Bull Bear Report Sep 02 2010

Women Fight for Equality on the Trading Floor

By kyle stock

Though trading desks have largely shed their locker-room cultures, they are still short on women -- and some female traders still feel the need to swagger and take aggressive positions to gain respect.

Last year, only 29% of those selling and buying stocks, bonds and other instruments in the U.S. were women, some 333,000, according to figures compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That ratio has not changed appreciably in the past five years.

In comparison, women hold between 40% and 45% of the jobs in the U.S. finance industry at large, according to surveys by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

In a vocation that rewards raw aggression and punishes sensitivity, stories of Mad-Men style antics abound. After-hours strip-club escapades were long the water-cooler currency around trading desks and workers on the floor or in the pits often traded punches, as well as stocks and bonds.

In his classic Wall Street memoir "Liar's Poker," Michael Lewis referred to his fellow bond traders as "a jungle of chest-pounding males" and wrote "everyone wanted to be a Big Swinging (Richard), even the women."

However, most major brokers, particularly those owned by public companies, have spiked that stigma and reined in sexually charged shenanigans. The most off-putting antics on many trading desks these days are eatingcontests.

One female trader who asked to remain unnamed said that in recent years she saw more offensive behavior at offices in emerging markets and at smaller companies, places where corporate culture and workplace policies lagged those at epicenters like Manhattan and London.

"They still had the legacy of machismo so you were more likely to hear an off-color joke or comment in those settings," she said. "People in those floors hadn't signed off on reams of policy and conduct laws."

Fighting For It

Still, the path to trading success remains rockier for women than it is for men. Chloe Angyal, founder of Equal Writes, a Princeton University feminist publication, interviewed dozens of women traders in research for the Princeton sociology department. Most said that their work environments were hijinks-free, but many talked about the need to develop "a thick skin." One woman said that when she stepped onto the floor she became "a dude in heels."

A former trader at BlackRock who just finished an MBA program at Columbia University and prefers to remain anonymous, said that banks now inundate new hires with sexual harassment training. However, it was tough for her to win work in trading, rather than sales.

"At BlackRock, the only women on the floor for a number of years were secretaries," she said. "I've always had to fight tooth and nail to even be considered as a trader."

Even once she got on the buy side she said that she had to be twice as aggressive as her male colleagues to overcome a prejudice that female traders are too risk-averse.

Doreen Mogavero did not have a problem with the machismo culture of the NYSE floor when she started her brokerage there, Mogavero Lee & Co. Inc., in 1989. Getting clients as a woman-owned firm was a challenge.

"I had one guy tell me flat-out that they would never give an order to a woman," she said. "Now, in many ways, it's an advantage, which is certainly a strange twist of fate."

Mogavero Lee & Co. now has a long list of institutional clients and trades on the NASDAQ in addition to the NYSE. Mogavero herself has served four terms as the NYSE's Executive Floor Official.

A Level Playing Floor

Technology, for one, has been a huge equalizer. Very few traders have to physically defend their positions anymore and telecommuting has improved work-life balance immeasurably.

"A woman can hit a button as fast as a man," Mogavero explained.

Results are another equalizer. Trading is essentially the ultimate meritocracy, said Grace Koo, a managing director of investment banking at Credit Suisse. "If you can make money, it doesn't matter if you're a woman, plant or dog," she said. "They'll have you on the trading floor."

Indeed, research from Peter Levin, an assistant professor of sociology at Barnard College and a former clerk in a futures trading pit, showed that sexist jokes and other gender-differentiating comments spiked when markets were relatively quiet.

Early in her career, Koo was one of two women on a team of 200 traders. She said that the mood was aggressive, but the hazing was "equal opportunity," as opposed to sexist or gender specific.

Wall Street has grown "kinder and gentler" Koo said. At times in recent years, close to 70% of her traders have been women, though that ratio has dropped back below half. But Koo still notices higher attrition among women as they progress in their careers.

"I don't see it as a competency issue, as much as it is an issue of attraction," Koo said. "Until science figures out a way for men to have babies...I don't see how the numbers are ever going to be even."

Which Is the Fairer Sex?

Meanwhile, the question of which sex makes for better traders is still debated. Some argue that men, in general, are less disciplined and more likely to trade based on emotion. While others point out that many women are risk-averse and tend to flee positions when the going gets tough.

Some have even argued that a greater percentage of women on trading floors might have mitigated the subprime crisis.

Anne-Marie Baiynd, who runs a training program dubbed The Trading Book, says that both sexes have their strengths and shortcomings. She said that many of the women traders that she counsels are handicapped by indecisiveness and a reluctance to take big positions, while male traders often stumble on overconfidence and their own emotions.

"Men get mad and women get scared," she said. "I could never say, though, that women are better traders than men, or vice versa."

Write to Kyle Stock

Related: Sexual Harassment Still a Problem in Finance -- Despite the Numbers

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