Jamie Fiore Higgins on Workplace Toxicity, Gender Discrimination and Why She Left Wall Street
Jamie Fiore Higgins worked on Wall Street for nearly 20 years—from 1998 to 2016—and by the end of her career, she’d amassed a small fortune. But as lucrative as that was, it pales in comparison to the riches she shares in her candid book Bully Market: My Story of Money and Misogyny at Goldman Sachs.
Her stories detail the good, the bad and the very, very ugly: the toxic culture of the literal good ol’ boys club, the undeniable sexual harassment at every level, the gender disparities in pay and promotion, the lack of diversity, the unapologetic discrimination and the constant feeling that she was trading her good character for a massive paycheck.
It was the kind of paycheck that Higgins looks back on now and calls “sinful excess.” In her first year at Goldman Sachs in the late ’90s, at just 22 years old, she made $135,000. By 2016, she was making 40 times more than her house cleaner and 10 times more than her doctor. It’s a situation she thinks of with both satisfaction and shame.
Thinking of her husband and four kids at home, Higgins invented a “Spreadsheet of Freedom” that allowed her to bank her seven-figure bonuses so that she could walk away from the golden handcuffs of Wall Street at a time when Wall Street desperately needed to get out of its own way.
Higgins spoke with SUCCESS about that decision to quit her job—and the decision to share her uncut story.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Before we talk about why you left Wall Street, can you talk about why you started?
Jamie Fiore Higgins: When I got the directive from my parents to get the best-paying job possible in 1998, that was Wall Street. I interviewed everywhere—at all the different banks—and I had a lot of job offers. But the Goldman Sachs woman who came to my college [Bryn Mawr] had impressed me so much that I said, “If I get a job at Goldman, that’s where I’m going.” Even though their process took so much longer: My first interview was in November, and I didn’t get the offer until March.
The benefits there seem to be very female-friendly, with eight rounds of IVF being covered and 20 weeks of paid maternity leave. Did you know when you took the job that women rarely rose to the upper ranks?
JFH: No. I was fairly clueless. I didn’t even understand what Goldman Sachs did. I didn’t come from money and a world of high finance. One summer during college, I’d worked on the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, and I’d had some experience with catcalls. But Goldman seemed so highbrow to me that I didn’t think it was going to be like the floor of the Merc. When I started, though, I did observe that there weren’t a lot of women, and I saw how much of a locker room it really was. But I felt like I’d won the lottery, so I pushed that out of my mind and kept my eye on the prize.
When was your first epiphany that your work environment was not normal?
JFH: The first day, when they locked the doors. At 7 a.m. they’d lock [the doors]…. then they’d ask us all questions, and if you didn’t know where the Dow closed or the spread between the pound and the dollar, you were kicked out. It was such a very punitive environment, so that made me feel a little bit off. But then there was the pride I felt in making my family proud. They all said to suck it up, push through the pain and persevere. My spidey sense was tingly and telling me that this was not my world, but I’d tell myself to tune it out because I felt that obligation to my family.
Do you wish someone would’ve given you permission to quit earlier?
JFH: Now that I’m coaching people, I tell young people that sometimes the paycheck isn’t worth the pain—and that they have autonomy to make choices. You are the CEO of your own career. This is at-will employment. Just like they could fire you at any time, you could quit at any time. I want my four kids to have their own sense of agency. Everyone has to make their own choices, and I want them to feel empowered without any obligation to anyone else.
When you titled the book, were you thinking that it’s inevitable that money and misogyny go hand in hand up and down Wall Street?
JFH: The higher the stakes, the more opportunity there is for ugly behavior, like misogyny and straight-up discrimination. There is an inverse relationship between money and character. So, on Wall Street, it’s not even the absolute money; it’s the way the pay is structured. If you make a million dollars a year, it’s $200,000 a year, and then you wait all year for the other $800,000. It’s that carrot that they keep dangling that allows people to be manipulated. And that environment brings out the worst in everyone.
And with the problem going deeper than just sexism and into ageism, racism and homophobia, were there any positive changes that happened in all of your years at Goldman Sachs?
JFH: The firm keeps trying to make changes. The problem is that there’s a disconnect between having the right things and modeling the right behavior. That’s where firms fall short: in the execution. Not just in finance either; any industry that has wealth is the breeding ground for this kind of behavior. Power imbalances happen everywhere.
What do you hope your book will accomplish?
JFH: It was a way for me to make amends and then reframe my experiences. And now, if it’s striking a nerve with people, then that’s getting people to talk about it. That means they’re thinking about it. People need to stop minding their own business and tell people with bad behavior to knock it off.
In the book’s epilogue, you outline some very specific steps that Fortune 500 companies can take to right these wrongs in the culture, the diversity, the toxicity and more. If a company did away with all of those, would you ever consider returning to Wall Street?
JFH: Yes, if I knew that I could help move companies in better directions. When I was on Wall Street, I knew that you couldn’t complain about a problem unless you had a solution. No empty rants were allowed. There needs to be metrics for the problems. There’s no reason a firm can’t say, “By 2025, we want half of our managing directors to be women.” And there should also be metrics for an employee’s contribution to the culture. Like Adam Grant says, a great culture is one with zero tolerance for a–holes, even if they’re stars.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos by ©Julia Mlaoof Verderosa
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