Tales from the Boom-Boom Room: Women vs. Wall Street

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9781576600788: Tales from the Boom-Boom Room: Women vs. Wall Street

In the 1990s, women in record numbers looked to Wall Street as a great place to build successful and lucrative careers. What many of them found there was no meritocracy, but an industry living by the rules of a 1960s fraternity, with the money and legal clout to silence any challenges. Award-winning columnist Susan Antilla broke the story of shocking sex discrimination at Smith Barney and other major brokers. Her disclosures in the press were a rallying cry for class actions challenging the sexual hazing and outrageous disparities in pay that shackled professional women on Wall Street.

Taking its title from the infamous basement party room of Smith Barney’s Garden City, New York, branch office, and representing years of extensive research, Tales from the Boom-Boom Room traces the story of the lead whistle-blower, Pam Martens, the crusading broker who put an entire industry on the defensive, then found herself at odds not just with her local bosses and with powerful figures like Travelers Group president Jamie Dimon, but with her coplaintiffs and attorneys. The women’s employment agreements forbade them to sue, and only an ingenious legal strategy circumvented that virtual gag rule and brought the scandal out from behind the closed doors of arbitration. This is a riveting human, legal, and business drama of women and men in the financial institutions on Wall Street and around America.

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About the Author:

Susan Antilla has been investigating allegations of sexual harassment on Wall Street for the past seven years and broke several of its first major stories. Currently a columnist with Bloomberg News, she launched the weekly investing column in the Saturday edition and the “Between Main & Wall” ombudsman column at The New York Times. She was bureau chief of the Money section of USA Today and financial bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun. Antilla was twice selected as a finalist for a Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

At twenty-three, smart, attractive, with sweeping long dark hair, Lori Hurwitz started with tall ambitions as a rookie at the Garden City, New York, office of Shearson Lehman Brothers, one of the biggest firms on Wall Street.

Her job was to telephone total strangers and persuade them to open accounts and buy securities—known as "cold-calling." She would initially make the pitches on behalf of two brokers in their early thirties who were senior to her. But she hoped to become a broker herself so that one day she could be a partner with her father, who worked at a different Shearson office. He was tickled that his daughter looked to him as a role model. Lori used to get up before sunrise during her summers off from school so that she could ride the train to New York City in the pitch black and spend the day with her dad at his big-time job. Now her childhood dreams of doing what he did were actually coming true.

They could work together in an exciting financial company that had it all: one that provided investment banking services for corporate customers who needed to raise money and retail brokerage services for individuals who had money to invest. But he warned her that his business was a rough place for women.

She should have paid more attention to that. Despite the trappings of Garden City, a pretty New York City suburb where mansions stood down the street from attractive middle-class houses with manicured lawns, the atmosphere inside the Shearson office was not what she had bargained for.

Her coworkers referred to women as "cunts" or "whores," or sometimes "bitches" or "tramps," depending on the label du jour. She sat in a small room with the two senior salesmen and two trainees, all male, all the time. There was no way to tune out their conversations.

The mentor assigned to her had opinions on the uselessness of females as sex partners after they’d borne children. "As soon as a woman squeezes out a kid, you stamp ‘A million dollars’ on the kid’s forehead and ‘Stretched goods’ on the woman’s," he said. In between their calls to clients, the men talked technique—not for selling stocks but for going down on their girlfriends, the sexual tricks and treats their bedmates gave them, the length of time they could keep up their erections. They called their paramours liberally on their work phones. Lori tried to concentrate on her cold calls, which totaled between 300 and 400 a day, and to pretend that none of it bothered her.

"You guys are pigs," she tossed off sometimes during the early months, giving it a dismissive tone that she hoped would come off as tough and detached. Maybe if they don’t get a rise out of me, she told herself, they’ll stop the raunchy talk and get down to business.

But she had no such luck. Even her branch manager, Nicholas Cuneo, amazed and repulsed her by his ability to fashion the F-word into a noun, adjective, verb, and adverb. He was popular throughout the office for announcing impromptu branch parties and for his basement "Boom-Boom Room," where the guys celebrated happy hour.

Lori learned to hate Monday mornings, when her colleagues tallied their exploits and outdid each other with graphic depictions of their sexual conquests from the weekend. It got to the point that she would feel nauseous the moment she woke up.

Then a new salesman arrived from the competition down the street, and word got around that he had been fired from his previous job for sexually harassing a sales assistant. "I knew there was a reason I liked this guy," said one senior manager. She let her dad know she was unhappy; tearful sessions several nights running led to a confession that it wasn’t just the cold-calling getting to her.

She finally decided to complain at work. After that, life became impossible. Her mentor sent a memo to all his charges prohibiting the application of makeup and nail polish at their desks and outlawing phone conversations with boyfriends—"boyfriends," the memo said—on company time. Yet Lori was the only female among them.

Eventually she was told that she had a problem getting along with men, that there was no future for her as a broker. She resigned after fourteen months in the business. Six months later, her father had left Shearson, too. The chief reason for his departure was a change in corporate ownership, but it had been a slap in the face that they didn’t do right by his daughter. If he had known everything that went on at the Boom-Boom Room branch, he never would have let her go to work there.

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