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1 November 2022

A glimpse into Goldman Sachs’ gilded cage

Jamie Fiore Higgins’s insider account reveals the grim reality of life at the summit of capitalism.

By Emma Haslett

At first Jamie Fiore Higgins didn’t realise quite how poisonous the atmosphere at Goldman Sachs had been. She left the bank, which is so notorious in finance circles it has been dubbed the “great vampire squid”, in 2016, having become one of a few women to progress to the level of managing director.

As she became used to life as a full-time mother to her four children, a life she had meticulously planned and saved for on a “Spreadsheet of Freedom”, idle conversations about what had happened to her at the bank – a colleague pinning her to the wall by her neck; her team “mooing” at her when she went to pump breastmilk after she returned from maternity leave; being guilt-tripped back into work against medical advice, days after haemorrhaging in the office toilets during a miscarriage – led to a realisation. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I knew when I left it wasn’t a healthy environment. But I didn’t realise just how bad it was.”

That realisation prompted her to write a book about the decade and a half she spent at the bank. Bully Market: My Story of Money and Misogyny at Goldman Sachs is a peek inside one of the most storied institutions on Wall Street – and confirmation that whatever you think goes on behind the glass and steel of its offices, the reality may be worse. 

In many ways Fiore Higgins – a high-achiever with a driven personality – is a typical candidate for Goldman Sachs. In others, she isn’t. She is from New Jersey and commuted from her home state to Wall Street every day even though, with earnings above £1m a year, she could easily have afforded to live in Manhattan. She lived – and continues to live – in a modest home, and refused to be seduced by the money she earned. “Clothes are just to keep you warm,” she says, with more than a hint of a New Jersey accent. “A car’s a car and gets you from point A to point B. Why would you spend $100,000 on a car when you can get a decent one for $20,000?”

Her objection to the trappings of wealth comes partly from her experiences with former colleagues at Goldman. “It seemed like the richer these people got, the crummier they got,” she says. In the book (the characters in which are described as “composites” of the people she encountered) she describes Goldman dinners at which colleagues ordered $100 glasses of whisky. “It was showy,” she says. “Private jets, race cars, $1,000 suits… I felt like a round peg in a square hole.” There is an obstinacy in the way she refuses to engage: even now she is proud that when she appeared on Today, the American talk show, to promote the book, she wore shoes from the budget retailer DSW.

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Bully Market opens as Fiore Higgins prepares to hand in her notice (“you can only leave Goldman Sachs once,” she has been told), then jumps back a decade and a half to when her training began. The man in charge locks the doors of the auditorium, telling the trainees that “I own you”. Later he tells them Goldman Sachs is “home to the most paranoid and insecure people in the world”.

What follows is years immersed in what she calls “the white noise of bro culture”, an everyday chauvinism that became background noise. “I don’t want to minimise it, but it was just that constant: the f***ability rankings, the comments on women’s breasts, the little things here and there.” Men are invited to gentleman’s clubs and golfing weekends that women are excluded from. At one point, shortly after she is promoted to her first management role, she learns that a male subordinate is being paid just $1 less than her.

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Some readers may struggle to feel much sympathy for someone earning £1m a year. There is a sense that money was used by Fiore Higgins’ bosses to control their employees, however. In the book, the day after the announcement of a vast bonus round, Fiore Higgins and her team are handed bananas by their manager, then told: “You’re all monkeys in my book. You’re overpaid and I could replace you at any second.” Her boss seems to obsess over people’s salaries; when one employee is demoted (because he has begun to leave work in time to pick his kids up from school), the fact he doesn’t quit is seen as proof he was “overpaid” before.

[See also: Why has the Bank of England raised interest rates when a recession is inevitable?]

Of course, almost all these people are overpaid. That is the point: the book’s characters are trapped in a gilded cage. “I felt like I was part of a family – an abusive family,” Fiore Higgins writes.

“They made you feel not only like you can’t be successful anywhere else, but [also that] this was your only chance to make money ever,” she adds now. “It was like, here’s a buffet of money – and PS, once you walk out the door you’re never going to eat again, so let me gorge.”

In the epilogue Fiore Higgins issues a call to arms to new recruits. “Learn from my mistakes,” she writes. “Change the firm for the better. Demand to be recognised for your ideas and your content, not for how much you have in common with your partner or are pressured to conform to outdated ways.”

Goldman is known to have softened since 2016, when Fiore Higgins left, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In a statement it said: “We strongly disagree with Ms Higgins’ characterisation of Goldman Sachs’ culture and these anonymised allegations. We have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination or retaliation against employees reporting misconduct, and all claims are thoroughly investigated with discretion and sensitivity.”

But it is still an unapologetically cut-throat environment. Last year, for instance, its chief executive, David Solomon, protested bitterly about working from home, calling it an “aberration”; junior workers have complained of 100-hour weeks and sleep deprivation. A group of former workers has also filed a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct from 2000 to 2011. Fiore Higgins, nevertheless, remains optimistic that the next generation will be able to change the culture, even though she could not.

[See also: Goldman Sachs have £20m of our money, but we’re on the road to getting it back]

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