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Women eschew Wall Street’s boys’ club — and its glass ceiling

March 3, 2016 at 7:34 PM EDT
Wall Street has long been considered a men’s-only club -- so what is it like for a woman there, when only 15 percent of traders are female? According to Maureen Sherry, a former Bear Stearns director turned author, the problem goes beyond frat-boy antics and sexual harassment. Economics correspondent Paul Solman talks to Sherry about how the glass ceiling is repelling women from Wall Street.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In recent years, there’s been more attention on discrimination in places like Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

But there’s been less attention of late to the continuing problem of harassment and outright sexism in some firms on Wall Street and the financial industry. Companies long have engaged in training workers about appropriate behavior, but lawsuits are still being filed against firms alleging bias and a culture of harassment.

A new book casts a harsh spotlight on the way women have been treated over time.

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has the story. It’s part of his weekly series, Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the “NewsHour.”

ACTOR: Stock’s going to Pluto, man.

ACTOR: Start unloading.

ACTOR: What? Sell?

ACTOR: Dump it now. Dump it all.

PAUL SOLMAN: Trading floors, for years, the cliche has been a menagerie of men. And even today, only about 15 percent of traders are female. So, what’s it like for a woman?

MAUREEN SHERRY, Author, “Opening Belle”: One woman I know used to work with a managing director. If women were walking by in a skirt, he would throw himself on the floor, pretend to look up their skirt. And they would — he would get the laugh, you know, from the other guys.

PAUL SOLMAN: Former Bear Stearns managing director Maureen Sherry had her own trying walk when she worked on Wall Street.

MAUREEN SHERRY: When I had come back from my maternity leave, I was still nursing, and kept a breast pump under my desk. One trader would notice, and he would start making a mooing sound, and, you know, sometimes other herd members would join in.

PAUL SOLMAN: Actually mooing?

MAUREEN SHERRY: Yes, mooing.

And one night, I was leaving. And someone came to tell me that there had been a bet that a young guy wouldn’t do a shot of my breast milk, and that he had risen to the challenge.

ACTORS: Do hereby pledge allegiance to the frat.

PAUL SOLMAN: Frat-boy antics and overt sexism are vivid features of Sherry’s new novel, “Opening Belle,” based on her experiences on a trading floor in the 1990s, and those of others still in the business.

MAUREEN SHERRY: On the floor I worked on, we had some ex-professional athletes.

PAUL SOLMAN: You had ex-professional…

MAUREEN SHERRY: Many — professional athletes, New York Ranger. We had a Knick. We had people who really, really lived that team mentality.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the competitive edge?

MAUREEN SHERRY: Very competitive. Loved to win, yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Loved to win. Loved to compete, loved to win, loved to risk.

MAUREEN SHERRY: There’s no walls, and they’re all together, and there’s the — the cortisol high of doing trades together every single day, lots of testosterone.

And so you can see where risk becomes part of the language.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the more risk you take, the greater the high?

MAUREEN SHERRY: I think that’s a proven fact.

PAUL SOLMAN: Indeed, it is.

Harvard behavioral economist Iris Bohnet has studied the research.

IRIS BOHNET, Harvard Kennedy School: After having experienced the wins, in particular in, men testosterone tends to spike. And that makes men even more willing to take risks. That has been coined the winner’s effect, meaning that, when we experience a win, that affects how we perceive risks going forward, and become even more risk-loving.

Interestingly enough, a number of papers now have been written which couldn’t find a winner’s effect for women.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that might help explain why women on Wall Street are paid just 68 cents to a man’s dollar, and so few make it to or near the top. The males in charge value the winner’s effect, even though it exaggerates losses too.

IRIS BOHNET: Research does suggest that diverse teams do outperform homogeneous teams.

PAUL SOLMAN: And yet, says Sherry, women are discriminated against in lots of ways.

MAUREEN SHERRY: Accounts not being given equitably, that’s really one way, or an account being taken away when you felt it wasn’t something that you deserved. You have to understand that these men make a really good living, and chances are very high that, if they have children, their wife is probably staying home with their children.

It is just sort of understood that, at a certain point, you’re going to just leave to be with your family.

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s not just on Wall Street, says Professor Bohnet.

IRIS BOHNET: We do know that bias creeps in whenever we take potential into account. We don’t naturally expect women to want to climb up the career leader.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO, Actor: Everybody had a good week?

PAUL SOLMAN: And if you don’t think women are likely to climb, then it’s a lot easier to treat them less professionally.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: I have offered our lovely sales assistant Danielle Harrison here $10,000 to shave her (EXPLETIVE DELETED) head!


PAUL SOLMAN: Maureen Sherry knew a female banker who approached a male trader about a promotion.

MAUREEN SHERRY: She was really vivacious and beautiful, and she went over and she talked to him about it, and he said, yes, let’s — we need to sit down, have a proper interview, et cetera.

And he said, let’s meet at this bar. And she gets there, and she sat down at the table, and she said, when she put it down and started her prepared interview, he said, that’s what this is about? And he threw a hotel room key on the — on the table, and said, you know, I thought that’s why you wanted to meet, or something like — to that effect.

PAUL SOLMAN: No shock that, in the last decade, several major financial firms have settled large gender discrimination cases, while smaller suits, usually handled in-house and kept hush-hush, abound.

MAUREEN SHERRY: One of the people I have spoken with is a lawyer. I said, how many cases in this genre do you have a year? And he said, my firm? About 80.


MAUREEN SHERRY: Eight-zero, one firm.

PAUL SOLMAN: For years, Sherry herself found Wall Street gratifying, atmosphere notwithstanding. But she left in 2000, when she realized she’d gone about as far as she could go.

MAUREEN SHERRY: Look, when you feel that your career’s been determined for you and you’re not progressing any further, it’s incredibly ungratifying.

PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, you hit the glass ceiling.


PAUL SOLMAN: Her husband remained in finance, but Sherry became a writer. Her first book, a children’s mystery, was inspired by her New York apartment, where clues to solve an elaborate scavenger hunt are hidden in the walls.

MAUREEN SHERRY: Here, go ahead. Take that picture. Do you know what this is, by the way?

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s Dr. Seuss.


PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s Sylvester McMonkey McBean. Sneetches. Those are Sneetches.


MAUREEN SHERRY: You’re right.

Behind each one is a replica of a room in the apartment. They fit together, and behind every single one of these, you could build out a whole house.

PAUL SOLMAN: The mother of four had ample distractions, but Sherry kept dwelling on her more than a decade on Wall Street.

MAUREEN SHERRY: If you can’t get the story out of your head, and can’t let it go, you have to put it to paper.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s what it was for you? You couldn’t let it go?

MAUREEN SHERRY: I couldn’t let it go. I tried. It still bothered me. I just wanted to sort of discuss, to let you see through the lens of a woman what it’s like to work in a place like that, what it feels like.

PAUL SOLMAN: What it felt like from 1989 to the year 2000, and apparently what it still feels a lot like today.

“PBS NewsHour” economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from New York.