Wall Street veteran Sallie Krawcheck was dubbed one of “the last honest analysts” by Fortune Magazine. At the time, she was heading up independent research shop Sanford Bernstein just as Wall Street analysts’ reputations had come under fire, and was about to continue her meteoric rise, becoming the CEO of Smith Barney, CFO of Citigroup and head of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management before getting pushed out in a restructuring in 2011.
Years later, she is still the candid, direct speaker she was then, even if her subject has changed, from which stocks to buy or avoid to what women can do to improve their careers and their investment portfolios. She purchased and renamed a professional women’s group called Ellevate Network in 2013, partnered to launch an index fund that bets on women-led firms the following year, and in 2016, launched Ellevest Financial, a digital investing start-up aimed at professional women.
Now, she has written a new book, “Own It: The Power of Women at Work,” which offers career and financial advice for women grounded in tales of her own experiences. Her argument: The attributes women tend to bring to the job — relationship skills, an awareness of risk, a more collaborative, deliberative approach to decision-making — are increasingly valued, and women should showcase them, not try to be more like men. “The future is ours to seize,” she writes in her book, “but we aren’t going to seize it by contorting ourselves into the male version of what power and success look like or continuing to do exactly what we’ve done to date.”
Q: There is a growing genre around books aimed at women and their careers after (Sheryl) Sandberg’s juggernaut. What did you want to do differently?
A: I salute them all. I think they have all started a national conversation over the past few years that I’ve never been part of in my professional life. For “Own It,” what I wanted to do was give a view, a bit, of the future. By definition, what a number of these books have done is they’ve talked about how to be successful today. That has gotten us only so far. Progress in gender diversity has stalled out. In my old industry, Wall Street, shockingly — surprisingly, almost unbelievably given the financial crisis — gender diversity has gone backward.
The business world is changing rapidly, and it’s changing in a way that takes the valuable skills that women bring to work and makes them more valuable. Things like risk awareness, the ability to see things holistically, a relationship focus, the desire for meaning and purpose, the orientation toward lifelong learning. At the same time there’s the vast economic and financial power that women have. We direct 80 per cent of consumer spending. We control $5 trillion in investable assets. We’re more than half the workforce. There really is now a way to engage that power that didn’t exist before.
When I was growing up in business I had very few options if a company didn’t treat me well. I could stay with that company, or I could go without much information to another. The power we have today — we’re more able to engage it. And the benefit of all of this is we can come to work and not have to act like men, which is what a lot of the advice has been. Maybe then we won’t be so darn exhausted all the time. It’s exhausting to act like something you’re not every day of the week.
Q: You were pretty open in your introduction about what happened at Citigroup when you left. What did you learn from that experience?
A: The story you’re referring to was when I was the only senior person on Wall Street to fight to return clients’ funds. I was successful in doing so, but I lost my job over it. I went up against my boss, at the board level. If you had said to me at the time ‘were you fired because you’re a woman?’ I would have been really offended and my back would have gone up and I would have said ‘how dare you make this all about gender?’
But as I relayed in the book, it’s only after time passed and I’ve done this research around what women bring that I’ve said, ‘you know what? it’s all about the relationships for me. It was all about trying to build the best long-term business.’ I kept saying ‘we’re going to hurt the business long term,’ and the CEO kept saying ‘I don’t know about the long term, all I know is about this quarter.’
Q: Even a decade ago, high-ranking women in business didn’t like to talk about being a high-ranking woman in business. Why has that changed?
A: Gloria Steinem would tell you that women are the only group that become more radical as they age. I can tell you, in my 20s I did not think this was an issue. I looked around on Wall Street and there were plenty of women. By your 30s you go into a fugue state — you’re working so hard, you’ve got two kids at home, one of them is sick all the time. You can’t think about anything else. Then all of a sudden you hit about 45, you pop your head up and say ‘son of a gun, where did all the women go?’
I think there’s enough women in power now who are saying they recognise the research [about biases and stereotypes against women in leadership], but they’re not going to let that hold them back. I can’t speak to Sheryl’s motivation or Anne-Marie Slaughter’s motivation. But for me, quite frankly, I feel like I’ve been so fortunate that if I don’t share these experiences, shame on me. I got fired, I got re-orged out another time. I want to work to normalise this a bit. Women take failure harder than men do.
Q: You devote a chapter in the book to networking. What mistakes do you think women make?
A: Don’t do it. Let’s go back to that fugue state in your 30s. I was just talking to a woman in the office who says I’m too busy to network, and I just don’t have the time. Yet networking, as I mention in the book, has been called the number one unwritten rule of success in business. That doesn’t mean you have to go play 18 holes of golf and drink seven beers every other Saturday. It could just be you and me talking after a call and trying to help each other. There may be periods of your life where it can just be over email — connecting with people and doing favours for people.
Q: You write about diversity programs and their problems, and you mentioned how Wall Street has backslid. What aren’t they doing right?
A: I think the question is what are they doing right? T hey really haven’t even made first steps like understanding implicit gender biases. What I found when I was there was there’s a lot of ‘check-the-box’ type culture. There’s this women’s group, they put a lot of women on slates of candidates for a job. But if their heart was really in it they would have made more progress.
I found Wall Street, even before the financial crisis, was always in crisis mode. What I would hear is ‘we’d love to put a diverse person in this job, but we fell to number three in the high yield tables in the northeast, and therefore we can’t take the chance of putting in somebody new. And so they’d fill it with a person who would almost always be the mirror image of the person doing the hiring. That’s human nature.
Q: Do you see the tech industry doing anything different or is it falling into the same traps?
A: It’s harder for me to talk about because it’s not where I come from. What I would say is if you and I were to sit and name senior women on Wall Street and tech, we could name more women in tech right now. Here’s what I do see out there that has been inspiring to me: The start-up women who are [in Silicon Valley] are radically generous with each other. There is just a sense of ‘I’m going to introduce you to this venture capitalist; I’m going to introduce you to this marketing candidate.’ Frankly, that just didn’t exist when I was on Wall Street.
Q: When the issue of diversity comes up, and I’ve heard it even more in the last few months, some say there doesn’t need to be diversity of gender, there just needs to be diversity of thought. When you hear that, what do you say in response?
A: What I would say is that diversity of gender is diversity of thought. On average women tend to bring more of that relationship focus, more of the ability to see problems holistically — I could go through the list. Those trading floors on Wall Street that were populated with white men, had there been many more women, many more people of different colour, different orientations, etc, the financial crisis would have been much less severe. The research is clear that homogenous groups tend to over-trust each other and don’t tend to check each other. Therefore, homogenous markets tend to get out of whack. That’s exactly what happened in the crisis.
Q: What have you been hearing about the issue of diversity since the election?
A: More anger. When I started writing on LinkedIn, which is not an anonymous platform, and I would write something about some women’s issue, I’d hear in the comments “excellent point, Sallie” or “I would add …” It was a lot of people with their professional face on, commenting back and forth.
Read the comments today when I write about the gender pay gap or the gender investing gap and you see comments like “there is no such thing” or “you women need to stop whining; if y’all would just work as hard as men do,” and on and on and on. Now, almost every time I write I’m compelled to very quickly put in a footnote sentence and say “if we close the gender pay gap, it’s good for women, and it’s good for men.” The entire tone of the exchange has changed.
Q: A growing number of cities and states are starting to enact policy to help deal with these issues, introducing pay equity laws or banning questions about a candidate’s salary history when interviewing for a job. How helpful do you think these are? A: I don’t know that I would have come up with that one about salary histories. I think it’s fascinating. As someone who’s been in a number of management roles, you can’t help but peg off of what someone is making. If you do that, of course you’re perpetuating a gender pay gap.
To me if there was one thing we could change, the biggie would be mandated paid parental leave. To be the only developed country in the world not to have it feels like a disgrace. I’m a research analyst. This is not my opinion. There is recent research that shows that maternal leaves pay for themselves in the first year. If women are allowed to oh, you know, heal after giving birth — gosh, so selfish — and make sure their child is healthy, and bond with their child, then women return to work in greater numbers. That keeps companies from having to replace the women who quit, which can be up to 200 per cent of annual salary. It pays for itself in the first year.
Q: You’ve started Ellevest, a digital investing platform, after buying a women’s professional network. Professional women are your target customer. In what way has the political environment had an impact on the way you think about your brand?
A: Women want to take action. We’re hearing it again and again. We’re just finishing a survey of the network, and women are asking “what can I do to make things better? To help women move forward?” For some women it’s “I want the next president to be a female.” But from some women it’s not that, it’s “how can I help women get ahead in business?” There seems to be sort of an awakening, not just from the election, that we didn’t make as much progress as we thought we did. There’s a different energy among professional women right now.