Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fisher, Wall Street Women

As a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia, Melissa S. Fisher decided to focus her research on a perhaps unlikely group—the first generation of women to establish themselves as Wall Street professionals. Wall Street Women (Duke University Press, 2012) is a reworking of her dissertation.

The women Fisher studied arrived on the Street in the 1960s, a time when female college grads were often being hired as secretaries and the glass ceiling was a skyscraper away. Women were by and large relegated to the role of support staff; about the most they could hope for, if they were mathematically trained, was to assist in converting the stock exchange’s punch cards to computer data. “Computer programming was, at the time, viewed as a female occupation. Women’s ‘natural’ feminine traits—being patient, detail-minded—were understood to make them ideal computer programmers.” (p. 37)

Almost all of the women who eventually moved up the corporate ladder started off as back-office researchers. (By the way, so did Muriel Siebert.) They were paid significantly less than their male counterparts, and they were not invited to participate in formal training programs. To learn their craft they were largely dependent on the willingness of male mentors. Outside of their firms, however, the women had a support network and an alternate training ground: the Financial Women’s Association of New York City, founded in 1956.

As time passed and Wall Street firms opened their doors to more women and minorities, the original group of women became more visible and successful, although of course none of them broke the ultimate glass ceiling. Nor did the women who followed them. We have only to think of the prominent women who were once considered potential CEO material, only to be summarily fired—Zoe Cruz, Erin Callan, Sally Krawcheck. Ina Drew is a different story, but nonetheless yet another blow to women’s aspirations.

Fisher’s book is not an account of Wall Street careers per se. The women share their often diverse feelings about feminism, politics, affirmative action, and the younger generation of women on the Street. Moreover, Fisher gives theoretical context to their careers by invoking such concepts as corporate neoliberalism and state-market feminism.

Fisher is torn when it comes to gender stereotypes. For instance, she admits that commonly accepted images of women—for instance, that they are risk averse—actually worked to the advantage of this initial cohort of women. When women stepped out of their traditional roles and opted to work in risk-oriented positions, “Wall Street treated them as the ‘anti-mothers’ of the professional-managerial class.” They “threatened the gendered order of firms as well as men’s agency and power.” (p. 98)

If there had been no financial crisis, Fisher would probably have unequivocally defended these “anti-mothers.” But times have changed. There are calls for a “feminization” of markets and for a more “caring” and “softer” capitalism. “Motherly women” have been “touted as the potential rescuers of the global economy.” “The biological system is being directly linked and mapped onto the financial system in strikingly gendered ways.” (p. 172)

Fisher embraces this vision of the future feminization of financial capitalism. I have my doubts, and worries. But then I guess I’m just a skeptical anti-mother.

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