Whistle-blower’s Grim Tale: Naughty Boys on Wall Street

Tales from the Boom-Boom Room: Women vs. Wall Street , by Susan Antilla. Bloomberg Press, 384 pages, $26.95.

Back in 1984, a young woman walked into the Garden City, N.Y., branch of Shearson / American Express, looking for a job as a stockbroker. Her first interview was so lavishly abusive that she thought it must be a put-on, but her second seemed normal enough-until she noticed her would-be boss sporting a handgun in an ankle holster, buddy-cop style. As Pamela Martens quickly discovered, she had just entered the sub-Mamet universe of the storefront brokerage business. She was hired, but only after interviewer No. 1 assured her, “I’ll spill more liquor than you’re gonna earn in your first year.” Bada bing!

If a bull market is a license for any stooge to mint money, it’s also a license for investment banks to hire any stooge. How else to explain Pamela Martens’ dismal new colleagues? They seemed never to have outgrown that fakey bravado of little boys who have only just discovered they’re terrified of little girls. After a hard day churning accounts, they ranged to the edge of their mental powers and came up with such catch phrases as “Slits and Tits” to describe the unwelcome presence of women in the office. What they didn’t know was that Pam Martens was the classic whistle-blower. She possessed just that peculiar mix of narcissism, prissy rectitude and overdeveloped sense of grievance that prevents one from ever settling into the path of least resistance. They spouted off like naughty schoolboys, she took notes, and a class-action lawsuit was born.

Tales from the Boom-Boom Room: Women vs. Wall Street follows Pam Martens’ quest for justice in the face of unending sexual harassment. Much is promised by a title so suggestively lurid-who exactly held the keys to said room, and just what sort of boom-boom went on there?-and pretty much from page one we’re anticipating a classic three-act potboiler: vile workplace torment, savage litigation, cathartic vindication in the shape of a landmark ruling. Very few of these expectations are met-almost no memorably juicy tales emerge from the Boom-Boom Room, a standard-issue party hideout in the basement of the Shearson (soon to be Smith Barney) office; and the Pam Martens lawsuit never made it into open court. But by moving beyond the Martens case, Susan Antilla’s meticulously researched book becomes a work of compelling Wall Street anthropology. It throws a light on how, as a Minneapolis civil-rights lawyer puts it, “Wall Street is thirty years behind every other industry or profession” when it comes to women.

This piggish behavior is especially surprising given that investment banks have converted themselves into financial-services supermarkets. They now market their services to the financially independent woman; and yet somehow they remain, in many cases, barbarous places for women to work. The contradiction comes out beautifully in an exchange between a (male) Smith Barney executive and two of Ms. Martens’ (female) lawyers: “Mary and I are successful professional women with money to invest. So we would be just the type of women you would want as clients, right?” “Yes, you are.” “Well, let me tell you something. I hate everything about you. Why would I give you my money?”

Why, indeed? And why hasn’t this attitude become more widespread? The secret to Wall Street’s systemic chauvinism is simple: The Street is insulated against litigation and bad publicity. All employees at the major investment banks must sign a mandatory arbitration clause, effectively giving away their right to sue their employer. Claims are adjudicated in what amounts to an industry-controlled private justice system, by arbitration panels staffed overwhelmingly by white males in their 50’s and 60’s. In mandatory arbitration, no depositions are made public, and awards have ironclad gag provisions. So Wall Street can continue to smile, and smile, and be a villain.

One anecdote in particular conveys the full horror of the situation. When two female Smith Barney employees complained of strikingly similar episodes involving a male co-worker, in which the man forced himself on them physically, the firm waited four years before conducting a hearing. “A week before the hearing,” Ms. Antilla writes, Smith Barney “forced the two women to undergo examinations by a psychiatrist of the brokerage firm’s choosing.” One of the women was subjected to a Gulag-quality interrogation. The grilling included “questions about her sex life, the opening of her gynecological records, and queries about her menstrual periods, her marital counseling, and her divorce. The psychiatrist even had copies of her therapy records.” The woman finally broke down when the psychiatrist asked her to recite in reverse order the names of the U.S. Presidents.

Tales From The Boom-Boom Room does a tremendous job of working the reader into a low, steady rage. Sadly, it is by necessity anticlimactic: Pam Martens and her sister plaintiffs never really got their day in court. Instead, the dispute went into a negotiated arbitration procedure that Ms. Martens has opted out of and derided as far too friendly to Smith Barney. (There is some question as to whether Ms. Martens has let her righteousness get the better of her, or whether her lawyers sold her out for a $12 million fee. On this Ms. Antilla is agnostic; though she certainly brings up that fee several times.) One effect of the settlement has been to once again keep the gory details out of the press and to isolate the women from one another. One plaintiff, for example, was not allowed to present evidence that 19 other women in her office had lodged identical complaints against her harasser.

Ms. Antilla’s book is an occasion to put an entire institutional pattern of behavior on open display. Up to now, the tendency has been to psychologize the individual man’s irrational response to women in the workplace. But scanning the whole tawdry mosaic, another possibility suggests itself: It was a perfectly rational response to structural changes in the system.

The average retail stockbroker is far closer in style to a Baltimore tin man than to Warren Buffett: He pushes product at naïve customers. If Ms. Antilla’s account is to be believed-and it seems utterly credible-the brokerage industry is a full-employment program for white males of mediocre talent. Now we can begin to understand the depths of the phobic response to women like Pam Martens. She was a constant reminder that the job of stockbroker, when conducted as an honest business, does not require any balls whatsoever. All the foolish goodfella swagger is only necessary for cold-calling, churning-and-burning and dumping surplus inventory onto unsuspicious clients. As a colleague of Ms. Martens said, “They hated Pam for her success.” Men like Ms. Martens’ boss put their little swinging dicks to the wind and saw which way it was blowing: If women like Ms. Martens are allowed to succeed, little-boy brokers will go the way of cockfights and Baltimore tin-men. Let’s hope they’re right.

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.