When Sheila Jamison began her career as a financial adviser, her male colleagues were the ones who were nervous.
“The first time I wore a business suit, they asked me if I had on boxer shorts underneath,” Jamison joked. “So to give you an idea, I don't know if I was intimidated or if they were intimidated by me.”
Jamison co-founded the Jamison Financial Group with her husband, Rich, in New York City, then opened a second office in Asheville. She says she never expected to find herself on Wall Street in a power suit. But a career counselor she consulted years ago posed an overwhelming yet simple question: “What do you want to do?”
“I thought he was being sarcastic, to be honest. ... So I just answered him very sarcastically and said, 'Oh, I'd like to work with people, and I'd like people to pay me for my advice, and I'd like to choose who I'm working with,” Jamison recalls. “If I don't like somebody, I don't want to work with them. He said, 'Oh — you want to be a stockbroker.' I kept thinking of this guy that weighs 250 pounds, smokes a cigar and drives a Cadillac. I was like, 'What are you talking about?'”
But somehow, the job fit.
To be sure, there were challenges. “It was really very difficult to find a lot of women who were willing to go to Wall Street, because it's very demanding: It's risky. Especially when I started [in 1981], there was no salary. It was totally on commission, so if you didn't make it, you didn't make it. It was really kind of tough.”
Some women found the male-dominated profession intimidating, but Jamison learned early to be confident.
“I was lucky I had a college professor who mentored me, and one of the pieces of advice he gave me before I even got into the business was to always be yourself, and always tell people what you think,” she remembers. “You're in a business where people are paying you for your advice. They're not telling you to tell them what they want to hear.”
Jamison spent 18 years as senior vice president at Morgan Stanley, where she helped found the company’s chapter of the Women's Business Exchange.
“In the early ’90s, I was approached to help form a Women's Business Exchange [chapter] to help support women all over the country,” Jamison explains. “It was a really eye-opening experience for me, because we're all so busy doing what we have to do that we don't have time to interact. It's a luxury for us to do it, but as a result of us interacting with one another, we built a support system.”
Jamison describes her job as the personal side of the stock market: always keeping her clients’ interests in mind and trying to make sure they know she cares. The latter point is something she believes men tend to overlook.
Clients, says Jamison, “want to know that you care about them, and a lot of men are performance-oriented. They don't understand that if you really care about them, it helps your decision-making process — at least, that's my philosophy.”
Despite her own success, however, Jamison is less sanguine about women’s overall progress in the profession.
“It's been an interesting battle, and I would like to tell you it's gotten easier 30 years later, but it hasn’t. I look around at the number of women that are in the business, and ... not a lot has changed.”
Jamison remembers well the discrimination she experienced in the office, though she always felt she could deal with it.
“They'd go out after work for drinks, and they don't ask me out; they don't even want us there. I had one guy take me to the seediest bar in New York City that you could ever imagine — to make sure I wouldn't want to go again. I'm sure that was the purpose, and he was my manager. He had to ask me, because I was the biggest producer in the office,” Jamison reveals. “Then everyone was like, 'You're not going to walk her back?' and I was like, ‘Don't worry about me — I can handle myself.’”
The best way businesswomen can push for positive change, she believes, is by standing together.
“I think the biggest advice I would give to women is to support our girl power whenever we possibly can,” Jamison asserts. “The way to get this thing going again is to really, really support one another in every way possible.”
She also advocates forging alliances with sympathetic men.
“My husband was very supportive of me, and he believed in me,” Jamison explains. Women, she continues, “need a support system to help them to succeed — but I believe that's true with any business.
“Women work hard: It's just the way we are. We know what's expected of us — from our family, our children, everyone. It's not that we can't do it, but it's good to have that support system when the days get long and things aren't going your way, and maybe you have a headache or you need someone to talk to.”
There are plenty of men who are not just willing but anxious to improve business conditions for women, Jamison maintains.
“You have guys whose wives are very successful, who have heard the stories their wives have told them, and they don't want that for their daughters. ... That's where I think we really need to go to for support, because they have the power we don't have. I've seen these men in action: They want to come out of their closet if we give them support to do it. It's a beautiful thing to see.”
In the end, Jamison urges women struggling to break into the business world to stay strong.
“It's a tough world out there, but you just have to put on your alligator skin and go out there and do what you got to do.”
— Megan Dombroski is a senior journalism student at UNCA and an editor at The Blue Banner, the student newspaper.