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Netflix drama reveals the dark side of being a woman in the financial services industry

Warning: this article contains minor spoilers for Fair Play.

Fair Play follows a young couple working as analysts at a high-flying, ruthless asset management firm in New York. They work hard and play hard while appearing to support each other’s careers.

But their relationship is in breach of company policy, so they keep it quiet, despite living together and getting engaged. As a portfolio manager is fired, Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) hears a rumour that Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) may be offered the role.

The trailer for Fair Play.

They celebrate the rumour the same evening with booze and sex. However, it is Emily who is summoned to a bar in the middle of the night and told she’s being promoted on the back of her excellent résumé and performance. Luke is given the role of her analyst and now works for her. From here their dynamic unravels.

Fair Play portrays the darkest side of the financial services industry: the greed, the fear, the inappropriate behaviour and the frivolous spending.

Despite her excellent performance, Emily struggles to feel she deserves the promotion – and so does Luke. It was much easier for them to celebrate the rumour of his promotion than the fact of hers.

While at times supportive, Luke finds it impossible to believe that her promotion was based on merit and pushes outdated gender stereotypes onto her. At his worst, he accuses Emily of sleeping her way to the promotion.

lden Ehrenreich as Luke and Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play.
Sergej Radovic/Courtesy of Netflix

There is an air of Emily feeling lucky, instead of deserving, to be promoted. Like many real women in the financial services industry, she struggles to know how she should act. Without other female role models – but plenty of alpha male ones – her confidence in who she is and how she should act is extremely fragile.

A derogatory comment about her dress code sends her into despair, trying to select office outfits that send the right message. This struggle is unsurprising given the short history of women’s business attire compared to men’s.

Observing her confidently delivering her well-researched opinions in meetings and making brave trading decisions is promising. Watching her celebrate with the senior, all-male team in a strip club and getting involved in derogatory, sexualised stories about women is revolting.

The real finance industry

The alpha male dominance of financial services and the historical exclusion of women mean it’s a relatively new domain for women. In the US, where Fair Play is set, women didn’t gain the legal right to be members of the New York Stock Exchange until 1967. And it wasn’t until 2021 that a woman took charge of one of the top 30 global banks.

Regardless of how talented she is, it is understandable for a woman to feel more unstable about her position as she rises in the ranks. In banking, successful women are scrutinised more harshly than their male counterparts.

Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play, sat at a computer.
Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play.
Slobodan Pikula/Courtesy of Netflix

As I show in my research, when it comes to financial services we are predisposed to think talent plus hard work equals a lucky woman, and that talent plus a good contact network equals a successful, powerful man.

Despite outperforming colleagues, women like Emily can at times feel that they do not deserve their promotions. However, when it comes to men, people tend to see potential because they expect potential. Many women and men want to change this.

Fair Play leaves the viewer feeling hopeless about the possibility of inclusive and fair financial services careers and personal relationships. It signifies how extremely difficult it is for people of all genders to break through entrenched negative gender roles.

Financial services is an extremely powerful industry, without which our society cannot function. It is also the best-paid industry, yet has the second largest gender pay gap (after education). It therefore has a responsibility to set the standard for inclusive and fair practices.

Challenging outdated gender stereotypes through reverse messaging and fair treatment is a better strategy than creating a new generation of alphas of all genders. To work well, we need supportive structures both at home and in the workplace and a culture that evaluates and rewards people based on their potential and contributions – regardless of gender.

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