Book Review: 'Wall Street Women,' by Melissa S. Fisher

How women crashed the boys' club of high finance
One woman tells the author about the dynamics of male-run board meetings: "I feel like Jane Goodall" Illustration by Jimmy Geigerich

Wall Street Women
Melissa S. Fisher
Duke University Press
215 pp; $22.95

In 1972 the entrance exam for Merrill Lynch’s broker-trainee program contained the following question: “When you meet a woman, what interests you most about her?” Leaving aside the irrelevance of the question, the real offense came in the expected response. The correct answer: “her beauty.” Points were deducted for those who suggested “her intelligence.” Merrill couldn’t fathom that a woman might ever apply for the position. When Helen O’Bannon did that same year—and was rejected—she sued the firm for sexual discrimination and won. O’Bannon went on to become the chief financial officer of the University of Pennsylvania, but her real legacy was on Wall Street, which soon began hiring more women.

Wall Street Women by Melissa Fisher looks into what it’s really like to make one’s career in the boardrooms of the incorrigible boys’ club of high finance. Fisher, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, traces 50 years of the personal and professional trajectories of the first generation of women to make it as executives on Wall Street. These female money managers served in top units of major investment banks and brokerage houses and ran their own boutique management firms. Fisher’s fieldwork consisted of a decade’s worth of interviews conducted in corner offices in New York and London. She pursued her subjects at fundraisers and networking events at Upper East Side manses and followed those who were let go in the aftermath of the crisis.

Fisher shows how women who made it on Wall Street deftly deployed their supposedly innate risk-averse qualities to stay afloat long term. Since the ’90s, female executives have cast themselves as prudent “mothers making family purchases” in contrast to their hot-blooded male counterparts. Earlier, these very stereotypes prevented women’s advancement. Now the same traits made women would-be “saviors of the economy.” This, Fisher believes, is a function of strategy, not biology.

March 16 (Bloomberg) -- Bloomberg's Cali Carlin reports that the six jobs with the largest gender gap in pay and at least 10,000 men and 10,000 women were in the Wall Street-heavy financial sector. She speaks on Bloomberg Television's "InBusiness With Margaret Brennan."

We never learn the women’s names or the names of their firms in the book. In exchange, we get the pleasure of hearing conversations that normally take place behind closed doors. When the women dish about the guys in the office, they really dish. When they share their fears about what the men think of them, they’re unnervingly anxious. One executive worried about a lay-off post-crash is terrified of becoming “a bag lady”—an odd concern for a multimillionaire. Meanwhile, a younger employee bent on taking vacation following her maternity leave hears this from her female boss: “As far as I’m concerned, you have screwed up your job.”

The women Fisher chronicles started their careers in the early ’70s as beneficiaries of the postwar affluence that democratized college enrollment. Civil rights-era laws banning hiring discrimination also helped open doors. Wall Street was becoming more meritocratic and relatively more diverse, as middle-class strivers without the luster of a distinguished family pedigree joined investment banks and brokerage houses.

For women, who generally lacked MBAs and insider connections, a common path cut through banks’ research divisions, a back-office support function at the time. Brokers had all the unrepentant brashness and frat-boy chumminess, but they still depended on the number crunchers. As dealmaking grew more complex, research rose in importance. Analysts, Fisher writes, “joined investment bankers and traders in the ‘front office.’ ”

Still, change came slowly. Through the mid-’70s, there were fewer than 100 professional women working on Wall Street. Negotiating work attire when there were no models to draw from was a constant headache for those who didn’t want to look like secretaries. (Some even copied men by donning suits and ties.) “I feel like I am Jane Goodall,” marveled one woman, recalling the dynamics of a male-run board meeting.

The first professional group for Wall Street women, the Financial Women’s Association, was founded in 1956. By all accounts, the group was conservative, voting [in 1978] against endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance. Working to advance themselves on Wall Street, the women felt they couldn’t afford to be overtly political.

But the FWA and an offshoot, the Women’s Campaign Fund, came to play a central role in another movement: funding an early generation of female politicians. By the ’90s, Fisher’s cohort represented the first organized group of independently wealthy women who weren’t heiresses or widows. These women soon bankrolled a new wave of pro-choice female candidates. Here Fisher resuscitates a little-known bit of history: Their money furthered the careers of women like former Texas Governor Ann Richards and Senators Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) and Olympia Snowe (R.-Maine).

The push for corporate diversity and affirmative action programs didn’t sit well with Fisher’s women. Congress mandated 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave in 1993. Now that they were the bosses, how generous should they be to younger women? “We expected so little in the way of a combination of work and family,” one of the women reminisced. “I was shocked at the entitlement of the younger women.”

By the time the bottom fell out of the market, many of the women in Fisher’s account were approaching retirement. The financial collapse raised discomfiting questions as women young and old were swiftly purged from Wall Street’s ranks. Today financial services has the biggest gender wage gap of any profession—55¢ to 62¢ for every $1 made by men, compared to 77¢ on average. Privately, many regretted their laserlike focus on individual advancement and sought to distance themselves from what had happened. One woman laments: “Wall Street as a casino is not the Wall Street we all entered.”

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