Linda Davies was a 'killer banker.' She did deals, lived high and low
on adrenalin and earned a small fortune. It was glamorous and thrilling,
but it was still a man's world - and one she finally rejected. This is
the story of her seven years in Chauvinism City.
Now I look back, it was oddly appropriate. I was dressed as if for a funeral,
the gold buttons on my suit the only light in a sea of black. It was my
first day at work as a merchant banker in the City of London. My mood
was sombre, too, as I swayed to work on the Tube. I peered round my Financial
Times at glum faces in pinstripes. I had been to the City, half a dozen
times for interviews, but the mystique still lingered and I was apprehensive.
I was about to infiltrate a man's world of suits and clubs. Cynical detachment
was to be my handicapand saving grace. It brought me conflict, but it
also kept me sane. Eventually it allowed me to break free. I entered the
Square Mile in 1985 and left it seven years later. Having achieved the
glittering prize of a City career, I found that it was more of a gilded
trap. Ultimately, the money and the dubious glamour were not sufficient
compensation for the ruthless environment and harsh work routine.
A surprisingly large number of my female contemporaries, many just a fingernail
away from the upper echelons, have dropped out for similar reasons. They
now work in less lucrative, less prestigious, but more civilised jobs.
Back in the boom time of ambition and hope, that was unthinkable.
My first employer was an American bank, housed in a tower of rose marble
and glass. The interior, by contrast, was starkly functional. The territorial
hierarchy of my department, corporate finance, was simple: proximity to
the windows meant seniority. The secretaries were clustered in the shadows,
separated from the executives by a walkway that was more of a gulf. On
one side sat men, on the other women. I looked around for sisterly solidarity
and found none. Two men in the department came up and told me, only half
joking, that I was an experiment, they had never before employed a woman
in corporate finance in London, and did I mind if they studied me? Others
scrutinised me, perplexed I had changed from a student into the prevailing
image of City woman. My long : blonde hair had been cut aggressively short,
and I wore the standard power-dowdy uniform which at the time bore a striking
similarity to that of Lady Thatcher: padded shoulders, dark suits, long
skirts and patent leather shoes.
Physical role models were easily emulated from television, newspapers
and the Tube, but I had no appropriate 5 behavioural role model. I was
not sure what my universe of men expected of me, but then neither were
they. I worked hard, kept quiet and hid behind my "killer banker"
image. For a while I felt pleased with my adaptability.
The benefits swiftly became evident. A few days after my arrival I was
added to a team which advised an important American client who was coming
to London to discuss a possible takeover bid. Four days of feverish activity
preceded the meeting. I lived on coffee, Silk Cut and takeaway pizzas,
locked in a conference room with a charismatic boss to impress the client,
and two highly trained financial whizkids (known in the trade as "rocket
scientists';) who launched a series of complex computer-based proposals.
I was general dogsbody.
We worked l7-hour days. The day before the meeting, we all crawled home
at midnight exhausted. On the day of the meeting disaster struck. Both
rocket scientists had rung in sick. My worried-looking boss convinced
me that I would be fine - the client was paying good money for my bank's
financial advice and so good advice is what he would get. I was to be
the trouble-shooter. In four long days I had picked up the basics and
learnt the jargon. I would manage: I had no choice.
night I went home sick with stress and exhaustion but satisfied I had
learned a good deal about technical issues but, just as importantly, I
discovered that style carries a high premium in the City; it doesn't always
matter what you say as long as you deliver it with supreme confidence.
I had also gained a measure of credibility -a challenge has been thrown
at me, and I had carried it off. My reward was that I kept the client.
Three months later I had to go to New York for my formal technical training
with the bank. Arriving in New York was like stepping into a wonderful
hell, of which the programme's midtown offices were a kind of boiler house.
I was given a red carpet welcome. A few nights at a fivestar hotel, a
daily dollar allowance on which I could live quite well (on top of my
salary back home), and six months' rent-free accommodation. I lived in
a studio apartment on West 85th, just off Central Park, but soon discovered
that there would be little opportunity to enjoy it. There were 35 trainees
from across America, of whom almost 40%, encouragingly, were women, and
two other Europeans, both female, from the Milan and Frankfurt offices.
They sashayed into the spartan training centre in a glorious rebellion
of colour and style against the tailored grey of the Americans. Their
fashion revolt was swiftly put down. The training programme was a war
of attrition, and had I known what was coming I would probably have caught
the first plane back to London: 36-hour working stints, exams every fortnight
(fail one and you're fired), the removal of all individual characteristics
and the pasting-on of a veneer of high seriousness. I was to learn from
the training programme not just the mechanics of corporate finance, but
how to look, act and survive in the financial world The Americans, familiar
with the required image, sailed through this part, but we all took a battering
with the mind-games.
Ultimately a usefultool for the City armoury, these were agonising exercises
designed almost to break our spirit and remould us as committed banker
clones, motivated by fear. First, we were given four days' work to complete
in two. As daytimes were spent attending lectures about finance, only
nights remained in which to complete the projects. I studied all day,
worked all night, and after 36 hours I slept. Then, still weary, I was
assailed by mind-game two, calculated to shake confidence and elicit the
highest standards of work. This was achieved by the deliberately irregular
marking of assignments. One week I would turn in a good piece of work,
the next week another, equally good. The first assignment would secure
ah A grade, the second a C. Two Cs in a row and I would have been fired.
I came to realise that all I could do was give my best and if, like a
quarter of trainees, I was put on the next plane home, at least I had
At first the constant threat of dismissal induced an ulcerous apprehension.
This was replaced by a grim determination not to let it happen, but for
others it was quick and heartless. A trainee who had become a close friend
appeared at my desk one afternoon in tears. She had been told to clear
her apartment and catch the l0pm plane home to Montreal. Although intellectually
up to scratch, she had failed an exam on an off day. She was out, her
pleas for clemency ignored. The pressure polarised the trainees. Some
knuckled and remould us as committed banker clones, motivated by fear.
The pressure polarised the trainees. Some knuckled down and became ultra-committed,
others became closet rebels. The committed were wiser, knowing that, however
tempting, it is better not to bite the hand that feeds you. I became an
Rebellion chiefly took the form of having fun. While the bank went to
great lengths to house us lavishly and pay us generously, it clearly didn't
expect us to enjoy ourselves. Sedition was sweet: weekends in the Caribbean
or Vermont, shopping in Bergdorf Goodman, dinner at the Russian Tea Rooms,
and after exams the ritual progression through all the best bars on the
Upper West Side.
I survived and gained confidence. I was extravagantly rewarded, while
the unsuccessful were banished with no references and no payoff - yet
the margin between success and failure was so fine it seemed almost arbitrary.
My introduction to the brutality of the merchant banking world. forged
feelings of panic, despair and exhausted resignation. It also shattered
illusions, leaving me prepared to deal with the reality.
I returned to London ambitious and committed. Business was booming
and I worked regularly from 9am till 10 or 11pm, and one weekend in two.
In my first year I rook two days' holiday. Even in slack periods, convention
kept me glued to my desk. It did not look good to leave before 7pm. The
men would occasionally sneak out early, leaving their jackets hanging
on their seats to suggest they were still there. But more often they stayed,
and it became a competition to see who was there the latest. So much time
was wasted doing nothing or filling the day with pointless meetings, testing
the hierarchy and marking out territory. After four years I began to find
the long working hours, swelled by artifice, intolerable.
Ready for a new challenge, I went to work for a British merchant bank.
Instead of liberation I found an environment deeply inhospitable to women.
Although the proportion of female employees - around 30% - was high compared
with most banks, the roles they played out were profoundly depressing.
They dressed down, toned themselves down and were very often worn down.
Most, despite considerable experience, were concentrated in the more junior
positions, where they were worked like slaves. Days that finished at 5am
were not uncommon. Employees were expected to do their work quietly, know
their place and stay there until plucked from above. This reduced the
infighting but constrained all independence. In meetings you were not
supposed to question the opinion of your superiors, even if it was dangerously
flawed. My training in New York encouraged me to do just the opposite.
My little challenges to the system went very much against the flow. The
pressure to conform is considerable. The men, more familiar and at home
in the City, are generally less questioning than the women. There is a
danger that they can become complacent about ethics and legality. Some
seem to believe that, as if by osmosis, their dubious actions will be
sanitised by the reputation of their employers.
One winter morning I found myself in a hallowed meeting room in the City,
sitting around a highly polished table with 18 men. One of those present,
a senior City figure, suggested a course of action which was blatant insider
trading: offloading shares on to the market knowing that information which
would lead to a fall in their price would be released shortly. I waited.
Nobody spoke. Finally I piped up: "We can't do that. We're insiders.'
Awkward silence. Eighteen pairs of eyes bore into me. The senior figure
who had suggested the scam smiled at me. "You're right. We are insiders.'
The proposition was dropped
The conformism required in my merchant bank was not merely behavioural.
It extended to physical appearance. Women were supposed to dress in a
conservative manner. One spectacular but sadly rare sartorial rebel refused
to dress down, or take orders quietly. Each day she sauntered into work
in a different designer outfit. Short skirts were in vogue; she exposed
yards of suspendered leg to a gasping audience. Why should she spend her
money on severe, depressing clothes, she argued? She worked at least until
8pm, there was no time to go home and change, and she was damned if she
was going out on the town looking like a dowdy banker. She had a point
but the directors failed to appreciate it; one was dispatched, red-faced,
to tell her that her clothes were distracting. Furious, she toned down
her dress but not her bolshie manner. Some time later she made a mistake
on a deal (one that was by no means unique to her, or ultimately that
serious) and was fired.
I could tolerate the dressing down but not the hierarchy and the silent,
often mindless collusion it imposed. I decided to stick it out for a year
and then review my situation. And when the year was up I still held out
hope for the City, so I moved to a flamboyant Swiss-American bank. My
new job paid me more than £100,000; in six years my salary had increased
My new employer, nicknamed "the Nest of Vipers", was rightly
regarded as one of the most ruthless of all the City banks. In place of
the stifling paternalism of the British bank, its Swiss-American equivalent
was a paradigm of rampant individualism. It was harsh and inhospitable
but also thrilling.
I was responsible for finding venture capital investments in Eastern Europe,
and travelled widely around Poland and Czechoslovakia, with odd sorties
into Hungary. This was a search full of bizarre episodes and adventure.
It was the raw edge of banking, as liberated communists adopted extreme
capitalist mores overnight. Their attitude was refreshing. Capitalism,
for them, had no sex. I had money and they wanted it, badly. I could be
both a woman and a banker.
But to see the fruits of my work in Eastern Europe would have meant spending
another three years in the same job. This I was not prepared to do. The
lifestyle, though exciting, was draining, and I had little time for a
private life. Not for the first time I contemplated leaving the City,
but I wanted one final fling. I asked for the chance to work on the trading
floor of the same bank, selling bonds to UK insurance companies and pension
funds. After nine months, however, I was nearly screaming to escape.
obsessive pursuit of money was boiled down to vicious concentration on
the trading floor. It was a bleak 30,000 sq ft battery-farm landscape
of grey desks and car- pets lit by artificial light and the sickly green
pall of the trading screens, and enlivened by the shouts, screams and
stomping of the traders. The atmosphere was so aggressively macho that
you could practically feel the testosterone pumping around. This was the
land of the "Big Swinging Dick", the self-congratulatory men
immortalised by Wall Street legend. The lexicon is overwhelmingly male
and sexual: when I started as a salesperson I was told by my new boss
that he wanted me "on the floor immediately" so he could start
"beating up on me". Clients are "stuffed" and "screwed",
a good deal is "the dog's bollocks".
Traders are the kings of the floor, the risk-takers and "income generators",
and are almost exclusively male. The few professional women are in the
subordinate position of sales staff. Traders make more money than salesmen,
so they are more powerful, but their influence is seldom benign. Every
so often a trader will find himself in a "dud position", having
bought bonds for more than they were worth. He can then do one of three
things: sell them at a loss to other traders; try to raise the market
price by buying more bonds to create a false impression of demand, then
sell; or get a salesman to do his dirty work for him. He generally prefers
option three. Leaping up from his chair, he will berate his salesmen for
being useless. "You're all a bunch of lightweights! Bastards the
lot of you:' he will yell, just to soften us up. The pressure to sell
the bonds for him will be immense. A female colleague once quailed when
instructed to "stuff" one of her clients with a trader's over-priced
bonds. A member of senior management warned her to remember who was paying
I learned that my bank had a reputation for employing only attractive
women when I attended a drinks party given by one of my clients. I was
nonplussed when a complete stranger walked up to me and guessed where
I worked. "It's easy:' he said. "You are tall, thin, attractive
and fashionably dressed." It seemed that my chairman was noted for
employing "trophy executives". Several of my female colleagues
were ex-models, all dressed immaculately in Armani, Montana and Ralph
This was a relatively benign form of sexism, but it gave rise to a more
sinister dilemma: you were a trophy executive and therefore a potential
sex object, or frigid. There was precious little ground in between. One
of the few who escaped this stereotyping was a charming, fresh-faced woman
in her early thirties, married with a young child. She earned close to
$lm a year. The combination of professional and personal status insulated
her: she was treated with a certain grudging respect. But she was a dazzling
exception. Most women had to deal with anything from being ignored professionally
to harassed physically. In my first job there was one old stalwart who
wouldn't speak to m~ for 10 months. He believed that women were a distraction
and bitterly opposed my appointment. My contribution to various deals
eventually wore him down, but I had been presumed guilty until proven
You have to rise very high in any bank hierarchy before your record speaks
entirely for itself, and the few women who succeed often have to deal
with the rotten fruits of envy - the perception that they have slept or
sacrificed their way to the top, had too much sex or not enough. The most
successful woman on our trading floor started work at 6am, chain-smoked
all day, and left at 8pm. She worked harder than any of the men, forcing
them to acknowledge her efforts. She smashed her way through the glass
ceiling, but her triumph was expensive and incomplete. Instead of being
accepted, she was derided for losing her femininity and for sacrificing
her private life. She made more than £250,000 a year, but I don't
think she had much fun spending it, and it was, anyway, a poor bargain.
Any man who worked her antisocial hours and brought in as much business
as she did would almost certainly have been even more richly rewarded
The City violates femininity directly and insidiously. Being female is
no justification for being kind, gentle or tolerant. In a climate of unremitting
one-upmanship such qualities invite exploitation. There is a relentless
battle to steal business and to humiliate colleagues. The best defence
is aggression, but the sobriquet then is "hard bitch".
Success and longevity are often acquired at the cost of femininity. Many
complain that the money and status of a City career intimidate potential
partners. Dr Linda McDowell of Newnham College, Cambridge, who inter-
viewed women at more than 400 banks in the City for a recent report on
the sexes in investment banking, found it a depressing experience: "Many
of these women, earning oodles and oodles of money, were unhappy. They
complained that they had no private life because people were afraid to
ask them out:'
Wanting to be treated both as a banker and as a woman is not a question
of wanting to have your cake and eat it. There is, after all, no conflict
between the sex and occupation of male bankers, but that is because they
make the rules. An analysis of 10 major banks (British, Japanese, American,
Swiss and German) reveals that the City is still dominated overwhelmingly
by men: at the beginning of this year an average of only 8% of traders
and 18% of sales staff were women.
percentages need not translate into sexism but they may make the outcome
of the battle against it a fore- gone conclusion. In New York, allegations
of sexism and harassment are taken seriously and women are accepted automatically
as legitimate colleagues, making an environment more hospitable than in
London. Linda McDowell says: "It is one thing to recruit women into
a potentially hig4-st~tus career, another to create the conditions under
which they are encouraged to succeed"
In other words a woman who "makes it" into the City enters a
world where male norms dominate. To survive professionally, she has very
little choice but to adopt existing values, however superficially.
I found one effective way of relieving the stress and pressures of my
job: spending money. My Swiss-American employer was located dangerously
close to Bond Street, and so a bad morning was often eased away in lunchtime
sorties to expensive shoemakers or designer boutiques. Many of my female
colleagues, both to conform to the required image and for the pleasure
of flexing their credit cards, spent a substantial proportion of their
generous incomes on clothes, acquiring a wardrobe of Chanel or Montana
The temptation to spend is a cultural and psychological by-product of
the City. Women fall victim to the spending vanities but they tend to
be more conservative financially than men. Really conspicuous consumption
is more of a male preserve.
One trader in his mid-thirties, who made over $20m for his firm last year
and took home in the region of $2m himself, eats almost exclusively at
Harry's Bar, Mark's Club and Aru1abel's. Instead of drinking wid1 the
boys at lunchtime, he pumps iron at the Bath & Racquets Club in Mayfair.
At weekends he leaves a paper trail of high-denomination notes around
the ritzier European capitals: Milan to see his tailor, Paris to visit
a girlfriend, Madrid to check out a new nightclub designed by Philippe
Starck. For longer trips, he might fly to Miami, charter a yacht and speed-
boat, and a chauffeur-driven limousine for his sorties on to dry land.
Back at the office, Monday morning conversation becomes a contest over
who had the most expensive weekend. He wins invariably. Once, hearing
that a colleague had moved to a rival bank for a three-year package of
£lm a year, he sneeringly derided it as "holiday money".
Even allowing for the inevitable exaggeration, his spending makes most
of his colleagues look like paupers. (The stratospheric salaries are not
without risk. After six months at the rival bank, the £lm-a-year
man was fired. He was, apparently, not worth his seven figures.)
In an environment which revolves around risk, looking the part and knowing
how to inspire confidence in others is critical. In spite of the recession,
those skilled at inspiring confidence and not much else can still rake
in half-million-dollar packages as long as someone, somewhere is making
money. Inspiring confidence requires the trappings of success - after
all, if you can't make a mint yourself, then how can you do it for anybody
One female friend thought her City husband was a "big hitter"
until she filed for divorce. Then lawyers informed her that the Ferrari
and the Knightsbridge flat belonged to the bank. She thought that her
husband earned at least £250,000 a year. In fact he earned less
than a third of that and spent it all, and more, on convincing others
that he was a success.
If it is easy both to make and spend money, losing it can be almost intolerable.
In the rarefied atmosphere of a trading floor, with its brittle tensions,
adrenalin surges and swinging emotions, triumphs and humiliations played
out publicly before a jealous audience can have a profound effect on the
personality. Make a million in a day and you believe that you are omnipotent.
The risk then is that you become over-confident and tempt fate, to be
rewarded by a swift reckoning. Familiarity with the peaks and troughs
usually produces a brave face and a shrug when a fortune goes down the
tubes: "It's only money." The bravado is seldom genuine.
The day before Gorbachev was deposed, a trader told me that he was sitting
on profits of £3m on his "book" - his holdings of bonds.
At 3am my telephone rang. It was the Tokyo office of my bank telling me
that Gorbachev had gone and the markets were in turmoil. I was a salesman.
With no book, luckily, all I could do was watch the spectacle. I pitied
my trader friend. The next morning he confessed, in bleak despair, that
his £3m profit had become a £4m loss. My male colleagues delighted
in his misfortune. Schadenfreude is endemic on a trading floor.
My losses on the few mucked-up trades that bedevil every salesman were
paltry in comparison but when they happened I was wracked by a feeling
of sickness. Losing money is a visible and attributable failure - there
is simply no acceptable excuse. Even making money left me, at times, ambivalent.
Once I made a profit of £75.000 in five minutes. I should have been
euphoric but instead was guilty and annoyed; my profit had been made in
large part, at someone else's expense and, infuriatingly, a stupid error
made in the excitement had lost me a potential additional profit of £20.000.
Aside from the money, life on a trading floor had little to recommend
it. I had dreamed of leaving for years but it was hard to translate that feeling into action: the high salary
had a paralysing and blinkering effect. My decision to quit the City was
sudden and instinctive. It was Christmas 1991. I had just received my
annual bonus. At year's end it is customary to set out your targets for
the following year. I realised with exhilarating clarity that I could
not face another year in that environment. My goal was to leave - there
and then. I felt that 1 had proved myself and I wanted a new purpose.
My heart was no longer in it, and a City career is not for the half-hearted.
My boss, luckily a friend, gave me his blessing. With a sense of relief
and elation I walked off the trading floor and out of the City. The designer
suits now hang idle at the back of my wardrobe. The steel coating I developed
is also softening.
Many of my female colleagues have since dropped out voluntarily, while
others have been forced out by recession, which has savaged men and women
alike. But men find it easier to fire women than other men. They labour
under the misapprehension that behind every City woman is an even richer
man who will take care of her, whereas the men have no such safety net,
being providers themselves.
Another reason for the disappearance from the City of many women is that
they have collided with the glass ceiling. But I suspect that changed
ambition, just as much as thwarted ambition, is behind their leaving.
Money and status are worth little when you have to battle so hard to win
them, and barely have the time or the energy to enjoy them.