Melissa Fisher is an anthropologist who, instead of studying remote populations of people in exotic locales, looks at the behavior of the people of Wall Street. Her focus in this book is the first generation of women to work in Wall Street brokerage houses and investment banks. Most women who worked in the finance industry before the 1970s were secretaries and clerks, aside from a few notable exceptions such as Muriel Siebert, who owned her own brokerage house. Fisher's target though, is the first wave of women to work as brokers and in sales and as analysts. They were the first generation of women who were on a career track to become partners and CEOs.
The first of these women, who entered the work force in the 1960s and 1970s are retiring now in the 2000s and 2010s. Did they make it in what had always been a man's profession? If they succeeded, how did they do it? Did they follow the rules or make up their own? Fisher wanted to hear their stories - how they decided to get into the business, what obstacles they had to overcome, how their careers progressed, whether they changed careers, how far they got.
Her main sources are two of the organizations for professional women in finance on Wall Street. She found that many women benefited from their association with other women in the field and that the organizations functioned as a sort of "old girls" networks for women, who did not have access to the old boys networks that already existed. Contrary to expectations, the women who entered the profession were not simply female versions of the sort of men who came to Wall Street. The women were largely middle class rather than upper class and didn't have established social and professional connections to fall back on.
No one had expected them to go into finance, unlike many of their male peers. Many went to public universities as opposed to the Ivy League schools their male counterparts attended. In addition to having to forge their own networks of colleagues without the benefit of family connections, Ivy League connections, and country club connections, every aspect of their performance and appearance was scrutinized. There was no "uniform" to wear, such as the men had (Brooks Brothers), so they even had to establish a look that distinguished them from the secretaries and looked businesslike and feminine. But not too feminine.
The professional women's organizations were a lifeline to many of the women, who felt isolated, because although their numbers were growing, it was usually the case that each was the only woman executive at her company. Fisher finds that although the women could play the dog-eat-dog game when necessary, they were also quite cooperative and the more experienced women were generous with their advice and influence when the newer women needed it.
Fisher shows how the first wave made progress through the decades until the financial collapse of 2008. Gains for women were pretty much wiped out when the three women who had come closest to making CEO were fired or forced out. Fisher's interviewees see similarities in politics, in particular the way Hillary Clinton was treated during the campaign for Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. (See Rebecca Traister's Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women for a devastatingly incisive account of the campaign.)
In the end, you may be disappointed, but not surprised, that women still hold only a tiny minority of influential posts on Wall Street. On the other hand, you'll be encouraged by the camaraderie and real cooperation among women in the field to help each other succeed. Either way, Wall Street Women is a fascinating addition to the history of Wall Street and of women in the work force.
(I received a review copy of Wall Street Women from the publisher.)