12/02/2007 04:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Still Selling Women Short

A Dec. 1 New York Times article, "Top Ranks of Women on Wall Street are Shrinking" tells tales of political infighting and the subprime mortgage crisis as catalysts for the ouster of Zoe Cruz from a high executive position at Morgan Stanley. Since she was Wall Street's best bet for a woman chief executive, it now seems there are no women with "a viable chance of becoming chief executive anytime soon." Are women back to square one, circa 1970, on Wall Street?

Landon Thomas Jr. says that industry insiders wonder if this high-powered executive's "status as a demanding woman in a male-dominated industry" may have tipped the scales against her. Of course her gender was part of it.

When I interviewed women and men who worked on Wall Street in the 1990s, I found that stereotyping profoundly influenced the way that women were treated. Like Zoe Cruz, some women were able to be successful, especially if they had powerful mentors. But women who moved up were increasingly held to double standards: expected to be tough, competitive, aggressive workaholics on one hand, and yet to be nice, nurturing, kind, and family-oriented because they were women. It is, of course, impossible for anyone to fulfill these expectations simultaneously. I found that women who had proven themselves and attained positions of power on Wall Street were often especially negatively regarded. These women faced expectations that they would behave in appropriately feminine ways, even though cultural ideas of femininity clashed with definitions of managerial competence in Wall Street's male-dominated culture. People have a difficult time accepting aggressive and dominant behavior from women, like speaking with a stern facial expression, making a lot of eye contact while speaking, or making verbal or non-verbal threats. At the same time, women on Wall Street had to exhibit these types of "masculine" personality traits and contradict expectations of femininity to prove their competence within Wall Street's culture.

This created a double standard for their actions, made it difficult for them to wield authority in the workplace. One of the women I interviewed observed, "I'll talk firmly to an analyst and say, 'I need these numbers by this time. And you better proof it. And I want it right and formatted.' That will come back to me that I was being a 'bitch.' I'll get a call from the staffer that says, 'You can't talk like that.' Whereas a guy, my officemate, would say to some guy -- same guy -- 'You know, you're such an asshole. How can you be so stupid? Don't you know this is how you do this? And don't come back into my office until it's right.' And that doesn't warrant a phone call." Women in high positions receive more negative evaluations than men who exhibited similar behavior. When expectations for their behavior are so contradictory, how can women compete?

It's unfortunate, perhaps tragic, that industry insiders like Elaine La Roche are saying "I think in recent years the advances made by women in the 1990s have reversed." Things weren't so great for women in the 1990s, as my research shows, but there were some women making headway in this lucrative industry. Is retrenchment a sign of a general backlash against principles of gender equity in the Bush era (as denial of systematic gender inequity has escalated while statistics about it have been removed from government webpages)? Or is a sign of backlash against the lawsuits and settlements of the past decade?