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Wall Street Women and the Glass Ceiling

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Melissa S. Fisher
Photo By: Gianna Biscontini

The 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique provides an opportunity to assess the impact of the feminist movement in the United States over the past half-century.

Women could not have entered the professional workforce in significant numbers without the liberal feminist movement’s insistence on the opening up of formerly male bastions, such as finance. Rarely do we link the world of feminism with the world of Wall Street. But the feminist movement shaped the first generation of women aiming to build careers and break glass ceilings on Wall Street in the seventies, eighties and nineties.

In my book Wall Street Women, I chart the evolution of the first generation of career women — the growth of their political and economic clout, changes in their perspectives on the meaning of success and the cultural climate on Wall Street, and their experience of the 2008 financial collapse. The traditional perception of the pioneering generation holds that the woman accepted and wholly adopted the masculine culture of finance in order to succeed professionally, and that they did not identify as feminists or with the feminist movement. However, some did question and even change some of the gendered rules of their firms. They were often, for example, amongst the first executives to develop and implement diversity and work-family policies.

Recently though, particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, some ground has been lost – the ranks of women on Wall Street are thinning. During the first decade of the new millennium, the number of women between the ages of twenty and thirty-five working in the country’s investment banks, brokerage houses and other financial service-related firms dropped by 315,000, or 16.5 percent, while the men in that age group grew by 93,000 or 7.3 percent.

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, inspired by Friedan’s book, recently announced an attempt to create a new women’s revolution, this time from within the corporate arena. Hers is a laudable effort. But given that the gendered revolution from within Wall Street is at best slowing down, if not already stalling, we might do better rethinking “ground zero” for a new women’s movement. Rather than focus exclusively on breaking glass ceilings at the highest corporate echelons, we need to broaden the conversation to consider the effect of the financial crisis on women up and down the ladder. Our goal should be to study the impact of globalization on women’s lives and status in societies locally and globally and to develop ways of solving the issues of gender inequality in the global economy at large.

Melissa S. Fisher is a cultural anthropologist and Visiting Scholar in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. She is the author of the new book Wall Street Women.

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