Women Rally on Wall Street Recent Merrill Lynch Lawsuit Shows Need for Change in Securities Industry

Article excerpt

Donna Brennan wanted a career on Wall Street. And she got one, aggressively going after the technical knowledge and kind of client base required to succeed.

But she says the price she paid was high. During her six years in the securities industry, Ms. Brennan says she endured insults, inappropriate behavior, and outright sexual harassment.

"It's a tough business," says Ms. Brennan. "For women, it can be brutal." While Americans have apparently decided to withhold judgment on the Paula Jones sexual-harassment charges against President Clinton, Wall Street has been forced to face the issue head on. In the past two years, a series of high-profile sexual harassment and discrimination cases have torn the veneer off the securities industry. In the process, they have exposed a world that is still predominantly white, male, and, according to allegations, rife with discrimination. But the revelations have also prompted industry leaders to act. They've committed to increasing the number of women and minority brokers and backed a move to end the mandatory arbitration of employment-discrimination practices. That longtime practice leaves the resolution of such cases in the industry's own hands. The changes could be more fundamental in the securities industry than the impact of the New York Stock Exchange's pending decision on whether to move its trading floor for the first time since 1903. "Wall Street serves America, but it doesn't yet look like America," says Arthur Levitt, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). "A commitment to policies of inclusion becomes more important as our population grows more diverse." While major Wall Street firms have policies opposing discrimination and harassment, many women in the industry say the policies appeared on paper only. Just 11 percent of the half million workers registered on Wall Street with the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) are women. At the 10 top-grossing securities firms, five of the 58 top executives are female. For years, many women fought to be treated equally, but found themselves edged out or increasingly ignored. They hesitated to report inappropriate behavior because Wall Street is a small, close community, and they feared retaliation. "If you complain, that could be it for your career," says Brennan. But during the past five years, more women have begun to speak out. The number of gender discrimination cases reported to the NASD has quadrupled. Then, in May 1996, 25 current and former brokers at Smith Barney decided to bring the problem to court and challenge the whole industry's insular, self-policing system. The class-action suit was brought against Smith Barney, the NASD, and the New York Stock Exchange. …