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For a woman to make it to the top of an investment bank, she needs to be childless or pay for two nannies

If you want to become a partner at Goldman Sachs, just get two nannies that work 12-hour shifts, said the Managing Director to the Vice President upon her return after maternity leave. "That way you’ll never be without coverage! It’s such a peace of mind. You’ll never have to rush home to relieve the nanny, and you can travel at the drop of a hat.”

The year was 1999, and you’d be surprised to know this was not some old man in the corner office sharing these pearls of wisdom.  It was a female Managing Director, not much older than the VP in question (me), who had also just recently had her own first child.  The MD had already achieved what few women had at Goldman Sachs – making “MD Light” – but still wanted that golden prize, Partner (a/k/a Partner Managing Director, or PMD).  And no child or personal life was going to get in the way of that.

Children were never spoken of  

And she was 100% correct in her approach.  She got that promotion, even if it took her longer than she’d hoped.  I, on the other hand, wasn’t so keen on out-sourcing the care and upbringing of my child, who was soon to have a sibling in 2000.  Surprisingly, I lasted another 8 years at the bank, but not without watching this scenario play out over and over again, and never rising above VP. Women who rose to the top were either unmarried and/or childless, or if they did have a family, the children were never spoken of, and they certainly did not intrude on these women’s careers.

Such are the choices many women make in any profession, but which seem ever more pronounced in investment banks.  There were always one or two women who were promoted and then summarily trotted out to every ladies-magazine and college campus as the example of how far Goldman had come in the realm of work-life balance.  They had the titles and the family — see how easy it is?  And the generous paid maternity leave (4 months!) was enough to make any woman who was forced back to their desks at 6 or 8 weeks envious.

Flexibility means how much to bend your family life

But the realities on the ground were far different than the glossy brochures.  Did “flexible” only refer to how much the PMD had to bend her family life for the sake of the Firm?  The four months leave?  Usually spent still talking to or seeing clients and colleagues.  Paid?  Hard to say how much of a haircut you are getting when 90% of your comp is a subjective bonus.  And what about when you get back?  Four months is a long time to miss out on the political maneuverings of everyone around you – most of whom are betting on whether or not you’ll even return to your seat.   Which means very few professional-track women even took the entire time off.

You have to put the Firm first

The hard truth is that anyone who wants to rise in a client-facing role at an investment bank has to put the Firm first.  That includes men as well as women, regardless of whether or not they have a family.  And as a shareholder, I’m glad they do, to an extent.  But let’s not kid ourselves that the rank-and-file working mom who wants to truly be a part of her children’s lives is going to ever out-gun someone who is willing to put that aside for the sake of career progression.  So she either A) sucks it up and stays in Neutral for the better part of her career, or B) hops off the track entirely, taking with her the institutional knowledge and skill that took years to attain.  It seems like there should be an Option “C” in there, doesn’t it?

Julia Jones is the pseudonym of a long-time VP at Goldman Sachs who gave it all off to look after her children.

AUTHORJulia Jones Insider Comment

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