Sexism on the Street: "It's So Not Fixed"

Susan Antilla, author of Tales from the Boom Boom Room, talks about the financial industry's persistent discrimination against women

Susan Antilla spent three years researching and writing Tales From The Boom Boom Room: Women vs. Wall Street (for a review, see BW, 11/25/02, "Sex and the City"). The veteran reporter has covered business for 24 years and is an adjunct professor at New York University's journalism school, and a consultant to Bloomberg News. Antilla recently spoke with BusinessWeek Banking Editor Heather Timmons about reaction to the book and how the industry treats its female members now. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: When did you realize that sexual harassment and discrimination were big issues on Wall Street?


I knew something significant was going on when all the women at Olde Discount called me in 1995 [after Antilla wrote a story about abusive sales practices at the regional brokerage]. I had been writing about the business for 17 years, so I was definitely accustomed to hearing that women on Wall Street were not treated well.

But this notion that management at Olde so wanted to get rid of women that they would push out ones that were making a lot of money for the firm really astounded me. When I asked the women to prove it and they did, I knew I had a big story. All along I knew this was history. I thought "I have to go and cover this."

Even before I had a publisher, I would take along a photographer with me. I knew I wanted to write a book so I would just pay for that myself. I saw all along there was a lot of rewriting of history going on by the brokerage industry. If you don't write it down as its happening, you run the risk of the record being changed.

Q: The Boom Boom Room and other tales of harassment on Wall Street were hot, front-page stories, and then the media's attention faded. Why is that?


This is a topic that people are really uncomfortable about. Editors are afraid of lawsuits. Depending on which person you're dealing with, you never know what personal feelings someone might have about this issue. We've had some surprising rejections for interviews about the book. Someone will say to my publicist, "We don't do sexual harassment."

Q: The common notion on Wall Street seems to be "these problems have been fixed."


No way. It is so not fixed. Maybe that's part of the problem. Editors and reporters think it has been fixed. It's slightly better, but there is a long way to go. If not for the fact that Eliot Spitzer has made people more open-minded about problems in general on Wall Street, there might not be the receptivity. It has been particularly apparent on call-in radio shows. People really were interested.

Q: Why are less women on Wall Street now than two years ago?


Women are disappointed. Part of the answer is that it's a distasteful place for a lot of them to work. The women who spent a lot of money to get MBAs in the '80s started to see that after spending all that money and having loans to pay off, several years out, they aren't making as much as the guys next to them.

So a woman goes into a job, she invests money to get it, and the job doesn't pay off. The job isn't professionally satisfying, and it isn't socially satisfying, and it isn't emotionally satisfying because some of the women are getting figuratively beaten up. So why stay?

Q: What do you think will be the effect of putting Sallie Krawcheck at the top of Salomon Smith Barney?


Boy.... Well, that is a question that only time will answer. The best answer that I can give you is back in 1997, when Smith Barney and the women announced the proposed settlement, they could not have been more excited about installing Johnetta Cole as the senior diversity officer of the settlement and the company. So far as anything that I can tell, she became the invisible woman. If you called Smith Barney, no one would be able to tell you where she was, how to reach her, or what she was doing.

We have a record of seeing this firm be very good when the heat is on, coming up with the right names and the right public relations. I hope Sallie Krawcheck is an exception to what we've seen them do historically.

Still, we don't know what the deal is between her and Weill. We don't really know what authority she has. When push comes to shove, he's the ultimate decision-maker there. He has the authority over her. And while its wonderful to have a woman in her spot, her boss is a man, as is most of the board of directors. So she's a minority. I'm very glad she's there. It's better than not having her there. But we have to wait and see whether it will really mean anything.

Q: In Tales, it was striking how many women were complicit in other women being treated poorly -- managers who didn't want to rock the boat, or human resources managers who didn't respond to complaints. You would think they would be other women's greatest source of solidarity.


Some of that inability for women to stick up for other women must come from insecurity at your job. If you felt you had power, I'd think it would be much easier to stick up for someone. There were men who were in stronger positions who did not speak up. Sisterhood is terrific, but sisters did not have a lot of power.

Q: Most women who filed cases against their Wall Street employers didn't appear to get big-money settlements, and many have left the industry. Do you think most plaintiffs think it was worth it in the long run?


We don't actually know what the Smith Barney and Merrill women got, because 99% of them mediated and agreed to hold their settlement amounts confidential. As to whether they think it was worth it, there's a lot of unhappiness among the plaintiffs, which is too bad. Some are so distracted sniping at each other that I think they've forgotten that they've accomplished a lot.

These are women who were real crusaders, but like a lot of crusaders, they don't get to reap the rewards. It's the women who come after them who will work in more comfort because of what the crusaders of the 1990s did.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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