145 years of frat boys: A history of Wall Street sexism

Goldman Sachs and others say they're trying to clean up their act. But the sexism on Wall Street runs deep

Published March 30, 2014 10:59AM (EDT)

Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street"

OK, everybody, a little quiz: What woman stockbroker said this about working on Wall Street? “The real objection to me was that I was attempting to stand upon an equality with them, to transact business ...”

And who said this one? “I think institutional sexism is a really intractable issue on Wall Street. What I mean by ‘institutional sexism’ is that it’s usually not blatant. It’s just being subtly left out of things.”

The first was Tennessee Claflin, who with her sister, Victoria Woodhull, became the first women in history to own a Wall Street brokerage firm, speaking out in 1872. The second statement, sounding eerily similar, was uttered a century and a half later by financial columnist Bethany McLean, known for discovering the Enron scandal. She was talking about Goldman Sachs, which incidentally was founded in 1869, exactly one year before the sisters invaded Wall Street.

Needless to say, little has changed for women on Wall Street in nearly two centuries. Rattled by ongoing discrimination lawsuits, new female partner hires in 2012 was still at a dismal 14 percent.

Goldman Sachs has tried to clean up its act. It recently announced a joint partnership with World Bank Group to increase access to credit for women small business owners in developing countries. One can just imagine the wheels churning and discussions playing out in the public relations firms employed by these massive corporations: How the hell do we get out of this discrimination mess? Let’s try funding some service projects and move that attention away from the issue at hand. But Goldman Sachs retained its tone-deafness by passing out cosmetic mirrors and nail files to a women’s conference recently.

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McLean’s “institutional sexism” comment has a familiar ring to women in every career with a high male ratio. She spoke of women being left out of after-work drinking (where business gets conducted) to “not being chosen for that great new assignment that could give you a chance to prove yourself. It’s that sort of thing.”

When women get uppity, retaliation is subtler today, but in the Victorian era, the New York Times nearly called Tennie a whore when she spoke out in 1872.  After entering a firm “upon a purely business matter” and “completing my business,”  the head of the firm said: "‘Tennie, see here, I don’t want you to come here so much; it will be remarked on the Street.’ Just as though … my visits must mean something wrong, against which these immaculate men stood in fear.” Attacking her radical feminism with sexual slurs, the New York Times, at that time a mouthpiece for corporate America, snapped, “when a woman … tries to gain business favors in exchange for familiarities too freely offered to be attractive, the ordinary man of business is annoyed and disgusted.” Here the Times italicized an attribute not overly noticeable among the robber barons on the Street: Tennie was especially repugnant to men “with reputations to lose.”

No matter today’s less overt corporate discrimination, the disturbing reality is that Wall Street remains notoriously testosterone-friendly. The Atlantic Monthly, searching for answers regarding Goldman Sachs and other examples of gender discrimination, cites one man pondering whether it might be the women’s fault for not working hard enough to get to the top and then quitting, “to make babies and cookies."

While researchers find that leaving to have children is one legitimate barrier, another 2012 study notes that even when women attend comparable schools, enroll in the same major and choose the same profession, one year out of college such women on average were making $7,600 less than their male counterparts, or 82 cents on the dollar.

And Forbes columnist Germaine Olen suggested that Goldman Sachs and other major corporations discriminate not only through lack of promotions but also by fostering a sexist atmosphere that makes it hard for women to climb the corporate ladder. One conjecture here, another there, but the bottom line still holds: Discrimination and sexism undoubtedly exist in Big Business. Big time.

By Myra MacPherson

Myra MacPherson, former Washington Post reporter, is the author of five books, including the Vietnam War classic “Long Time Passing” and her recent “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.”

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