Charting Their 
Own Course

The first generation of women who changed Wall Street

By by Melissa Phipps

Cultural anthropologist Melissa 
Fisher ’85 has always had an interest in women pioneers. As a girl, she would delight in her grandmother’s stories of being one of the few women attending the University of Pennsylvania law school in the 1920s. “The other students said they knew her by the click-clack of her high heels in the hallway,” says Fisher, a visiting scholar in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University.

That image of a woman standing out in a man’s world inspired Fisher’s interest in the first generation of women working on Wall Street. In her new book, Wall Street Women (Duke University Press, 2012), she details stories from women who pioneered in professional finance in the 1960s and 1970s. They began as anomalies in a world dominated and populated almost entirely by men, and went on to positions of wealth and power. The stories are told in the women’s own words (all names were changed in the book and this article*) in a series of interviews that began in the 1990s, went on through the market meltdown of 2008, and concluded in late 2010 with a roundtable discussion among the women. They cracked the glass ceiling, making success in the financial industry a possibility for other women, and their influence still resonates. They also helped to feminize the market, according to Fisher, who believes, like many, that women provide a necessary balance, a long-term focus, and an aversion to risk that today’s market requires. Although the number of women on Wall Street has decreased in recent years, there are those market-watchers who believe a feminized market is a safer one for the average investor. 

Wall Street Women began as a dissertation. While doing her post-graduate study in anthropology at Columbia in the mid-1990s, Fisher wanted a topic that would take a peek behind politics or economics to show the human workings. She was interested in women’s roles in finance, but met many of her subjects initially in the context of women’s politics. In one of her initial interviews with a prominent New York fundraiser, she learned about an interesting new political class—self-made women on Wall Street. Whereas upper-class New York women who married wealth tended to give to their husbands’ causes, these new donors were also wealthy, and motivated to support female candidates on both sides of the aisle. Fisher was fascinated and wanted to know more, “These women were in their 40s, all reasonably to extremely successful. Many were managing directors of their firms: How did they get there? What was it like for them to move up?” 

Fisher was surprised to find that most of those she interviewed did not fit her initial assumptions. They were not, for the most part, brought up in privileged families with roots in finance. Many came from middle-class backgrounds. They did not did go to Ivy League colleges. (Many were not open to women at the time.) Most attended small women’s colleges, and went on to get MBA degrees through night-school classes at New York University. They were not drawn to Wall Street by the promise of untold wealth; they just wanted careers. “When they went in, Wall Street wasn’t such a glamorous place,” says Fisher. “They wanted to be something more than secretaries. New York held promise, there was something beyond what they had.” 

She was also surprised to find that the women were not fiercely competitive with one another. They may not have identified as feminists publicly, and they tended to keep their politics outside of the office until decades later. But, they had come of age during the time of The Feminine Mystique, and were influenced by the ongoing feminist debate. While their goal was to blend in, they were focused on supporting each other and helping each other succeed. 

The women found ways to share information and opportunities early on, through membership in the Financial Women’s Association of New York, an organization initially begun in 1956 by eight women who were denied membership in the Young Men’s Investment Association. The group subscribes to a mission of fostering a community to support its members and promote their success. Their goal is to give women in finance a voice. By the mid-70s, the FWA had over 100 members. “I think a lot of closeness was born out of struggle,” recalls member Patricia Riley.* “You know in the ’70s, you were alone for so long—and 
then you found these people through 
the FWA.”

Wall Street Women illustrates how completely different the financial world was then. In 1966, there were about 60 professional women on Wall Street. Most other women working in finance were in clerical or secretarial jobs. The secretaries wore hats and gloves to work, and were so tethered to their male bosses that there were light bulbs with their names next to them in the lavatory. If your bulb was lit, you needed to stop everything and run to your boss. Potential Merrill Lynch hires in 1972 were tested with questions such as, “When you meet a woman, what interests you most about her?” The correct answer—beauty. The fewest points were given for those who answered—intelligence. 

The FWA became a place where women could share more than mutual respect; they could share tips to navigate this new world. “Relationships were important [as was] talking about what it meant to be a successful woman on Wall Street,” says Fisher. This included nitty-gritty things; for instance, what do you wear to a business meeting? Do you drink red wine or white? Do you laugh at a bad joke? Even the smallest misstep could lead to a career setback.

The FWA was not known to take much of a stand on political issues; the first generation tended to stay away from them. By the 1990s, these same women who had become more confident in their careers turned to politics. Many became active in the Women’s Campaign Fund, a nonpartisan group whose goal is to increase the number of women in elected office who support reproductive health choices. They helped to further the careers of women such as California senator Barbara Boxer and Maine senator Olympia Snowe. 

The first generation opened the doors, and the presence of professional women in finance continued to grow over time. Big firms began developing training programs and other ways for women to enter the profession. Interviews in Fisher’s book suggest that, while the pioneer women welcomed an increase in their ranks, they almost resented how much easier it was for the women who came after them, and how much these younger women took for granted. Unburdened by past struggles, younger women have a greater sense of entitlement—to everything from longer maternity leaves to more rapid promotions. There was also a shift in the corporate world. Younger people in general tended to focus on their own needs more than the needs of the business. To the first-generation pioneers, these attitudes seemed unprofessional, and were bound to undermine their gender’s reputation. 

Fisher argues that these women brought “market feminism,” an alignment of feminist ideals about meritocracy and gender equity to the logic of market finance. Market feminism is also a feminization of the market itself. The qualities that are typically identified as “female” bring a necessary diversity to Wall Street. Women tend to be sympathetic listeners, able to develop strong relationships with clients. They tend to be more conservative than men, with a long-term focus and less of a tolerance for risk. These qualities not only appealed to a growing number of female decision-makers and clients, they have the potential to keep the larger market in check. Many people, including Barnard president Debora Spar, have argued that if more women held leadership positions in finance, the recent fiscal meltdown might not have occurred. 

Despite the strides that have been made, women have yet to completely break the glass ceiling. In 2007 and 2008, the financial crisis took down some of the more promising female leaders. High-profile women such as Morgan Stanley co-president Zoe Cruz, Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan, and Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of Citigroup’s Smith Barney unit were all pushed out during the financial crisis. Krawcheck moved to head the global wealth management and investment unit at Bank of America with profitable results, only to leave in a restructuring in 2011. In 2012, Ina Drew, CIO of JPMorgan Chase, left in the wake of that firm’s substantial trading losses. Between 2000 and 2010, 2.6% of female workers in finance left the industry, while the number of men in finance increased by 9.6%, according to a Wall Street Journal article about a review of data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The number of women between the ages of 20 and 35 working in the profession over that period decreased by more than 16%. But, executive women do remain. By the end of Wall Street Women, readers are introduced to a new and vocal generation ready to truly feminize the market. 

Most of the first-generation women are no longer on Wall Street. They retired to focus on other efforts, “some more feminist than others, some more political than others,” writes Fisher. There is a sense that this generation 
will continue to open doors. One of the first-generation women, investment banker Laura Sharp*, puts it well: “Women…as they grow older get more radical, opinionated, and political.... 
My dream today is to work with 
women to help them be successful in a man’s world.”