A Lawsuit Peeks Inside the Goldman Sachs 'Boys' Club'

Chen-Oster (right) and Orlich in 2010 Photograph by Richard Perry/The New York Times via Redux

Two women suing investment bank Goldman Sachs for gender discrimination filed papers on Tuesday in federal court requesting class status. The move, if granted, would allow them to press their case on behalf of all female associates and vice presidents in investment banking and securities divisions who worked at the firm since 2002, potentially opening the case up to thousands of women. In the process, the women are taking aim at the entire culture of Wall Street.

Cristina Chen-Oster, a former Goldman vice president, and Shanna Orlich, a former associate, filed suit against the company in 2010, accusing it of discrimination against female employees in areas from compensation to work assignments and advancement. They alleged that the company routinely paid female employees up to 21 percent less than their male counterparts; that women were promoted more slowly and more reluctantly than men; and that the environment was generally hostile to women. Not surprisingly, strip clubs are mentioned multiple times. The women and their attorneys spent four years gathering evidence in a rather devastating dossier if their findings are taken at face value.

Goldman Sachs denied the allegations. ”This is a normal and anticipated procedural step for any proposed class action lawsuit and does not change the case’s lack of merit,” said a Goldman spokesman in a statement.

Reading through hundreds of pages of claims and declarations filed in support of the women’s case, one comes away with the depressing sense that they could be describing almost any major financial company. They recount exclusion from male bonding excursions, mystification at the complicated bonus and promotion system that lacks transparency, and seeing their responsibilities taken away after having children. The allegations almost have a banal feel to them: Find a Wall Street firm where those things don’t happen.

“I believe that Goldman Sachs maintains a culture of bias against women. I have witnessed firsthand Goldman Sachs’ pervasive boys’ club culture. I also believe that having children has negatively affected my opportunities for advancement,” wrote one Lisa Albanese, a former vice president in the equities division who says that she was never promoted to the managing director level despite her status as a top performer. “In order to be successful at Goldman Sachs, I had to tolerate offensive language from male co-workers and a boys’ club atmosphere.”

Chen-Oster reports that she was sexually assaulted by a male co-worker at a staff dinner in 1997 and then discouraged from reporting it to human resources. Years later, after taking maternity leave, she says she found all her juiciest assignments handed off to male colleagues. “If Goldman Sachs were a better place for women to work and I thought that I would not be treated differently from men, I would seek a career there,” she writes.

“In my experience, entertaining clients at strip clubs was considered routine for Goldman in the U.S.,” writes Katalin Tischhauser, who worked on the convertible bond desk in London. She describes a visit to a conference in New Orleans in 2001 where her American colleagues took clients to a strip club and paid the strippers to entertain them. According to the complaint, the firm began discouraging new associates from taking clients to strip clubs in 2005 but did so with a nod and a wink, telling them that if they went, they should simply not expense it.

If this were the 1990s, when brokerage firms such as Salomon Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley settled landmark sex-discrimination cases, the stories would probably have been spicier. That was when the infamous “boom boom room” was a common cultural reference, a time when topless dancers were paraded through trading floors and female employees might expect to have their bottoms pinched by drunken male co-workers.

While the more egregious behavior cited in the older cases seems to be gone, the details alleged in Chen-Oster and Orlich’s case suggest that discrimination against women has gone underground and become more subtle—making it that much harder to fight.