Buy This Escada Suit! Some Banks Conflate “Women’s Networking” With Fashion Shows At Saks
10:00 am, December 5th | by Hillary Reinsberg
Earlier this Fall, the so-called “junior women” at one of New York’s top investment banks were invited to a networking event at Saks Fifth Avenue. The event began, as many such events do, with a panel of the bank’s “senior women,” who dispensed helpful, albeit oft-repeated career advice. And then, it turned into a fashion show.
Models strutted down a makeshift runway, sporting “work appropriate attire.” The options, of course, were available for purchase afterwards.
“Don’t worry how short it looks, these models are very tall,” the junior women were told as the Saks models paraded down the runway.
But just moments before, the women had listened to advice from their senior counterparts that seemed quite the opposite of high-fashion: “Don’t show up to work with your hair wet” and “only wear clear or light-colored nail polishes.” And now, it was, “buy these suits, they’ll look appropriate, we promise.”
The conflicts are almost too many to count. On one hand, you’re being told to keep your attire muted, to make your femininity blend in. But on the other hand, you’re sitting in one of New York’s most expensive department stores, only there because you’re a woman. It’s an event that’s supposed to be pro-women, teaching you partially to conform to some of the male behaviors that predominate Wall Street culture, but also shoving clothes in your face.
And the 20-something women aren’t the only ones who notice. One woman who attended the event — who, by the way, assures us that “this kind of event goes on at every major bank,” but still wouldn’t divulge which firm she works at — took some heat from her male co-workers when they heard about where she was going.
“The guys say, ‘How come I didn’t get invited to go to Saks?’”
The thing is, she doesn’t think they’re entirely wrong in that logic.
“I think it’s catering to an old style of feminism,” she says. “The feminism of female bankers today is that we aren’t there to prove ourselves as men, but to make money. You’re not there because you want to be the breadwinner in order to prove a point. So putting us in Saks Fifth Avenue as a way to bond with other women is just a little warped.”
The popular opinion among many of her young, female co-workers is consistent with this — she’s heard her peers call similar events “behind the times” at best, and “offensive” at worst.
But what would older, seasoned Wall Street vets tell these young women? Would they tell them to well, suck it up, and make the best of the opportunity to network?
We spoke with Jane Newton, a seasoned financial advisor with RegentAtlantic who’s spent her whole career on Wall Street, including a 17-year stint at J.P. Morgan. She’s also an active member of 85 Broads — the now-global women’s networking group started by a group of female Goldman Sachs employees, and an organizer of the Wall Street Women Forum.
Newton’s advice? Take any opportunity to network, and “pick your battles.” That being said, she agreed that a fashion show would be a turn off. Her solution: find some other workplace-sponsored extra-curricular and use that as a way to network.
“They can do something much more substantive. Even if it’s just volunteering at the soup kitchen, or doing something that isn’t frivolous.” Newton said. “I would hope that this kind of fashion show thing isn’t the predominant kind of event.” While helping out at a nearby homeless shelter might be an alternative to the fashion show-averse crowd, it doesn’t explain why the women are at still at Saks.
Yet, despite the seeming array of alternatives to a fashion show, and the obvious backlash against them, the fashion event prevails. Why?
“Frivolous” as such an event may sound, Newton may have cracked the code on why banks still sponsor these glorified fashion shows. It’s because the senior women actually do think the junior women don’t dress well enough.
“I do hear often that from the higher level, that the women right out of college and grad school, really aren’t dressed appropriately. I’ve heard that from women on the street. And from big law firms as well.”
Suddenly, the disconnect made a little more sense. “They told us to invest in an Escada suit,” the junior woman had told us. “Who’s gonna go buy an Escada suit?”