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How more Wall Street women can rise to the top

May 11, 2011: 12:38 PM ET

People on Wall Street don't make their fortune by churning out widgets, but by providing capital and wielding power. A forum designed to help women in finance obtain and maintain that clout has taken off.

FORTUNE -- As the credit crisis swept away venerated Wall Street firms and some of the banking industry's brightest stars, Jane Newton -- a wealth manager and finance industry veteran -- found herself counseling clients through the most nerve-wracking days of their careers.

"It was particularly disconcerting for women to see so many high profile females leave

Carla Harris

Morgan Stanley managing director Carla Harris will deliver the main address at the Wall Street Women Forum

the Street," says Newton, who is a partner with the independent, fee-only wealth management firm RegentAtlantic Capital.

One need look no further than the high profile firings of Erin Callan at Lehman Brothers and Zoe Cruz at Morgan Stanley (MS) to understand why women were feeling particularly exposed. [Click here for the inside story of Callan's fall from grace.]

Was it true, as implied by a New York Magazine story about Cruz, that men were more able to survive? And if so, how could that change?

"To see it not work out for these women, no matter what the reason, was unnerving," Newton says. "The executives I spoke with were wondering how to read those tea leaves and how they would continue to succeed."

Out of this anxiety and chaos, Newton's idea for the Wall Street Women Forum was born. There are many other networking groups for women in business, including well known groups like 85Broads, which began as a club for women who worked at Goldman Sachs (GS) and expanded to include women in many professions around the globe. These groups provide women ways to connect and expand their lists of friends and business contacts.

But there are few groups dedicated to teaching women how to survive, and thrive; and as Wall Street underwent an historic dislocation Newton decided the time was right to start an organization that focused on career skills. Last May she kicked off the Wall Street Women Forum with a conference titled: "Reinventing Your Career for the New Wall Street." The day-long event focused on specific steps women could take to reinvent themselves for new roles at their workplaces, or even entirely different careers.

"It's not meant to be a touchy-feely, inspirational day," says Newton. "The mission is to provide pragmatic content that women can act on. I want people to walk away with a plan to try something new that will help them advance their careers."

The response was overwhelmingly positive, and Newton created a follow up session called "Negotiate Like the Big Boys," to better help women ask for, and get, better pay, titles, and more responsibility. One thing attendees liked about the negotiating session was learning that men share most all of their anxieties about asking for more at work; and that asking is a risk for them, too.

What began as a network of several dozen women has blossomed into a community of about 500 senior level executives who come together to learn practical strategies for success. Participation is by invitation only.

The Forum is only a few years old, but it already attracts some influential industry players. Heidi Miller, JP Morgan's (JPM) president of international operations and a longtime ally of CEO Jamie Dimon, was the keynote speaker at the first conference held last May.

At today's conference, titled "Claiming Your Seat at the Table," the main address will be delivered by Carla Harris, a managing director at Morgan Stanley. Harris recently published a book titled Expect to Win: Proven Strategies for Success from a Wall Street Vet.

Harris, who has worked at Morgan Stanley since 1987, says that much of what women learn at Forum events is gender neutral. But she finds that women often think just being smart and working hard will be enough to get ahead, in part because it is how they got through the tough academic environments they had to survive to get to Wall Street.

"People need to understand that no environment is 100% meritocratic because there is a subjective, human element in every evaluation," Harris says.

In her speech, Harris intends to talk about creating the relationships one needs to get to the top. It's a topic that she loves to talk about because she believes that relationships are integral to success. In her book and in her speeches she explains the difference between a mentor and an advocate, and she describes what role each one should play. Most importantly, she explains how to ask coworkers to be mentors and advisors, and how to deal with rejection.

Harris didn't learn these strategies in her classes at Harvard Business School or by attending conferences. Rather, she learned them by observing what was going on around her for the first six or seven years of her career.

"It would have been nice to have known these things when I was starting out, and not to have acquired them the hard way," she says. "That being said, I still use a lot of the strategies and tips that I'll discuss at the conference after 23 and a half years in the business."

Participants are impressed by the Wall Street Women Forum because it is dedicated to developing the skills necessary to change their careers for the better. Newton has heard from women who attended last year's conference that they landed promotions or made the leap to new careers thanks to the skills they learned at the event.

One of the reasons that the Forum focuses on relationships and communication is so that women can gain more insight into how they are perceived in the workplace.

Newton says studies have shown that women are more reluctant to ask questions and bounce ideas off of co-workers, and that this means they're not getting valuable feedback.

For example, Newton says it is vitally important to ask for what you want, because "if your boss doesn't think that you deserve the money or believe you can take on a bigger role, that's vital to know. Then you can decide the next steps you need to take in order to succeed."

Harris says she likes the idea of contributing to an organization that is so pragmatic. "I hope women walk away feeling like they developed tools that allow them to maximize their success or turn around their situations," Harris says. "If they come to the conference feeling unsure about whether or not they should pursue what it is their doing, I hope they walk out and believe that they can excel."

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About This Author
Katie Benner
Katie Benner
Writer, Fortune

Katie Benner joined Fortune in October 2006. As a writer for the magazine and the website, she focuses on Wall Street and the economy. Prior to joining Fortune, Benner worked at TheStreet.com, CNNMoney, and as a freelancer in Beijing for China International Business, the South China Morning Post, and as a columnist for Beijing Review. She has a B.A. in English from Bowdoin College.

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