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


Rating: (Recommended)


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I read Susan Antilla’s book, Tales from the Boom-Boom Room: Women vs. Wall Street, to confirm my understanding about how bad it was for women to succeed in jobs on Wall Street. After finishing the book, I concluded it was worse than I ever imagined or observed. The Boom-Boom Room refers to the basement of a stock brokerage office in Garden City, that had more characteristics of a male frat house than a place of business. It provides a great title and image for a book that chronicles some of the totally inappropriate behavior women who worked for Wall Street companies have had to deal with. In Tales, Antilla follows the class action lawsuit of one group of women, including Pam Martens (whose name headed the case), and the bobbing and weaving of lawyers on all sides.

Here’s an excerpt (pp. 43-5):

Few things came easily to the women who worked on the Street – something Pam had thought little about in her zeal to become a broker. It was not just the pay disparity or the gender-specific nuisances such as Siebert’s long treks to the latrine. Those who invaded male bastions frequently suffered other disadvantages beyond unequal pay and bulging bladders.

Sometimes the inequities had to do with the cost of becoming qualified for the job. When Patricia Clemente joined the Los Angeles office of Shearson in 1981 as a sales assistant, she learned about some of the benefits that assisted only the men. In a statement later entered in court, Clemente said that while her male counterparts were given time off to study for the Series 7 test, she had to use one week of her vacation time for her cramming. Brokers must pass the Series 7 test in order to get a license to sell stocks to the public. Little wonder that when the men in the office learned that a woman was scheduled to take the test, they laid bets on whether she would flunk.

Forty percent of the women who took the test during a period studied by the EEOC in late 1994 and early 1995 failed, compared to only a 27 percent failure rate by the men. The EEOC took the opportunity to suggest that gender-based biases might exist in the test questions, but the fact that men got more support and study time may provide a better clue.

Although the system did not tend to support its female test-takers, many studied and excelled nonetheless. Lacking equal support, however, it could be a struggle.

Court filings asserted that Clemente worked in an atmosphere where brokers gave bonuses to sales assistants who were willing to give men neck massages." She complained that her manager once arranged a career advancement seminar whose agenda was instruction in hair styling and makeup application." After Clemente protested about the hair-styling confab, the meeting was canceled."

Years after Clemente received her invitation to attend the hair styling seminar, Jennifer Alvarez joined the company that by then had merged with Smith Barney in Berkeley, California, and experienced still other injustices related to getting her brokers license. She said later in court documents that the men got study time, but she squeezed in her studying for the Series 7 after she got home from work. The documents said the men got study books for free from the company, but she paid for hers. At an "appreciation lunch" for sales assistants, the branch manager said he didn't hire men for sales assistant positions because men are too ambitious. "That's what I like about you women he said. "You're lapdogs. You're content to stay put.""

Alvarez said in a 1999 Statement of Claim against Smith Barney that before she quit in 1995, she routinely endured workplace confrontations in which one of her male bosses spread his legs and told her to "get on your knees and give me what I want." The statement of claim said that the same broker tried to convince her that there was a tradition at office Christmas parties she should know about: sales assistants like Alvarez were supposed to flash their breasts to him. Alvarez complained to the female operations manager, but the manager responded that the broker was "just flirting." In fact, the woman added, he'd treated her the same way.

Lydia Klein, who began as the assistant to the branch manager at a Shearson office in Manhattan in 1981, advanced farther than many of her peers, working her way up the ladder to portfolio adviser to high-net-worth clients. She got there, though, at a high price, and would tell the story of a demeaning environment in her 1999 Statement of Claim against Smith Barney, which merged with Shearsons brokerage operations in 1994.

In 1982, two men—a trader and an officer in the municipal bond department—sent her a calzone shaped like a penis, with ricotta cheese seeping from a hole in the pastry. The harassment Klein says she experienced was constant and public. The same trader would stare at her breasts and ask "How they hanging?" He approached her at a business dinner making lewd remarks as he hung a banana outside his pants zipper. Another man—a supervisor—would stare at her breasts and say "Oooh, I love them, booby booby boo."" A male coworker once bit her ankles at work, tearing out patches of her nylons."

A wire operator in Walnut Creek, California, was told she couldn't become a broker because "Your dick isn't hard enough.” According to court documents, a broker in Colorado grumbled about discrimination only to hear her branch manager respond that she couldn't quit "because you are my token bitch." A broker in New Jersey would arrive at work to a male brokers query as to whether she masturbated in the morning and then washed "that thing" before she got to the office. The same broker took his penis out of his pants in front of female colleagues, put it in his drink at a party, and told them "Its thirsty." Another male broker at an office in California cornered a wire operator against the wall, placed his right hand against the wall, his left hand up her skirt and on her buttocks, and told her "This is going to be so good, I've wanted to do this for such a long time." He then rubbed his erect penis, through his pants, up and down her buttocks. When the branch manager learned of the conduct, he said the broker should be left alone because he was "going through a mid-life crisis."" In the late 1990s, when a psychologist surveyed women who said they had been harassed at the firm, seven out of ten said they feared retaliation and that filing a complaint would hurt their chances of advancement. Of those who complained, only 2 percent said the person about whom they complained was punished. Courts would later say that employees who failed to use the company's complaint system didn't have a valid case.

These incidents and allegations of discrimination and harassment, from Pain's Garden City office to Patricia Clemente's in Los Angeles, were legion at the time Pam was training for the job, yet the women were unaware of the similarities in ill treatment from one branch to the next. It was thus with utter ignorance of this side of the brokerage business that Pam Martens signed on as a trainee in the Class of 1985 at Shearson/American Express.

Lawyers will enjoy reading Tales from the Boom-Boom Room to see how some strategies produced great success for companies whose practices were despicable. While some of the episodes of sexual harassment described in this book are Neanderthal, it’s amazing to note how recently this behavior was encouraged. Many say it’s a different time on Wall Street. Perhaps more time will tell. In the meantime, read Antilla’s account of Tales from the Boom-Boom Room.

Steve Hopkins, April 19, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: from the Boom-Boom Room.htm


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