Surprise! Big Banks are Sexist Bro Fests

Bank of America has to cough up $39 million after settling a lawsuit alleging that its Merrill Lynch brokerage arm systematically discriminated against female employees, passing them over for promotions, shutting them out of lucrative partnerships, and otherwise blocking their pathways to professional success. That many big banks are still congenital bro-fests in 2013 is no surprise, and I say this from experience — I was a broker at Merrill Lynch during the time of the sexism alleged in the lawsuit. But what goes on at Merrill extends much further than what you'll read in court papers.

Under the settlement, Bank of America (which bought Merrill for under duress during that ca-razy weekend in 2008 when Lehman failed and the whole financial system felt like it was going to collapse and we were going to start using promotional Pogs as currency) will make payouts to the 4,800-odd women who worked for the firm between the years of 2007 and 2012.

Hey, I thought as I read about the settlement this morning, that's me! Also: I wasn't crazy, after all!

I studied English in college but found myself working in the financial sector in late 2006 because during those years firms were basically hiring anyone with a pulse who could talk without throwing up all over themselves. They needed bodies. All that money to be invested! All those insurance-type products that aren't actually called "insurance" so as not to upset the consumer to be sold! All that debt to peddle! All I had to do was pass a series of tests to make sure I knew about stocks and bonds and certain types of derivatives and how I could get in Big Trouble if I insider traded or laundered money. Part of anti-money laundering training involved teaching us how to launder money. It was wild.

I studied for my regulatory tests for 6 months and had to take one of them twice before I passed. A few months later, I was hired away from the terrible place that had first brought me on by Merrill Lynch, and I went to work for a big downtown office on the twenty-somethingth floor of a nice building.

As I've mentioned before, Merrill's modus operandi is treating brokers as though they're running their own business. Individuals control their own books and profit from their own dealings (with the Firm taking a cut, natch), and moderately successful individuals sometimes partner up with other like-minded brokers to form a "practice" within a specific office. Ideally, a partner practice grows until it becomes a "group." Some big groups employ 3-4 brokers and a support staff of several. Brokers have complete control over whom they opt to hire as partners. It is much, much, much, much (X100) easier to succeed as a broker when you don't have to completely build your own book from scratch, when you can work your way up another practice and build off an already-existing reputation rather than creating your own. Think of it as starting your own business versus being hired by an already-successful company.

Of course, the mostly male successful brokers at my office almost unfailingly picked male partners. It's an innocuously ugly side of basic human psychology; picking a partner is picking a golfing buddy. It's picking the person who will sometimes take your clients to Cubs games. It's the face your clients will look at during dinners out at Rosebud. It's trusting the future of your practice with a person who is "ON BRAND" enough with your business-doing style that clients won't find interactions with them jarring. Of course it's going to be a younger, fresher-looking version of the old guys running the show. It almost invariably is.

Surprise! Big Banks are Sexist Bro Fests

A few of the guys in my "class" of aspirant Gordon Geckos were bro'd onto "teams" of more senior brokers. There was no formal process to this; higher-ups mostly left them alone. And the whole thing was a mystery to both me and the other female broker who was hired around the same time I was, whom I'll call M.

M and I used to go to lunch in the basement of the Chase building up the street and lament what was happening, what we were doing wrong. Why is that one guy being brought onto that team? Doesn't that team know he's an idiot? Yeah, but he's got nice ties. Rueful laughter.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a lot of the grunt work— trading, account maintenance, etc — was done by the female support staffs that diligently worked to run the practice as Client Associates (or Registered Client Associates, although by the time I left the firm, all Client Associates were required to pass the same FINRA tests as the brokers). CA's make much less than the brokers — they make a decent middle-income wage for Chicago, but they definitely weren't pulling down Owning A Boat money like their successful bosses. They weren't earning Saving For College money for their kids. Eventually, my friend M gave up trying to join a group as a partner and was brought on as a CA/subordinate. Not much later, the same thing happened to me. By the time I left Merrill in September of 2011, I had descended the corporate ladder so far that I was doing little more than answering phones, troubleshooting trade snags for unassigned accounts, and spending my days surreptitiously reading the news online and emailing my friend Brian about it.

Sad stuff.

My particular experience wasn't used for lawsuit fodder, but to me, following the lawsuit through the court system has only served to validate suspicions that I've had for a long time — sexism at Merrill is endemic, it manifests itself in multiple ways that are harmful to female employees, and will be frustratingly difficult to eradicate. That place employed a group of men who, yeah, had worked their asses off early in their careers, but who also had gotten a particular set of breaks that weren't afforded similarly to their equally-hard-working female counterparts. The entire time I was there, I never heard of or saw a broker being questioned about their choice of partner or brought to task about failing to appoint a woman. I saw plenty of female CA's complaining about their boss's childish technological ineptitude, heard plenty of grumbling about how while the brokers were off entertaining clients, they were stuck in the office on the phone with tech support. And when Bank of America began hiring bankers to prowl around every Merrill office and try to sell the brokers on pushing more loans on existing clients, a lot of complaints about how the highly paid (mostly male) BofA workers had no idea how Merrill worked. A few times I was asked by one very successful broker to help him "download his e-mail" and "work the stock machine" (computer? I think?)

At the same time, I felt bad complaining about working at Merrill because I wasn't really mistreated that badly, I didn't think. My bosses were kind to me. My coworkers were a little patronizing, but I rationalized it by telling myself they "meant well." I had stability, a decent paycheck, insurance. My coworkers laughed at my commie jokes. I had loads of free time. I had so much free time and I was so disengaged that one day in 2008 I began commenting on this very website, and, based on that commenting, I was asked to write a couple of test posts, which turned into a weekend editor position, which turned into a full-time position, which turned into an editor position. So I came out just fine.

But the problem with Merrill's culture isn't and wasn't intention; it's results. It doesn't matter if a male stockbroker "means well" if no one is taking him to task about his own internalized sexism. That's what the Firm's job was to do, as overseers of the THUNDERING HERD of stockbrokers and stewards of the company's longstanding reputation as a reliable place for retail clients to invest their money. The Firm's job was to make sure that the best employees — not the ones who reminded brokers most of younger versions of themselves — were advancing first. And from a purely bloodless capitalist perspective, failing to address issues of how sexism and racism shuts out qualified employees does the Firm's bottom line a disservice. It's bad for stockholders! It's bad for fucking everyone.

One of the terms of the settlement of the Merrill/BofA lawsuit is that Merrill doesn't have to admit any wrongdoing. But when the company's paid out almost a billion dollars in employee discrimination suit money in the last decade (including $160 million just ten days ago in a racial discrimination suit) an admission at this point would seem almost gratuitous.

[NYT]