Jacki Zehner started working at Goldman Sachs in 1988. Eight years later, she was the first female trader to be made partner at the firm (back when it was still a partnership). Since leaving Goldman in 2002, she has remained in the financial sector, most notably as an advocate for gender equality and the advancement of diversity issues on Wall Street and elsewhere. She sat down with Quartz to discuss how Goldman Sachs can—and must—make the move from a boys’ club to a leader in gender equality.
Quartz: There are two women among Goldman’s eleven executive officers and seven women on the 32-person management committee. It’s clear to me in my conversations with David Solomon that he seems committed to increasing the diversity of the firm. He said he wants 50% of incoming young employees to the firm be women. There’s a lot of talk around this, but is there much action?
Jackie Zehner: It doesn’t seem like, numbers-wise, much has changed at Goldman, or frankly any other financial services firm, in almost 20 years, which is really a shame. And yet there seems to be, by their own words and otherwise, a very big commitment to ensuring they invest in human capital. What that means, obviously, is ensuring they hire, retain, and promote not only the best and the brightest, but a diverse perspective. There’s such an opportunity for Goldman, given its history, given some of its early work regarding diversity and some of the new initiatives it just launched, to be a real leader. Because in 2018, the state of the finance industry is shameful as it relates to diversity generally and women’s inclusion and leadership more specifically.
What can Goldman do to change that?
There are internal things Goldman can do related to hiring, retention, promotion, and addressing issues of pay equity. Those are very internally focused processes you can’t really see from the outside. Then we have obviously this whole issue of sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement, but because of the nature of how those cases are settled, one doesn’t know if Goldman has an issue with that or not.
Goldman has a new CEO. How does that affect Goldman’s efforts to diversify?
I’ve heard nothing but great things about David Solomon. He seems like he’s walking the walk. Now the question is what does that actually mean in terms of the internal and the continuation of the external. But I’m pretty optimistic—and I don’t say that lightly.
If the issue of diversity is so obvious, and so longstanding, how come no one’s come forward to take a leadership role?
No one wants to be the first to come out and say, “Look, this is a problem, we don’t know how to handle it. It’s very complex and we don’t want to be the first one to say, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ because then we’re the ones who are going to be getting all the attention.” Every industry has its own diversity challenges because we don’t have anything close to a meritocracy or parity across any industry.
No CEO is going to get up and say, “Look, we don’t care. We’re a meritocracy, our leadership looks the way it does because that’s who the best and the brightest are, and it is what it is. Sorry, but the reason we have 90%, or 85% of white men in senior leadership positions is because they’re the best.” Right? No one’s going to say that. They’re all gonna say, “Oh, we care about diversity, and our people are our greatest asset.”
If that’s been the same now for two decades, literally, if not longer, what’s gonna be different tomorrow? I think what most of these CEOs, maybe not everyone, want to see happen is to really create organizations that are merit-based and provide for individual and collective success. But it’s not gonna happen without either one firm sort of stepping forward and really taking leadership or an industry-wide initiative. Otherwise I just think it’s just gonna be marginal change at best.
Doesn’t it make sense for this industry that claims to have the best talent in the world solving the world’s most complex problems to take leadership? And who is gonna be that bold leader to say this really matters and be willing to challenge what we’ve done in the past, and to say, “We did it because we think it’s that important”? So far, nobody.
I feel like there’s been a lack of leadership on Wall Street in the last 10 years since the financial crisis. No one is really willing to step up and tackle issues like diversity, racial inequality, and pay inequality—not to mention a broken compensation system that rewards the wrong behavior. Which is ironic considering firms seem to be making more money than ever, but nobody wants to step up and be a real leader.
The question is, do people think this matters and how does it fall into the prioritization of how you do your day-to-day business? I thought after Christine Lagarde’s famous, “What if Lehman brothers were Lehman sisters?” that something would change after the crisis. But the reality is, basically, the same system, the same framework, the same organizational structures. The same people are still there.
Everyone from the World Bank to Goldman to all the financial institutions and places like Booz Allen, McKinsey, you name it—every prestigious think tank in the world says gender equality matters and that our world is gonna be better, more sustainable, let alone more just and safe, if we take this issue and create policies and practices that can move the bar on it, and yet that doesn’t happen either, right?
I would hope Goldman would want to be a leader in this space, as they’ve been a leader in other spaces. This could be a moment where they really take this seriously and recognize that it’s not just about having to check a box of having a certain percentage of women, but to be a company for the next 150 years, this stuff really matters. Not only in terms of employment with hiring, retention, promotion, and internal leadership, but in the broader context of connecting the dots to the safety and security of our world more generally. Financial services firms need to see gender as a component of what really helps position them as a firm for the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.