The culture around gender politics in finance is changing, according to Maureen Sherry. The noted author and former Wall Street executive shared her thoughts on the industry shift in the wake of #MeToo at a private home in Edgemont April 8, as part of Westchester Community College’s annual Celebrity Salon Series.
The talk was hosted by Marianne and David Chao — longtime friends of Sherry’s — in their 1920s home, which was once owned by Meredith Wood, the late president of the Book of the Month Club.
Sherry and David Chao worked together at Drexel Burnham Lambert bank at the onset of her career, and she and Marianne Chao each gave birth to her first child around the same time, delivered by the same doctor — one on Thanksgiving and the other on Christmas Day.
After Drexel went under in 1990, Sherry became the youngest managing director at Bear Stearns. In the years since, she has appeared on CNBC’s Closing Bell, Fox at Five and CNN, and has been featured in The New York Times, Fortune and Money magazine.
Sherry’s second act is fiction. Her first novel “Walls Within Walls,” a mystery for middle school audiences, clinched curriculum honors in Texas and Connecticut and named her one of the Best New Voices by the American Library Association. Her second novel “Opening Belle” was published by Simon & Schuster in 2016 and marked a page turn for the mom of four into adult literature. That same year, The New York Times published her op-ed, “A Colleague Drank My Breast Milk and Other Wall Street Tales.”
Whatever the medium, Sherry’s work strikes a masterful balance between darn funny and serious. Her most recent novel highlights the diverse challenges faced by women in finance, drawing from Sherry’s own experiences on the trading room floor. “You get so used to being the only woman at the table,” she said.
“Opening Belle” has been optioned by screen sweetheart Reese Witherspoon, who called the novel “smart, biting and honest.” The team has a finished screenplay (rewritten by Sherry) but no set film date yet.
Throughout her tenure on Wall Street, Sherry saw many women leave the industry after just two to three years. Her male colleagues suggested they buck up, but “I knew why they were quitting,” Sherry said, citing Boys’ Club antics that made women feel awkward at best and deeply uncomfortable at worst.
In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the former financier said she’s often asked, “Why is Wall Street so quiet? You haven’t really had the [Harvey] Weinstein-esque character.” To that, Sherry said it’s partly a numbers game. There are fewer women in financial services than in media or Hollywood, “so women feel a little more isolated.”
Nevertheless, Sherry is optimistic about women’s future in the financial services industry. “There’s never been a time ... that women have been so needed and much more appreciated,” she said, pointing to evolving company cultures and greater awareness.
A salon attendee said she disagreed, arguing the pendulum has swung so severely men are afraid to interact with women and often end up excluding them.
Sherry considered her point, and added, “If the numbers were more equal, I think a lot of this would dissipate. ... [Perhaps] something is lost in all of this, but hopefully something bigger is gained.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the WCC salon series, which features luminaries of media, publishing, architecture, history and politics. All salons are held in private homes, and all ticket sales benefit the WCC Foundation, which provides student scholarships.
Dobbs Ferry resident Donna Assumma was present at Sherry’s salon, and said she came to support community education. Assumma graduated from WCC with an associate’s degree in marketing nearly four decades ago and went on to earn a bachelor’s in marketing at Pace University. She has served as a vice president of national sales at ABC for three decades.
“Do not discount the education you can get from a community college,” Assumma said. “I’m a big supporter of going to a place you can afford and ... grow from there, and don’t let it limit you ever.”
This year, Marianne Chao is the co-chair of the series’ planning committee with Elyse Klayman. “I have been nothing shy of blown away ... when you hear about these kids and what WCC does for [them],” Chao said.
WCC student and scholarship recipient Nicolas “Nico” Long said he’s grateful for the opportunities afforded to him at WCC, where he is a member of the college’s honor societies, a senate member of student government, a missions’ ambassador and a peer mentor in the college’s Steps program.
Long, 21, will graduate from WCC in May and attend Columbia University in the fall. He will also attend a summer program at the University of Cambridge.
“I share this not to show how far I’ve come, but to explain how many extraordinary opportunities WCC has to offer for students like me,” Long told the audience at Sherry’s salon. “Without your immeasurable generosity ... the hundreds of success stories you never hear about wouldn’t be possible.”
The WCC Celebrity Salon Series will continue through June, with upcoming salons at homes in Scarsdale and Edgemont. Speakers include Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anna Quindlen, New York Times food editor Sam Sifton and Bill Sherman, the musical director of “Sesame Street.” Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be served at all sessions.
Tickets are $165 per event. For details, call 606-6558 or visit sunywcc.edu/celebritysalons.