25 Years After the ‘Boom Boom Room’ Lawsuit, Wall Street Still Has a Long Way to Go

Twenty-five years ago this month, three women at a Long Island branch of financial industry giant Smith Barney filed an explosive class-action sexual harassment lawsuit. Their complaint described a branch office where it was acceptable for men to refer to their female colleagues as “b*tches” and “c*nts”, where the boss bellowed to the troops at an office Christmas party that the branch was “the biggest whorehouse in Garden City” and where male brokers would assemble in a basement party room dubbed “the Boom Boom Room” to drink, party and engage in vulgar talk.

That suit wound up including 22,000 women by the time it settled, and women at other brokerage firms started speaking up, too, adding up to a public relations nightmare for the brokerage industry.

A quarter-century later, there is change, but women are still struggling. I wrote about it in an opinion piece today for CNN. You can read it here.

Sexual Misconduct at Work, Again — Antilla on PBS

I worked with the amazing journalists at Type Investigations, The Intercept and Retro Report to tell the story of the women who fought back after being harassed on Wall Street in the 1990s. Watch the segment from tonight’s PBS Retro Report here.

Stark Lessons from Wall Street’s #MeToo Moment

Women filed a wave of lawsuits and arbitrations against financial firms in the 1990s and early 2000s, disgusted by a culture of rampant sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The biggest cases of that era collectively drew thousands of participants in class actions and led to large settlements including $150 million against Smith Barney and $250 million against Merrill Lynch.

At a time when the long-term consequences of #MeToo on women’s careers is an open questions, I looked at court records, tracked down plaintiffs and spoke with a dozen employment lawyers to see how things had turned out for the women — and how things had turned out for the men who allegedly harassed them. My findings were sobering. You can read my story today for The Intercept here.

Sabew honorable mention for investigative reporting

I was honored to hear today that The Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, known as Sabew, awarded me an honorable mention in its “Best in Business” competition in the investigative reporting category. My story, “Finra’s Black Hole,” looked at 30 years of brokerage industry arbitration records to see how women fared when they filed complaints about sexual harassment and gender discrimination. (Answer: Not very well). You can read my story here.

My radio interview with Robin Morgan on my investigation of “FINRA’s Black Hole”

I was on Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan today, talking about my investigation of 30 years of of sexual harassment complaints by women on Wall Street. You can listen to the interview here.

Will Shareholders Lose the Right to Sue Over Corporate Fraud?

Earlier this month, Securities and Exchange Commissioner Hester Peirce told Politico that she “absolutely” thinks that public companies should have the option to require arbitration, which would strip shareholders of their right to bring lawsuits like the one Kacouris filed. The comments by Peirce, a Donald Trump nominee who took office in January, amplified previous remarks by other SEC officials. Commissioner Michael Piwowar, for example, who departed his post in July, told an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation last year that he would “encourage” companies to come talk to the SEC about putting mandatory arbitration clauses in their charters.

Read more about this in my story today in The Intercept.

In 30 Years, Only 17 Women Won Sexual Harassment Claims Before Wall Street’s Oversight Boday

For victims of sexual harassment on Wall Street, the case of Kathleen Mary O’Brien was a bad omen.

In 1988, O’Brien, then a stockbroker at Dean Witter Reynolds, filed the earliest sexual harassment case we could find in a public database maintained by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Wall Street’s self-governing organization, which is overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The year before, O’Brien had sued Dean Witter in Los Angeles Superior Court, but the brokerage firm successfully argued that she was legally bound to use Wall Street’s closed-door arbitration forum, then run by a FINRA predecessor, the National Association of Securities Dealers. The arbitrators’ decision in her case would turn out to be a common one in harassment cases over the following years: The claim was dismissed. The panel, offering no explanation as to how it came to the decision, charged her $3,000 in arbitration fees.

O’Brien’s case is one of 98 sexual harassment or hostile work environment claims and counterclaims made by women that The Intercept and the Investigative Fund found in the FINRA database over the past 30 years. You can read the full story here.

Under Trump’s SEC, Wall Street Secrecy Expands as Enforcement Shrinks

Jay Clayton, Donald Trump’s choice to run the Securities and Exchange Commission, is a man Wall Street itself might have picked to run its most important federal regulator. Except for two years clerking for a federal judge after graduating law school, he has worked his entire adult life at Sullivan & Cromwell, an elite law firm based in downtown Manhattan that includes many of the country’s largest publicly traded companies as clients.

Enforcement cases and fines have gone down since Clayton was sworn in last May, and the SEC has given Wall Street and corporate America any number of gifts, including the easing of public company disclosure requirements that some experts consider key for investors looking to understand a company. My colleague Gary Rivlin and I wrote about Clayton’s SEC for The Intercept. You can read our story here.

How Wall Street Silences Women

Among the business sectors largely absent from the current deluge of sexual harassment revelations is the financial services industry, a behemoth that employs 3.2 million people in the United States and is infamous for abuse and discrimination targeting women. In my story for The Intercept, I talk about women’s fate in finance and the reasons that most stay quiet. You can read it here.

What Hollywood Could Learn from Wall Street’s Sexual-Harassment Reckoning

 

I spoke with The New Yorker about Wall Street, Hollywood, and the cycles of public interest in sexual harassment cases.

What Hollywood Could Learn from Wall Street’s Sexual-Harassment Reckoning

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For those wondering how the current wave of accusations might translate into lasting change and improvements for professional women, Wall Street’s history is instructive.

Sterling Jewelers Suit Casts Light on Wider Policies Hurting Women

Lawyers and academics who specialize in gender discrimination say the documents recently released in a class-action against Sterling Jewelers provide a rare insight into how a company’s policies work in real life. In my article in The New York Times today, I examine the problems with not-so-confidential tip lines and in-house courts run by employers, and the ways they can mask problems that women often face in the workplace. You can read it here.

Don’t Kid Yourself: Departures of Roger Ailes, Kevin Roberts Change Nothing in Sex Discrimination

In a matter of weeks, two senior executives at global businesses lost their jobs related to alleged sexual harassment or clueless talk about gender.

CEO Roger Ailes is out at Fox News. Chairman Kevin Roberts is out at Saatchi & Saatchi.

On the surface, it almost looks like we’ve made some progress on the sex discrimination front. Dig a little deeper, though, and it looks like more of the same: a flurry of public attention that ultimately will peter out.

I explained why neither case is a game-changer for women at work in my column today for TheStreet.com.

Decades After ‘Boom-Boom Room’ Suit, Bias Persists for Women

Twenty-three women sued Smith Barney for sexual harassment and pay discrimination in an explosive class-action lawsuit filed 20 years ago this month. It became known as the “boom-boom room” suit, named after a basement party room at Smith Barney’s branch office in Garden City, N.Y. Nearly 2,000 women joined the case, exposing the sordid antics of Wall Street’s testosterone-driven culture.

Smith Barney paid $150 million in arbitration awards and settlements in the case, and it and other Wall Street firms rushed to set up anti-harassment training, employee hotlines and programs to recruit women.

Twenty years later, permanent change is less obvious.

“You may no longer have strippers coming for afternoon entertainment, but that doesn’t mean you are treated as an equal,” said Anne C. Vladeck of the New York employment law firm Vladeck, Raskin & Clark. “It’s not quite as blatant as what went on in the boom-boom room, but it’s still there in a way that makes it very hard for women to succeed. Companies on Wall Street are just not changing.”

You can read the full story I wrote for The New York Times here.

Fat Cats, Here’s Your Shot at Fame: 2015′s Most Shameful Award-Winners

Business this year often came out a winner at the public’s expense. But that isn’t all bad, because it gives us an excuse to pause and recognize the dubious accomplishments of the victors.

We begin with the winner of the Whiner’s Award: J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon is  the man who can’t complain enough about how hard it is to put up with regulations after his company breaks the law.

You can read about Dimon and the other winners of this year’s “Most Shameful” awards in my column today for TheStreet.

Former Morgan Stanley Broker Sues Over Arbitration Policy

A former broker at Morgan Stanley has filed a class-action race-discrimination complaint against the company, accusing it of making “an end-run around the civil rights laws” with a new policy that bars employee participation in class actions and forces civil rights claims into private arbitration.

Kathy Frazier said in her complaint that African-Americans were underrepresented in the ranks of brokers at Morgan Stanley and were paid “substantially less” than their counterparts.

Ms. Frazier previously worked at Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch and has an economics degree from Amherst College and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. I wrote about Morgan Stanley’s new policy for The New York Times DealBook. You can read the story here.

Indicted Lawyers, Peeping Toms, Can Wind Up Judges in Finra Arbitration

Finra arbitration is often a surprise to investors — not least of all because so many Wall Street customers have no idea that they sign away their right to court when they open an account.

But how about the surprise of learning that one of your arbitrators had been indicted? Or that he had said he was a lawyer, but wasn’t?

My June 24 column for TheStreet tells about Finra’s latest surprise arbitrator — the guy who was arrested for being a Peeping Tom. Really. You can read it here.

Like Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas, Ellen Pao Lost Kleiner Perkins Gender Fight But Women Gained

Sometimes, even a loss can be a win.

A San Francisco jury said last month that Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers did not discriminate or retaliate against its former junior partner, Ellen Pao. From my column for TheStreet.com:

The four-week trial had received intense media coverage for its allegations of porn-star talk in business settings and exclusion of women from company events. Rather than invite a woman on a company ski trip, “Why don’t we punt on her and find 2 guys who are awesome?” a Kleiner partner suggested in an email.

Pao lost. But women didn’t. The case brought huge attention to workplace issues that rarely get aired. Most employers require employees to agree to give up their right to sue before they even show up for the first day of work. So-called “mandatory arbitration” agreements keep gender discrimination complaints out of the public eye, and leave violators of our discrimination laws unaccountable.

You can read my column here.