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.

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.

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.

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.