In Defense of the Socially Conscious Banker
When Showtime’s Billion’s aired the first episode of their second season and introduced intern Taylor Mason, the fresh-faced gender non-binary financial analyst played by Asia Dillon, to billionaire Bobby Axelrod’s embattled hedge fund, it was hailed as a watershed moment in positive queer representation in mainstream media. While most media representation of trans people is clumsy at best, I feel that the accolades, in this case, are deserved. Taylor is smart, well adjusted, tenacious, unapologetically visibly queer, and quickly cements their place in an environment that is not designed for them.
For me, however, as a transgender woman on the verge of graduating with a finance degree, Taylor is something more; the very first representation of visible, political queerness I have seen in the industry. Sure, I’ve met a few people on the fringes of banking and investing, but when it comes to those in main career paths — analysts, industry economists, auditors, management, high-value sales staff, consultants, etc — I have come to accept that I am more or less an industry unicorn and will be for quite some time.
For the good of the industry and society as a whole, I want more people like me, historically underrepresented people with a flair for justice, to enter the industry pipeline and I would like my fellow progressives to not roll their eyes at me when I say so.
Accomplishing this would be a two-part process, with the first being simply making the industry more accessible, and the second being a destigmatization of participating in the industry.
In regards to the first part, this would be accomplished by way of providing scholarships, having more focused recruiting efforts on the part of businesses, updating business school curriculum and policy to move away from focusing on white men, and putting in real effort to build wide reaching queer professional communities that are commonly missing in even the largest cities. The benefits that come to firms for their efforts are worth the work in terms of allowing them to draw from a wider pool of talent with a more comprehensive view of the world than what can be expected of traditional applicants.
The second part is harder and more nuanced. The queer community skews young and for many, their first view of the industry as a wider idea came in the form of suffering caused by the sins that lead to the recession. Many of us are subjected to undue hardship in relation to poverty and financial comfort due to discrimination and bias in areas such as education, employment, and housing. As a result of this, we’re on average highly educated on systems of inequality, and tend to be more sympathetic towards the plights of others. Having questioned ourselves and our relation to the world in ways people who are not queer don’t have to, we are not inclined to simply accept things. We dare bravely to envision a brighter world, and, like in other marginalized groups, capitalist critical thought runs deep.
These sentiments are projected on the industry and those who involve themselves with it, making the prospect of setting out to join the industry a taboo, and the act of pursuing the prerequisite education incompatible with seeking to inspire positive change in the world. This line of thinking is not something limited to the queer community, but rather a phenomenon I see fairly widely among socially conscious people and activist communities, so much so that I clearly remember widespread confusion caused by my educational decisions as a high schooler who had previously spent her free time bothering her congressmen and senators.
To put it simply, when my high school activist friends — many of whom were also queer and trans — went off to college, they were far more inclined to read Octavia Butler and Bell Hooks than to study the nuances of international trade and equity valuation. This, in combination with the aforementioned barriers facing queer people like Taylor and I, is why the first person I saw who I could really talk about shared experiences with is a fictional character.
When I’m asked why I’m investing my time and energy into building up professional knowledge in the discipline, my first response is to talk about the history of women’s financial rights, and remind my peers that less than fifty years ago it was near impossible for a women to establish credit on her own, and that only changed when women like Judy H. Mello started opening their own banks worked to change it. These women were activists in every sense of the word, and the freedom that women gained as a result of their actions saved lives by way of allowing women to leave unhappy and abusive marriages. They were not not traitors for joining an industry that oppressed women; they were heroes for getting up, doing what they could, and making a positive change in the world.
While business education has traditionally been seen as a pathway for those comfortable in the social hierarchy, I would like to challenge people to begin to consider the possibility of business education being a unique, powerful, and grossly underdeveloped primer for meaningful activism.
Those who care to pay attention at all are aware that wealth stratification, environmental degradation, symptoms of overpopulation, and the question of how we are to deal with the increasing pace of automation are only going to become more difficult in the coming decades. These problems and questions — arguably the largest and most important facing humanity as a whole — are more likely than not going to be primarily addressed by people with economics Ph.D.’s, CFA designations, backgrounds in commercial data science, and the like who work in both the private and public sector. While it may be true that there may optimally be better people for the job when the day comes, history dictates that more than not these decisions come down to the bean counters, instead of the scientists.
It is for this reason that those of us who seek a brighter future cannot abandon these areas of expertise, even if they are arguably currently connected to what could be seen as morally ambiguous or even refutable practices. While some of my peers may suggest that this a bridge that can be crossed at a later date, I disagree, as the credentialing and experience required to be part of the decision-making process take too long to cultivate on demand, and those who have them have to be available and empowered to lobby for sensible, humane decisions as the need arises.
If these credentials are to exist in the hands of those likely to make the right choices when the opportunity comes, we must sustain ourselves by working in the industry as it stands right now. People are complex, and being underrepresented does not make you an angel, as Taylor’s character illustrates with their Darwinistic support of invoking austerity on a struggling town in Upstate New York following its failure to make good on a municipal bond owned by Taylor’s firm.
To at least a certain degree, self-interest is a factor in all our behavior; however, because we are social creatures reliant on networks, what is good for our family and our friends is part of our self-interest. The implication of this idea is that when queer people, people of color, and other marginalized groups are hired, our self-interests have a strong tendency to line up with the betterment of society.
Unfortunately, most people who seek social change are not those for whom business education was designed, and because of this, we cannot count on people to find their way in independently. It is my belief that in order to begin shifting the population of students to those who are predisposed to social problem recognition and solving will require new and continued efforts to attract, enroll, and retain historically underrepresented people in business schools and corporate hiring similar to what we have seen in STEM disciplines in recent years.
And for my progressive peers who are still holding out hope for more sudden and sweeping social change, I would encourage you to not look at me and my activist peers engaged in business education and industry as sell outs, but rather as an inexpensive insurance policy. An insurance policy you need.