Women of Wall Street, on the street

Forbes looks into the disproportionate number of females losing jobs in the financial industry.

By Kate Harding

Published February 27, 2009 7:11PM (EST)

In the cover story of the March 16 Forbes, "Terminated: Why the Women of Wall Street are disappearing," Anita Raghavan paints a damning picture of sexism in the financial industry, which you'd think might have learned its lesson after paying out over $400 million dollars in settlements of sexual harassment cases. This time, the discrimination against women is manifesting in the form of disproportionate layoffs. Even though a recession usually leads to more job losses for men, in the finance and insurance sector over the last two years, "female employment has fallen 4.7% to 3.8 million, while male employment has dropped 3.2% to 2.1 million, according to the government's Current Employment Statistics survey," says Raghavan. And her interviews with women who have lost their jobs on Wall Street and filed discrimination suits offer a chilling idea of why that might be.

There's Nadine Mentor, who was laid off immediately after bringing in an uncommonly lucrative deal for Citigroup. Then Amy Bartoletti, also at Citi, who saw a demonstrably less qualified man (making the same salary) first promoted over her and then kept on while she was axed for being "too expensive." And Kathleen Bostjancic, who, after years of earning effusive performance reviews at Merrill Lynch, was sacked a year after giving birth -- in the meantime, she claims, her boss had an assistant log every time she closed her door to pump breast milk. Anita Gupta of Bank of America and Wan Li of Citigroup also found themselves marginalized and eventually let go after becoming mothers. Gupta says she was told she was being laid off, but no one else was dismissed at the same time -- and she was asked to participate in interviewing someone for a position suspiciously similar to her own. Li claims "she was pushed into a job with no prospect of advancement while pregnant and set to go on maternity leave," and it only went downhill from there. "In late June 2007, just as Li's second maternity leave was ending and she was preparing to return to work, she received a telephone call from two female officials at the bank. Her position had been eliminated in a 'restructuring.' Of the 40 to 50 professionals in the Asset Finance Group worldwide, Li was the only professional let go," according to her suit. Paula Best believes she was laid off after 13 years at Bank of Tokyo as retaliation for a racial and gender discrimination suit she'd already filed, and Eleni Demetriou also believes she was terminated (by Merrill Lynch) for raising a fuss -- in this case, about two members of her group having sex in the office. (One of them was friends with her boss.) And finally, rising star analysts Brittany Sharpton and Chia Siu were laid off from Citigroup's public finance department despite overwhelmingly positive reviews and promises of advancement.

Not everyone finds such stories to be compelling evidence of a pattern of discrimination. Unsurprisingly, every spokesperson who offered a comment for one of the accused corporations categorically denied any wrongdoing. As for more theoretically objective observers, Raghavan writes, "Nonsense, say plenty of employment specialists. How do we know, they ask, whether the women who were fired were as talented as the men who survived or replaced them? Another argument against the plaintiff's claims: Perhaps some new moms and older women have simply lost their mojo. Yet another response is that the subject of gender is irrelevant." I just love the juxtaposition there. Why would older men and new dads be any less likely to suffer loss of mojo, you ask? Oh, shush. Gender is irrelevant! I would high-five Raghavan for the funny if I weren't too busy squeezing my stress ball and taking deep breaths.

However these suits end up, and whatever happens when the economy recovers, the loss of women in the financial industry right now will have lasting repercussions. Says Lisa Conley, who before being laid off was the lone female director of Citi's health care group, "[Y]ou have taken out a whole generation of future female managing directors." And Linda D. Friedman, an attorney who brought a notorious sexual harassment suit against Smith Barney in the '90s, sums it up even more bleakly. "There are just so few women" -- in positions of power, that is -- "you lose one, you lose 100%."

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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