Reading is kind of a big deal here at Copylab. So it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that we have a monthly book club where we get to indulge our collective geekery – accompanying glass of wine optional. This month’s pick is Michael Lewis’s literary debut, Liar’s Poker – an anecdotal account of his life as a bond salesman in the late 1980s. There’s a certain passage in the book that I find particularly appropriate on this International Women’s Day:
At Salomon Brothers men traded. Women sold. No one ever questioned the Salomon ordering of the sexes. But the immediate consequence of the prohibition of women in trading was clear to all: it kept women further from power.
He goes on to mention that it wasn’t until 1986 that a woman was even allowed to trade in the highly coveted mortgage department. Working at Copylab is my first real foray into the world of funds, but even to my benighted eye, it all seemed a bit antiquated. It got me thinking – surely womankind’s inauguration into bond trading had to predate the mid-eighties? But who were these female pioneers in finance?
First Lady, First Financier
A quick internet search revealed an essay about Abigail Adams. US history buffs may know her as one of the nation’s earliest first ladies. What they may not know is that she’s also considered one of the first female bond traders. Back in 1783, while John was busy negotiating the Paris Peace Treaty, he charged Abigail with scoping out the purchase of two farms that neighboured their Braintree residence.
His wife, however, had other ideas.
She informed the soon-to-be president that a much better investment would be the purchase of ‘consolidated notes’, a government security from Massachusetts selling well below face value. But Mrs Adams didn’t stop there — she also bought war bonds and speculated on land. In fact, her insistence on ‘stock-jobbery’ (to use the parlance of her time) was an area of contention between the couple.
Essentially, though, like other women of that era living under coverture laws, Abigail’s property was never really her own. Instead, speculations that her husband did not really approve of came out of her ‘pin money’ – a sort of pocket money given to wives by their husbands.
Brooching the subject
Interestingly, pin money traces its origins to 14th century England, when a man would give his spouse money to buy (you guessed it) pins – so expensive a thing that makers were only allowed to sell them on two days of the year. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time a woman spent an exorbitant amount on a brooch.
In 1967 Muriel ‘Mickie’ Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), spent a whopping US$445,000 on her NYSE member badge. She jokingly claimed it was the most expensive – and hardest-earned – piece of jewellery she ever bought. This isn’t the only first the ‘skirt’ who ‘invaded’ Wall Street has to her name –Mickie also ran the first female-owned brokerage firm on the exchange and would go on to serve as New York’s first female Superintendent of Banks.
But it wasn’t just in America that skirts were challenging the status quo in finance. In 1982, Debbie Moore strolled onto the London Stock Exchange’s trading floor in a rara skirt – an outfit more at home in the dance studio she owned – after being the first woman to float a company on the bourse. Further back in history, another LSE, the London School of Economics, was co-founded by Beatrice Webb. The first ever female member of any stock exchange was Oonah Keogh, who joined the Dublin Stock Exchange in 1925.
These early successes certainly didn’t come easy. Isabel Benham, an analyst, and Geraldine Weiss, an investor and writer, had to hide their gender by signing their given names with a first initial only. And in London, it took two decades of struggle before the first women members of the exchange were admitted in 1973 – and even then, this was largely a result of circumstance more than anything (regional exchanges, who themselves had female members, were merging with the capital’s bourse).
The struggle is (and certainly has been) real. But for today, let’s celebrate and reflect on how far we have come since Abigail Adams’s time: the Bank of England has had its first female deputy; the acting president of the World Bank is a woman; we’ve had a female laureate of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics; the chair of the IMF is a woman; the NYSE now has its first female leader; and women now sit as heads, directors and executives across the financial services industry – helped by initiatives like the 30% Club.
But there is plenty of trail left to blaze. Women still make up only about a third of economics undergraduates in the UK, and without ‘education, education, education’, a gender-balanced industry just won’t be possible. So, on this International Women’s Day, let’s remember that line Geraldine Weiss used to describe the sector of her time: ‘It was a man’s world, and women need not apply’. Because, really, ladies – it just doesn’t apply anymore.