When "Women In Finance" Means "Sex In Finance"S

"We want to make it cool again" for women to pursue careers in finance and other quantitative fields, President Obama reportedly told Valerie Jarrett before this week's Women In Finance symposium. But what's cooler than getting hit on constantly?

That anecdote came from a New York Times online column by noted banker-turned-bestselling author William D. Cohan, who cobbled together the usual shocking statistics about the paucity of women in top finance jobs, as well as the recent developments — Treasury's symposium (in which even Geithner got in on the fun), and the pair of recent lawsuits.

By way of reference, Cohan cites a chapter in his book The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Freres & Co, about the role of women at that firm, and helpfully included a pdf. Consider the following gems. This one is about the first woman banker at Lazard, Mina Gerowin:

After Gerowin had been at Lazard for a few years [in the mid-1980s], the firm decided to hire a second woman banker...There was a partners' meeting where the subject of hiring her came up. Jim Glanville spoke up at the meeting. "Why are we firing Mina?" he said. "She's getting the hang of it. The work seems okay. I don't understand why you're firing her for some unknown." Another partner corrected Glanville's misimpression of what was going on. "So someone finally said, ‘We're not firing Mina,' " Gerowin recalled being told after the meeting. "This would be a second woman. And Glanville's answer was, ‘I thought the [Equal Employment Opportunity Act] meant we only had to have one.' This should set the tone for you."

Other women are described in the chapter as being told things by senior staff like, "I don't understand why a girl like you is doing this. You're a beautiful girl. Why don't you just get married?" and, to a pregnant woman, "Why don't you just go home and do what you do best and have your baby?" And that was relatively pleasant, as behavior went. See this tale of another pioneering women at Lazard:

Finally, in 1987, she was named a partner at age fifty-two. One of her partners explained why, in his opinion, LaMarche received this special treatment. "Basically she came back to her desk one day," he said, "and I understand there was a turd in a Baggie in her desk."

But mostly, this chapter is about sex. Sex the chairman had with his mistress; sex a senior partner may or may not have had with Shirley MacLaine; rumored "sex" of the drugged, gang rape variety with a junior employee; attempted sex with that first woman banker in the elevator (firmly denied); sex, desired and sometimes undertaken, with a young woman named Katie Bohner, whom Cohan describes as "athletic, tall, and striking, with long blond hair and long, muscular legs." Bohner's hotness, Cohan says, was such that women's "progress quickly came to a complete halt in the aftermath of [her] hiring." (After a series of scandals and affairs, real and imagined, Bohner left the firm. After several career cycles, she is currently a Buddhist nun, has a YouTube channel, and was said to be dating the CEO of Google.)

All this is a bit like the fixation with private jet romps and other excesses of the boom, which functioned as a more fun, more easily sold way to talk about Wall Street excess — told in a disapproving tone, of course, but also a pleasurably salacious one. And just as the wild spending of Wall Street barons was a visible and titillating indication of something structurally wrong, the behavior described above is both entirely germane to women's predicament on Wall Street (hostile environment, anyone?), and a juicier distraction from the dry particulars of maternity leave and project allocation. Such a focus both describes the fact that women are primarily sexual objects, as well as perpetuates it.

But I digress. This was twenty years ago. Surely the world has changed. Surely women have a role on Wall Street beyond simply breaking up the monotony with a little suggestion of sexuality. But you know, I also read this interview on Vanity Fair's web site today with Erin Burnett. And I know was trying terribly hard to be tongue-in-cheek. And I know she is on television and Tom Shales taught me that it's a visual medium. But still. There was this, the opener:

Erin Burnett has a face that's made for high-definition. The first time I saw her, she was filling in as a guest anchor on NBC's Today, and the sight of her in HD nearly gave me an aneurysm. My wife, sitting next to me, was equally transfixed by Burnett's flawless complexion and piercing blue eyes. "Jesus Christ she's hot," she muttered, which is not something she usually remarks about TV anchor people.

Well, as long as his wife agrees, it's not sexist. And then there was this:

Burnett, unlike the vast majority of her news channel peers, somehow manages to look more attractive under high-res scrutiny. Not surprisingly, the 33-year-old wunderkind isn't lacking for gigs.

And this:

With the economy still so confusing and scary, and an interview with Erin Burnett almost guaranteed to generate major Web traffic (especially if I include the words "Erin Burnett nude", which is probably the Google search that brought a few of you suckers here), I called Burnett to ask her about the financial issues of the day.

I see how you did that! Ironic distance. But okay, the interviewer wanted to talk about the financial issues of the day. There was some talk of whether Burnett is too cozy with her sources (what a missed opportunity to game the SEO by using a sexier metaphor of proximity), and on whether we should soak the rich. But the real good questions were saved for the end: "On Hardball, Chris Matthews called you 'beautiful' and 'a knockout'... Just tell me this, how many times has he called you into his office and he wasn't wearing pants?" And "Rush Limbaugh has a little crush on you too, right?" And "Are you constantly being hit on by hedge-fund managers and brokers?"

At least no one is really pretending that there's been any progress.

CNBC's Erin Burnett Doesn't Think All Rich People Are Evil [VF]
Does Wall Street Need An Estrogen Injection? [NYT]

Related: Tim Geithner Is Theoretically In Favor Of Women Running Wall Street
Three Women Sue Bank Of America And Merrill Lynch For Gender Discrimination
Wall Street's Mommy Track Is The Kiss Of Career Death.