How Wall Street Keeps Outrageous Gender Bias Quiet 20 Years After the Boom-Boom Room

Everybody loves a half-price sale, and if you’re a recruiter on Wall Street, there’s always a markdown on female employees.

Women in finance last year earned 52 cents for every dollar that men made in a job category the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “securities, commodities and financial services sales agents.” That’s about as bad as it gets for women workers. It was the biggest pay gap among 119 occupations evaluated in a recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

But the revealing lawsuits that used to challenge this outrageous pay gap and economically hostile work environment to women are few and far between today – and that’s how Wall Street wants it. The country’s biggest banks have made it harder than ever for women with complaints of unequal pay or treatment to make their cases in a public forum.

 It was 20 years ago last month when three women in the Garden City, New York branch of Smith Barney triggered an industry-wide migraine, filing a class-action lawsuit that exposed egregious sexual harassment and unequal pay. It was dubbed the “boom-boom room” suit, the namesake of a party room in the branch’s basement. Click here for the rest of the story.

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.

Wall Street’s unique way of “protecting” small investors

Is the person who handles your money a stock broker or an investment adviser?

It makes a difference. Investment advisers, who are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, are held to a fiduciary standard, which means they have to put your interest ahead of theirs. If an adviser is choosing from a list of 5 similar mutual funds that might be suitable for you, he or she can’t pick the one with the biggest fees.

Brokers, who are registered with the self-regulatory organization Finra,  can look at that same list of 5 suitable funds and pick the one that puts the most money in their pockets. Regulators who watch over retirement funds at the Department of Labor don’t like that brokers can get away with that, and have proposed a rule that would force them to put your interests first just like advisers do.

Wall Street has been having an institutional temper tantrum over the idea that its brokers might have to put customers’ interests first. And the industry has actually concocted an argument that putting customers’ interests first would not be in customers’ best interest. I’m serious.

You can read about it here in my latest column for TheStreet.

Ellen Pao’s Case Against Kleiner Perkins Has Porn Star Talk, High Stakes for Women

Twenty years ago, there was Smith Barney’s Boom-Boom Room. Today, it’s Ellen Pao v Kleiner Perkins, the very high-profile sex discrimination trial that’s been going on for four weeks in San Francisco Superior Court.

Pao was a junior partner at Kleiner from 2005 to 2012, when she was fired. She says the firm discriminated against her, leaving her out of important meetings and passing her over for promotion while men moved ahead. Kleiner says she was a difficult employee who had a “female chip on the shoulder.” I wrote about it in my column today for TheStreet.com:

Among the affronts she has shared with the jury are the story of the female partner on a business trip who opened her hotel room door to see an uninvited Kleiner partner holding a bottle of wine and wearing his bathrobe; the co-ed business flight on a private jet where the conversation turned to porn stars; and the Kleiner meeting where a male partner approached a female partner to ask her to take notes. When the woman declined, he asked Pao to do it.

If Pao loses, it won’t bode well for women with grievances in the future. Women considering a lawsuit could wind up being warned “You know what happened to the woman in San Francisco,” said Linda Friedman, the Chicago lawyer who brought gender suits against brokerage firm Olde Discount Corp. in 1995, Smith Barney in 1996 and Merrill Lynch in 1997. You can read my story here.

 

Why Only Big Bankers Can Flout the Rules and Get Away With It

Did you hear the one about the stock promoter, the lawyer, three figurehead CEOs and seven auditing firm partners?

No, it isn’t a “walks into a bar” joke. It’s a case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission last month against the players in a sham stock offering. The agency went after all the people involved in what it called ”a massive scheme to create public shell companies through false registration statements.”

No big deal, right? The SEC is supposed to be going after bad guys, making them pay fines and lose privileges. But it tends to do a lot better in cases against no-name boiler room types like the ones in the January case than it does with players at powerful banks.

In my column for TheStreet this week, I discussed the contrast in enforcement results between cases against small players and cases against Wall Street’s elite.

In December, for example, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, brought cases against ten household name firms for flouting the rules that govern research analysts when their firms are pitching for initial public offering business. In its complaints against the firms, Finra described the actions of specific people who broke specific rules. But we never learned their names. Indeed they weren’t charged at all.  You can read my column here.