Why you should care

Sooner or later, Goldman Sachs’ French-born, London-based, onetime ‘Commodities Queen’ will be the CEO of something — maybe even Goldman itself.

Even among the alpha-male, aggressive stereotypes at elite financial institutions, the world of commodity trading has a reputation of being rough-and-tumble. So, in 2007, when French trader Isabelle Ealet was promoted to the head of Goldman Sachs’ commodities unit, it created a lot of positive notice. Goldman’s CEO, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and president, Gary D. Cohn, have both served as head of the best commodities unit in the world.

Six years later, Ealet has risen even higher — she is now the global co-head of Goldman’s securities division (which accounts for more than half of the firm’s revenue) and serves on several elite company-wide committees. She’s not the highest-ranking woman at Goldman — that distinction goes to Executive Vice President Edith W. Cooper — but she may be the one with the brightest future. In 2012, Ealet made Bloomberg Markets’ 50 most influential list, and last month she was named one of American Banker’s 25 most powerful women in finance.

Ealet’s rise comes at a time when more women are considered CEOs-in-waiting at top companies. Last year women led just 35 companies in the Fortune 1000 but accounted for about 14 percent of Fortune 500 executive officers. The situation remains tougher within the financial industry, where the top firms are all still led by men and where women still make just 55 to 62 cents for every dollar made by men. Ealet doesn’t figure strongly in the longstanding organizations of women within Wall Street like the Financial Women’s Association and 85 Broads, but as NYU anthropologist Melissa S. Fisher notes in her book Wall Street Women, the lone female pioneer in any industry is more of a myth than a reality: People always rise as part of networks of relationships. (Ealet and Goldman Sachs did not comment for this story.)

More women are considered CEOs-in-waiting at top companies, but the situation is tougher in finance.

As a child, Ealet — the daughter of a French army colonel — dreamed of becoming a military pilot, but after stints at two of France’s elite-making grandes écoles, she opted to focus not on what’s in the sky but on what’s underground, becoming an oil trader for the French petro-giant Total. In 1991, at age 28, she hopped the English Channel to join Goldman’s London commodities desk, where she rose to managing director in 2000 and partner in 2002.

In London, she became one of a small cadre of French financial-industry stars finding success in The City. She has attributed her rise in the commodities to Goldman’s results-oriented culture, which judges people by their performance rather than by their diploma or personal network — important for her both as a francophone in an English world and as a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment. “She was a badass,” says a former female employee.

In 2010, Ealet told Time Magazine that the best and hardest decisions she had made in her life were those that concerned family: choosing to marry, and then deciding to return to work just a few weeks after the birth of each of her two children. Her husband, a fellow trader, wound up resigning in order to take care of their children full-time.

In the same interview, Ealet noted that work-life balance was hardly the only thing that seemed to keep women from rising to positions of leadership. Equally important, she said, was the absence of a “critical mass of talented female leaders as role models,” as well as many women’s lack of confidence in their own ability to deliver at the highest level.

She has attributed her rise in the commodities to Goldman’s results-oriented culture, which judges people by their performance.

By all accounts, such confidence is not something Ealet herself lacks. While leading Goldman’s commodity training, she gained a reputation for having a brusque management style. “She won’t be getting many Christmas cards from employees,” a manager from a Goldman rival told CNN.

One of the few gems of personal info that came from the few interviews Ealet has granted concerned her purchase of two racehorses, one named “Life of Risks” and the other “All Is Vanity.” The latter has recorded earnings of nearly $500,000 — not a bad bet at all.

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