The film industry is painting an ugly picture of what life is like inside banks. And there are real-world dangers in that fiction.
Top films about the industry from 2006 to 2016 showed bankers mostly as the bad guys — with an emphasis on the guys — an analysis conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media shows. Men make up 81% of the characters, and are three times more likely than women to be shown in senior executive roles. None of the films portray banking as an industry where promotion is driven solely by merit; and in three-quarters of the films, bank employees are seen rising through the ranks at least partly because of cronyism and a willingness to bend the rules.
Over the past decade, the banking industry was prominently featured in eight U.S. films, including “The Big Short” (2015), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “Too Big to Fail” (2011) and, most recently, the female-led “Equity” (2016). All eight portrayed the industry in a negative way overall. The most common traits of the 207 main characters in the films are competitiveness (40%) and ambition (39%). One in three characters is portrayed as greedy and selfish, with a much smaller percentage being helpful (15%) and trustworthy (10%), according to the study, conducted for American Banker and sponsored by Zions Bank.
That is what bankers have come to expect, as indicated in a separate survey by the Geena Davis Institute. Of 805 women in the industry who responded to that survey, 56% said they believe the industry is portrayed negatively or somewhat negatively in films. A similar percentage said this portrayal is at least somewhat inaccurate.
Geena Davis, the actress who founded the institute to highlight gender bias in films and television, will be presenting the results of the research project at an event Thursday for the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance.
Even if those in banking dismiss the pop culture view, the negative spin can still have an impact. For one thing, attracting the best and the brightest among the next generation is only going to be harder, warns Caroline Heldman, research director for the institute and associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Even so, few of those in banking say they took inspiration for their career choice from what they saw on screen. Less than 5% of the survey respondents credited a film or television show with sparking their interest in banking. Perhaps it is telling that, among those who did cite a film, the one mentioned most is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is more than 70 years old.
Respondents also indicated that real issues do exist. About 40% of the women said they have been sexually harassed — defined as unwanted sexual advances, obscene remarks or physical contact — at some point in their career.
Of course, bankers are hardly alone in this. Nationwide more than 30% of women have been sexually harassed in the workplace, according to a YouGov poll from earlier this year. And Heldman said that those numbers tend to be higher in industries where, like banking, the management ranks are dominated by men.
“Cultures that have developed over time with only men in charge are not necessarily going to be inclusive for women,” Heldman said, noting some of the high-profile harassment issues that tech, another male-dominated industry, is facing. “There’s a groupthink that develops over time.”
One way to help women and minorities advance through the ranks and push for cultural change is through mentoring and sponsorship. More than half of the survey respondents overall said they have a mentor in the industry, defined as someone they can go to for career guidance and advice. And 40% said they have a sponsor who is an advocate for their advancement.
Davis, the star of films such as "A League of Their Own" and "Thelma & Louise," had announced plans for this research project at the awards dinner for the Most Powerful Women last year, as shown in this video.