and measures of satisfaction run wild. It’s no wonder that women Julie and I interviewed who had left Wall Street before the debacle said they had done so because “it wasn’t worth it.” They didn’t need the adrenaline and didn’t find the money an adequate compensation for the stress.

The giant bonus culture today lies in ruins, which means that Wall Street is going to have to find new ways of motivating their people. Simply throwing enormous sums of money at employees—an outmoded tactic in the age of bailouts¬¬—will no longer work. As a result, companies will be less able to “justify” the kind of inhuman work hours to which the former banker writing in the Times referred. The nature of the people who work there will begin to change as the implicit terms of their employment contract adjust to meet the demands of a different world. The notion of working 80 hour weeks (and what, in the end, did those 80 hour weeks achieve?) will no longer considered acceptable. In reforming the out-of-whack culture that led to wildly exaggerated results, what remains of Wall Street would do well to look to women, and to the values they bring to the world of work.