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Culture determines a woman’s role in the workplace


Melissa Fisher's recent book, 'Wall Street Women', tells the story of the women who broke the gender barrier in New York's financial district back in the '60s and '70s. In an interview with TOI-Crest, Fisher, an anthropologist, says that a lot of gains made by women are in danger of being undone in the aftermath of the meltdown.

What drew you to the issue of women in Wall Street?

I was interested in understanding how women broke through the glass ceiling in a very male dominated financial sector of New York - from the '60s to the present. It was the topic of my dissertation. I was especially interested in learning what kinds of strategies the women used to climb up the corporate ladder in investment banks and brokerage houses. I went to Barnard College, one of the Seven Sisters, and I was naturally interested in women's issues. Besides, my grandmother was a pioneer in the 1920s - she was among the first to go to a law school, again a very male dominated field, and I had heard stories from her about how difficult it was to survive in that world.

Did Wall Street present the pioneers with a distinct set of challenges compared to other fields such as science or law?

My focus in the book is on the pioneering generation of women who entered Wall Street in the late '60s and early '70s. Some still work full-time in finance;others are now retired. The situation in the '60s and '70s was in some ways similar to what female pioneers face when breaking into male dominated industries today - what women face today in fields where they are making a total breakthrough. The pioneering generation of Wall Street women had a really tough time breaking through cultural and political barriers. We can't today even imagine what they were up against in a workplace that was structured entirely by masculinity. During the early post-World War II period, women worked in behind-the-scenes positions. There is this anecdote from the late '50s in my book which I found fascinating : the bathrooms in top firms were fitted with light bulbs bearing the names of the various bosses. If a secretary went to the bathroom and the bulb with her boss' name lit up she had to run out immediately. I thought it was a striking story that showed the extent of the gender divide. Note that the first cohort of professional women to enter Wall Street did so only a decade later - in the late '60s.

Did it really help the cause of gender equality in Wall Street to have women make it to the top? Isn't it true that women in leadership positions acquire the same traits as men as they fight for survival at the top? Consider for instance the case of women politicians in India.

I don't believe that the queen bee syndrome worked here - that senior women automatically started behaving entirely like men once they reached top positions and did not help younger women below them. Women also took an interest in offering guidance and friendship to other women who followed them. They met each other in informal settings where they exchanged information - remember that in the late '60s and early '70s women were not allowed into training programmes. They had to learn on the job and the mentoring and teaching happened mostly through networks of women like the Financial Women's Association (FWA). Eventually, over time, as the women advanced in their own careers and were in leadership positions, they were able to push the cause of women employees in terms of policies of recruitment, pay and advancement as well as continue to give women guidance on how to further their careers on Wall Street.

In India, a considerable number of women reached top positions in conventional banks but investment remains a male dominated sector.

In the US, women became bank tellers in commercial banking. Women working in investment banks and brokerage houses in the '60s and '70s worked mostly in the areas of research but in certain areas like investment banking and trading - where there are high stakes and a great deal of capital on the table - very few were involved. The key reason is that women were and to some extent still are perceived culturally as different because of their role in society as mothers. They are seen as caring, risk-averse, long term thinkers. Women are understood typically to do the shopping for the family. Therefore they understand value. So, in terms of outcome, as one female researcher explained to me in the mid- '90s, women's attitudes are thought to be better for investing.

All this seemed to imply that they would make for bad risk takers, a trait until very recently valued in finance. It is interesting how cultural and historical perspectives influence women and men - how they understand their roles - in the workplace.

Four decades down the line, has the situation changed a lot?

Well in the context of the financial crises and the wake of the ensuing recession a lot of the work done in the '60s by the pioneers may have been undone. We can only hope that the doors that were opened remain so. Several senior women have retired, been fired or lost their jobs in the wake of the meltdown. These women are a great knowledge resource, they would be ideal for generational exchange of ideas for women who follow in their footsteps.

There is a lot less blatant sexual discrimination today but there are other, more subtle problems. The business environment is still heavily dominated by male social rituals. When women first came in they had to worry about what to wear, what wine to drink at banquets. Today it still is about fitting into business meetings, joining after-work drinking sessions where business is discussed.

Women who are close to the glass ceiling but unable to break through often talk of being left out of the allimportant networking circles of their male counterparts. . .

These are cross cultural questions that women across the world have to deal with - go drinking or go home? Men too tend to struggle with questions like: Is it okay to talk freely around women? Is it okay to invite a single woman colleague/employee out for a drink? Remember, a lot of men at the top have a conservative social network - their wives stay at home. There are a lot of social dimensions to office rituals. They are very masculine and they are so deeply embedded they have become naturalised, that women and men don't even question them.

You talk of market feminism. What is that?

A lot of women who walked into Wall Street in the '60s didn't see themselves as radical feminists but they had all read Ms Magazine and had an awareness of the feminist movement. They were constrained by their male dominated environment - but they retained feminist sensibilities. Over time the idea of gender equity that became aligned with free market principles led to what we call market feminism. For instance, take the slogan, "Women leaders are good for the bottomline". Here we are saying that gender equality and profit are aligned.

In the wake of the Wall Street collapse it was often said that if women had played a bigger role in the financial markets, it may have prevented the meltdown.

Women can certainly make a difference. Their way of leading and thinking can change a culture that is up against a very male way of behaving. Of course the dominant culture will continue to shape the workplace but if they come in significant numbers women can bring about change - institutionally and culturally. These may be small but they add up in time to big things. After all, it was small micro-practices like rules for leave and travel for pregnant women that created space for big changes.

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