Review of “Risk/Reward”


Of the 1,336 members of the New York Stock Exchange, only 44 are women. Elizabeth Holder and Xan Parker take us into the lives of four of these women in the fascinating documentary Risk/Reward, airing on the Oxygen Channel this month.

The centerpiece of the documentary–the woman who got Holder and Parker interested in the first place–is Louise Jones, a lesbian who was abandoned as a baby in a phone booth on Staten Island, raised in the projects, and then talked her way into a job on the New York Stock Exchange shortly after high school. Almost twenty years later, she is own of the few women to own her own trading firm, and is a staple of the NYSE trading-room floor.

Risk/Reward picks up with Louise at an interesting juncture in her life: another firm has offered to acquire her’s for a lot of money, at the same time that she and her partner want to start having children. Louise is torn between the improved work-life balance she would get from selling her firm, and the control and sense of identity she would give up by doing so.

Carol Warner Wilke and Kimberley Euston are both straight married women at the top of their respective fields: Carol is the household consumer goods analyst for Credit Suisse First Boston, and Kimberley is a foreign exchange sales trader whose team manages billions of a dollars a day. Both have nannies and husbands who help take care of the kids while the women work long hours. These women, too, struggle to balance their work and home lives, but their relentless competitive drive and seemingly inexhaustible energy somehow allows them to juggle it all.

Finally, we have Umber Ahmad, a Pakistani-American MBA student just starting out in the field of investment banking. Umber’s family immigrated to America partly to allow their daughters to have the American Dream, and very early on, Umber decided to be “the smart one” in her class. Now that her dreams are almost realized, however, she is riddled with questions and plagued with uncertainty as the time to take a full-time job at Morgan Stanley draws near.

The spouses/partners of all three older women are also included in the documentary, and all are very supportive of the women’s careers (even if it’s apparent that at least one of the husband’s wishes his wife could be home once in awhile). The parents of Louise and Umber are also interviewed, and their beaming pride at what their daughters have accomplished is quite moving.

No financial acumen is required to watch Risk/Reward, and the filmmakers do an excellent job introducing complicated financial subjects when necessary. But the bulk of the story is really more personal, not financial, as we watch these women struggle with the various choices and crossroads in their personal and professional careers over the course of the two or three years the documentary is filmed.

Holder and Parker skillfully draw us into the lives of these four women and make us care about them, without veering too much into sentimentality. Even when September 11, 2001 hits halfway through the filming, the documentary explores the effects it has on these women’s choices without exploiting the tragedy, either.

But the film is strangely lacking any exploration of what it is like for these women to work and succeed in such a male-dominated field. Although the filmmakers make it clear throughout the documentary that these are among the few women in their fields (as illustrated by the numerous shots of rows of white men in suits and ties hunkered over computer monitors), there is no examination of why, no attempt to get at how their gender has influenced the experiences of these four women on Wall Street.

Simply exposing viewers to the workplace challenges and accomplishments of these amazing women and letting audiences draw their own conclusions is one way to make the point, I suppose; it’s certainly eye-opening just to get a window into the lives of these women, even for those who are fairly up on women’s issues. Sometimes it can be more effective to let the point make itself, rather than spelling it out for the audience, and themes do emerge on their own: all of these women struggle with work-life balance, for example, and all of them work really, really hard.

It seems a shame, however, to make a documentary that raises so many questions and doesn’t attempt to answer them. Louise and Umber, for example, are both double-minorities: how did that effect their behavior in the workplace, their ability to succeed? Carol and Kimberley’s drive to be rated number-one in their fields clearly conflict with their roles as mothers at times; does this effect how their colleagues interact with or perceive them?

For all four women: what kinds of gender-based stereotypes do they have to combat in the workplace, if any? Do men seem to have a difficult time reporting to them? What kind of management style have adopted, and how is or isn’t it different from their male counterparts? Are things getting easier for women on Wall Street, and if so, how?

None of these questions appear to even have been asked, let alone answered.

Don’t get me wrong: even without delving beneath the surface, this is a well-made, entertaining and educational documentary that all women (and men) would be advised to see. But while it gave me more respect for and understanding of what these women have accomplished, it didn’t really give me a better understanding of how they accomplished it.

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