Updated May 25th 2018
As various individuals, organizations, and initiatives work to reduce the gender gap in the financial services industry—the facts are still staggering.
Only 14% of executives at Gender-Equality Index member firms are female. While parity has been achieved in the overall workforce, there’s clearly more work to be done on Wall Street. The #SeeHer movement and others are working hard to promote gender equality and inspire women to pursue any career of their choice and reach their full potential.
As the gender gap continues to narrow across the sector, let’s take a moment to celebrate glass ceiling-shattering moments by women in the financial services industry. Here’s how women went from peer-less to “fearless” on Wall Street.
But first, this UPDATE:
Women Take Charge at the Exchanges
That noise you’re hearing coming from lower Manhattan is the sound of one more barrier being broken since this post first ran in March 2018. On May 25, 2018, Stacey Cunningham became the 67th president and the first female to lead the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). This comes on the heels of Adena Friedman being named chief executive of Nasdaq and the first woman ever to lead a major U.S. stock exchange.
The two women started their careers on Wall Street at nearly the same time. Cunningham joined the NYSE as an intern in the summer of 1994, steadily working her way up from floor clerk to head of sales and relationship management to COO to CEO. Friedman, a taekwondo black belt, joined Nasdaq in 1993 and remained for 11 years, holding positions including head of data products, head of strategy, chief financial officer and president before earning the position of CEO.
But before Cunningham and Friedman reached the pinnacle, here’s how it all started…
First Female-Run Brokerage Firm
At a time when women largely did not hold jobs outside the home, Ohio-born sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin first worked as clairvoyants and later opened the first female-run brokerage firm.
Railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt invested in their Woodhull, Claflin and Co. brokerage house, which opened in New York City on Feb. 5, 1870. According to the Museum of the City of New York, they made $700,000 in the first six weeks they were in business ($13 million today).
First Female on Wall Street Bond House
After she graduated from Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College and took a six-month-long class on selling bonds, Isabel Benham peddled New Yorker magazine subscriptions while she applied for positions on Wall Street. She landed a job with the Reconstruction Finance Corp. during the Great Depression and later became a statistician and then an analyst at R.W. Pressprich & Co.
Overcoming gender discrimination (she signed her name “I. Hamilton Benham” early in her career), Benham was named a partner after almost 30 years with the firm—the first female to hold the position at any Wall Street bond house.
Female Pioneer in Investment Theory
After studying business and economics in college and devouring every book on investing at her local library, Geraldine Weiss pioneered a new investment theory: selecting stocks by their dividend yield because she believed it was the best measurement of stock value.
Unable to land a job at an investment firm because of her gender, Weiss launched the investment newsletter “Investment Quality Trends.” It gave investment recommendations based upon her analysis of stocks’ dividend yields. For more than 10 years, she signed the newsletter “G. Weiss,” which gave readers the impression that it was published by a man.
First Woman on the Trading Floor
Trailblazer Muriel “Mickie” Siebert, also from Ohio, first visited the New York Stock Exchange in the 1950s. Less than two decades later, Siebert overcame difficulties landing sponsorship for her application and financing for the costly entrance requirements to become the first woman to purchase a seat on the trading floor. (Because it cost $445,000, Siebert referred to her member badge as the most expensive piece of jewelry that she ever bought.)
The position allowed Siebert to buy and sell shares directly, and she was the only woman to do so, alongside more than 1,300 men, for a decade, according to a report by Time magazine. Later, Siebert, known as “The First Woman of Finance,” became the first woman to lead one of the NYSE’s member firms.
First Female in U.S. Stock or Future Exchange
Rosemary McFadden began her career at the New York Mercantile Exchange as a staff attorney. After four years, she was named president of NYMEX, the first woman to hold that position at any U.S. stock or futures exchange.
During McFadden’s time as leader of NYMEX, the number of contracts traded on the exchange grew dramatically from 5 million to 34 million by 1988.
First African-American Female to Own a Public Company
Entrepreneur Cathy Hughes cut her radio teeth at a station in Omaha, Neb., and later, the station at Howard University in Washington, D.C. After increasing its revenues by $2 million, she purchased a radio station in the nation’s capital and launched Radio One.
In 1999, Radio One was listed on the NASDAQ, and Hughes became the first African-American woman to run a publicly traded company.
Youngest Female CEO
At the age of 27, Julie Smolyansky became the youngest female CEO of a publicly traded company, Lifeway Foods, after her father passed away. Since assuming the top spot, she’s grown the company’s revenues from $12 million to more than $120 million.
First African-American Female Billionaire
There are few female entrepreneurs with more achievements than Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey was born in the rural town of Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1954, and in 1976, she moved to Baltimore, where she hosted a hit television talk show, People Are Talking. From there, a Chicago TV station recruited her to host a morning show.
In 1986, Winfrey struck a syndication deal with King World Productions for The Oprah Winfrey Show, which aired for a remarkable 25 seasons. During this time, she launched the entertainment empire HARPO, and by 2003, Winfrey, dubbed “the Queen of all Media,” had become the first African-American female billionaire in North America.
In a 2017 interview with Black Enterprise magazine, Winfrey said, “Every time you state what you want or believe, you’re the first to hear it. It’s a message to both you and others about what you think is possible. Don’t put a ceiling on yourself.”
First Female Chair of the Fed
For 101 years, men held the top spot at the U.S. Federal Reserve. After serving as an academic and president and CEO of the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, economist Janet Yellen was named the first female chair of the Fed.
Once mistakenly referred to as “Mr. Yellen” by President Obama, who nominated her for the position, Yellen served a single term after President Trump declined to nominate her for a second term.
Female Statue Goes Up on Wall Street
The bronze statue “Fearless Girl” was installed directly across from the well-known “Charging Bull” statue near Wall Street in New York City. The statue depicts a brave girl proudly standing with her chin up, shoulders rolled back, and hands on her hips. Standing just 50 inches tall and weighing around 250 pounds, “Fearless Girl” represents a David to the significantly bigger Goliath: the 11-foot-tall and 7,100 pound “Charging Bull.”
Despite a lawsuit alleging gender wage discrepancy against the investment firm that commissioned the statue, overall response to the artwork and the intent behind it—to call attention to a lack of gender diversity on corporate boards—has been overwhelmingly positive. Its powerful message of female strength and equality has made it a popular tourist attraction in New York City. It is perhaps fitting that the statue’s new location outside the NYSE will welcome Ms. Cunningham each day.