Smartness, Exploitation, and Professionalism: An Ethnography of Wall Street

Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (2009) by Karen Ho, an anthropologist, sounds intriguing before you open it.  However, the actual read is somewhat dry and boring, except for certain parts.  I read it for my folklore and work class last semester, and because I had an essay test that required me to write about this book and its ideas coherently, I wrote this post in preparation for that.

What is most intriguing about this book is the culture of smartness apparent in Wall Street recruitment events.  Ho examines how Wall Street investment banking firms recruit heavily from Princeton and Harvard and use a rhetoric of smartness to lure workers.  It doesn’t matter what a student’s major is or what he or she knows; as long as the recruit is from Princeton, he or she is considered the cream of the crop.  The culture of smartness serves to make workers feel special and privileged, but within an investment bank there are levels of hierarchy, including gender gaps.  This rhetoric goes a long way in convincing students to accept jobs, especially after the wining and dining internships.

liquidated cover

My husband had this experience with the big five accounting firms over a decade ago.  He graduated with a MAcc (master’s in accounting) from one of the top three programs in the United States.  All of the big accounting firms came to campus regularly to recruit him and his classmates.  We attended several fancy events, where my husband was offered internships on a silver platter.  He took an internship at Arthur Andersen (glad he didn’t end up working there!) in San Francisco, where he spent the summer dining at fine restaurants and attending plays and other expensive cultural events.  I didn’t get to attend these, but I got to spend time with my dad and sisters that summer, so we both had fun.  At the end of the summer, which had been a relatively easy work load and fun because of the firm-sponsored events, my husband was offered a job with what seemed like an impressive starting salary.  However, with the cost of living in the San Francisco area, and the chargeable hours that were required to keep one’s job, we decided it would be better to take a job in Utah with a lower salary at a different big five firm.  We are glad we did this for many reasons, including that Arthur Andersen no longer exists due to the Enron debacle.  Yet my husband still worked long and thankless hours.  This sort of worker exploitation is common and what Ho examines in Liquidated.

My research over the last year has focused on professional identities, specifically for women in my field.  I have used Brenton Faber’s (2002) theory of professionalism, that says professionals have three characteristics.  First, “professionals have an integral relationship to a specific and known audience” (p. 312).  Second, “a professional is someone whose work directly influences the life of a community” (p. 313).  Third, Faber tells us that “professionals espouse a self-conscious social, theoretical, and ethical awareness. . . . professionals exhibit a critical awareness of their own activities” (p. 314).  These qualities of professionalism are clear cut and defined and have served me well in applying them to extra-institutional professional communicators as deserving of “professional” status.  Yet the part of professionalism that I have not yet explicitly considered is perception.

Liquidated reveals this preoccupation with professionalism and the underlying problem with it being perceived, rather than earned.  As I read her discussion of it in terms of women’s professionalism on Wall Street, I realized that I have similar experiences with this perception of professionalism.  I have faced misjudgment of my abilities (or merit, a prominent theme in Liquidated) based on my looks that must be overcome in the workplace.

People often assume that I’m much younger than I am and therefore less experienced.  Recently, I’ve been working as a publications intern for a local archive on a women’s history project.  When I met the managing director, he immediately referred to me as an undergraduate college student.  I had to correct his assumption.  I also had two women, also interns, express shock that I have a nine-year-old daughter.  Nobody can quite believe that I’m over 30 and that I actually have professional work experience as an editor.  It is frustrating, but I should be used to it by now.

Because of this, I identified with the women in Ho’s ethnography who faced this problem of perception on Wall Street.  One of the issues in the book is that if a person is willing to work too hard, he or she is perceived as willing to do grunt work for nothing.  One of Ho’s informants expressed frustration at this problem and noted that her husband “is not as hard of a worker as I am, he is probably not as smart as I am, but he will do much better on Wall Street than I will because he has confidence in himself” (p. 116).  I would also add that he doesn’t have to overcome the service and domestic stereotypes associated with women, especially women of color.

This issue was represented with the women avoiding taking trays of food to colleagues or helping an IT person with computer cords.  They also avoided talking or associating with the support and administrative staff.  I faced this as well.  I worked as a secretary before being promoted to editor.  While a secretary, I performed the role of an assistant editor without the pay or the recognition.  Luckily, it paid off and I was promoted, but I still got people asking me for copies, and it could’ve backfired and gotten me more work with less appreciation (and pay) and no possibility of promotion.  Ho noted that if “your peers or bosses witness you performing a ‘support’ role, they will believe that you do not take your own time seriously and might assume that you are willing to be taken advantage of and do ‘scut work’” (p. 119).  This is somewhat counter-intuitive because of the system of meritocracy, but for women, “hard work, instead of being associated with upward mobility, is reduced to, as well as conflated with, grunt work” (p. 120).  This is certainly a problem with perception, one that now helps me to make sense of my own work experiences.

I found this discussion of perception fascinating when the issue of shoes came up.  The women who wore socks and sneakers to work and then changed into pumps marked themselves as lower in the social hierarchy because they obviously lived farther away from Wall Street in less prestigious neighborhoods and could not afford car services to drive them to work.  They had to rely on public transportation and walking, while the upper class women wore pumps all of the time because they had the luxury of a car service and living closer to work.  “[T]he significance of this change of shoe practice became clear: the socks and sneakers over hose is a marker, albeit imprecise, of a lower-class status” (p. 117).

Additionally, all women faced the possibility of “class slippage” and had to guard against it through their dress and their actions in order to create and control perception (p. 118).  Even the way one ate lunch signified status.  Overall, I found this discussion of professionalism enlightening to my own experiences and, more importantly, to my research.  Although I use Faber’s straightforward characteristics of professionals to recognize women as extra-institutional communicators, I need to take into account perception and the unspoken rules of professionalism in my future studies.  What may be considered professional may not always have to do with merit, work practices, and work products.  Perception and culture need to be just as important to my scholarly work.

More generally, the Wall Street workers are exploited for long hours, sometimes only getting 13 hours of sleep a week!  They are expected to work all of the time, day or night, with one worker saying it is a challenge to even get one’s wedding day off.  Then, when the economy cycles through boom and bust, workers are laid off without much fanfare and are escorted from the building by security immediately.  One part of the book recounted how even tiny mistakes, like missing a comma on a PowerPoint deck, can result in being yelled at, demoted, or fired.  It is a competitive, high-stakes, and fast-paced work environment.  All of this craziness is embodied in the workers.  They seem to represent the ups and downs of the stock market with their own bodies, by working long and late hours, finding themselves laid off, going immediately back on the market for another investment bank, and experiencing the contradictions of the workplace.

534px-Wall_Street_&_Broadway

Overall, the book is a critique of capitalism.  Ho has a few chapters examining neoclassical economic theories and the way current markets focus solely on shareholder value.  She critiques this, through her own experiences on Wall Street and through the interviews of other workers.  Her critique, although dense, has some credibility given her research methods, including ethnography, observations, interviews, and fieldwork.  She entered Wall Street with the intent of studying it, but still found herself upset over being laid off.

This is a book that the professor teaching the class really loved.  She recognized that it is a tough one and that students either love it or hate it.  For our class, I think most of us had an unfavorable reaction to it, but I did find value in parts of it, especially the ideas about professionalism and gender.  I wouldn’t recommend this book as light reading, but if you are interested in the corporate culture of Wall Street, you won’t find a more comprehensive study than Liquidated.

 

Faber, Brenton, “Professional Identities: What Is Professional about Professional Communication?” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 16, no. 3 (2002): 306-337.

Ho, Karen. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

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