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Deja Vu

Wall Street's Lessons for Tinder and the Rest of Silicon Valley

For close watchers of ascendant, powerful industries and their problems dealing equitably with female employees, the lawsuit (PDF) filed last week against technology startup Tinder caused an eerie sense of déjà vu. A female employee alleged that she wasn’t taken seriously by her male bosses and colleagues; that she was pursued, inappropriately, for a romantic relationship by a man she was working for who threatened her after they broke up; and that she was ultimately driven to resign. The company allegedly dismissed the female employee’s complaints about said behavior, retaliated against her for making them, and downplayed her contributions to the business. (Tinder suspended one employee and says there are “inaccuracies” in the suit.) The case paints a picture that’s become all too familiar, especially in the technology business. Dozens of companies could fill in for the one in question.

The closest parallel, though, can be found on Wall Street, an industry that Silicon Valley finds itself being compared to more and more these days—and not in a flattering way.

In the 1980s and ’90s, investment banks and brokerage firms were in a similar place to today’s tech world: growing swiftly, throwing off billions in revenue, and dominated by a young, male workforce receiving outsize paychecks. A star-system culture made for companies that were often unable or unwilling to rein in the misbehavior of employees seen as particularly valuable.

In the case of Wall Street, this led to unwelcome public scrutiny as women sued investment banks in droves, exposing a culture of unequal pay, harassment, and discriminatory behavior reminiscent of the worst fraternities, to use a term that is often mentioned in connection with tech startups these days. Tales From the Boom Boom Room, Susan Antilla’s 2002 book about the era, told the story of the infamous basement party room at a Smith Barney brokerage in Garden City, N.Y., where drinking and stalking female employees were considered a normal part of the workday. Women across the country reported strippers dancing on trading floors for brokers’ birthdays, X-rated work humor, and higher salaries and greater work opportunities for the men.

Wall Street firms settled most of the cases that were filed during that period, paying millions of dollars to plaintiffs and their lawyers. The companies promised to mend their ways, and most of them have, instituting chief diversity officers and professionalizing their cultures. Still, 20 years after the Boom Boom Room case was filed, gender discrimination in finance remains a serious problem. From the sounds of it, Silicon Valley and the tech world are just beginning a long and painful journey, one that’s likely to include a lot of costly litigation.

Kolhatkar is a features editor and national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @Sheelahk.

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