Leadership Lessons from Equity’s Women of Wall Street

In 2015, only 5 percent of the companies in the Standard and Poor’s 500 index had female CEOs. We see this inequity reflected on the big screen also. Trading Places, American Psycho, Margin Call, Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short—the list of blockbuster films depicting the moneyed world of Wall Street are overwhelmingly written by men, directed by men, produced by men and—you guessed it—starring men. Women in powerful business roles are sparse.

“In our industry, it’s about if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” said producer Sarah Megan Thomas. It’s why she teamed up with co-producers Alysia Reiner and AAUW of New Jersey member Candy Straight to craft a story about Wall Street that showcases powerful women: Equity.

The new financial drama focuses on Naomi (Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn), a senior investment banker; Erin (Backwards’ Thomas), a vice president at the same firm; and Samantha (Orange Is the New Black’s Reiner), a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorneys Office. The film is also a living, breathing illustration of the gender bias delineated in AAUW’s research report Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership.

When it comes to portraying the experiences of women in business and leadership, Reiner and Thomas did their research, interviewing more than 200 men and women working on Wall Street and imbuing the film with their stories. According to Straight, “AAUW members who are about [promoting] women in leadership in business and elsewhere, this is a movie with a lot of good messages. Sometimes they’re tough messages to take, but they’re important.” We spoke with Thomas, Reiner and Straight about a few important lessons the film sends around how we can empower women leaders, in business and beyond.

Lesson 1: Ruffle Feathers

Equity is a study on the small, seemingly benign acts of sexism—called “microaggressions”—that contribute to a hostile environment for women. Throughout the film, we see that Naomi is labeled as cutthroat, aggressive and confident—traits that would be extolled in a man working on Wall Street but are impugned in a woman.

In one example of implicit sexism, a male boss casually dismisses Naomi for a promotion on the account that she “ruffles feathers.” Another male character writes her off as “rubbing people the wrong way.” According to Thomas, the women bankers and lawyers she and Reiner interviewed reported being accused of rubbing people the wrong way over and over.

Naomi is an example of the common catch-22 for women leaders in the workplace: They’re expected to adhere to feminine gender stereotypes—to behave kindly and politely, to be seen and not heard—but are also expected to be assertive and competitive.

Of course, overt discrimination against women in the workplace also remains an issue. To that end, the film shows Naomi and Erin grappling with sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination.

“We heard so many stories of overt sexism that no one would believe them had we put them in the movie,” said Reiner. Indeed, according to Barriers and Bias, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settled 30,000 cases of sex discrimination in the last five years in favor of the person who filed the charge. Equity illustrates that some feathers need to be ruffled.

Lesson 2: You’re Probably Biased, Too

Reiner and Thomas made the film with a clear agenda: to incite change for women. According to Reiner, men and women alike put women under more scrutiny than men.

“Some people have been disappointed that we [depicted] women not always helping each other,” said Reiner. “[But] if it were a Wall Street movie and a man backstabbed another man, we wouldn’t even talk about it. It would just be another movie.”

Reiner’s end goal? To reduce these inequities, starting with targeting unconscious gender bias. I hope that men see this movie and see the unconscious bias in their own lives,” said Reiner. “[Gender bias is] so deeply unconscious sometimes. And it’s very hard to change those things we’re not aware of.”

Luckily, there’s a tool to help with that: As part of Barriers and Bias, AAUW collaborated with Project Implicit and Harvard University researchers to create a test to measure people’s associations between gender and leadership.

Lesson 3: Don’t Let Money Be a Dirty Word

Pundits are loving Naomi’s quote, “Don’t let money be a dirty word.” The line is powerful because it’s still largely seen as taboo for women to openly express a desire for money and ambition. For Thomas and Reiner, the quote was part of a larger attempt at challenging the ways in which women are taught not to ask for money, especially when it comes to the workplace and raises or promotions.

“What I like about Naomi’s character is that she wanted something and she asked for it,” said Straight. “And that’s a good lesson.”

Lesson 4: Be a Sponsor

According to Straight, mentorship isn’t enough when it comes to advancing women in leadership.

“It’s easy to say ‘I’m helping a lot of people.’ But it’s another thing to say, ‘I recommend you for this job,’” she explains. “I’ve been helping mentor a woman recently, and I saw a new job come across my desk, and I immediately e-mailed the employer and recommended her.”

For Reiner and Thomas, Straight was that mentor. “She didn’t just open her checkbook for us, she opened her Rolodex,” said Thomas. “She made [Equity] happen.” Adds Reiner, “She really stepped up to the plate in a way I’ve never experienced, as an actor or a businesswoman.”

Equity is certainly disrupting the angle we’ve come to expect from movies about finance. The last time a woman was depicted in a film about Wall Street, she was naked in a bathtub. Before that, women characters were largely sex workers and mistresses. But we can change the conversation by supporting women-led films that showcase strong, intelligent women in leadership roles. Thomas and Reiner are in talks with Sony Tristar on developing Equity into a TV series, a move that would put powerful women executives right on our TV screens.

The power is ours to help make it happen.




Renee Davidson develops and executes AAUW’s online content and social media strategies and helps manage AAUW’s award-winning blog. She was nominated for the Women’s Media Center’s Social Media Award for her successes in leading online advocacy campaigns around gender equity and sexual violence prevention. Her writing has been published by Mic, Salon, Bitch and more. She’s passionate about feminism, owl motifs and veggie cheesesteaks.