The Role of Women on Wall Street Fuels Another Debate Over Job Titles

February 9, 2012

On February 8, 2012, I posted theStreet Sweeper column: "FINRA Fines and Suspends Client Associate For Altering IPO Forms." In addition to analyzing the underlying Financial Industry Regulatory Authority ("FINRA") settlement of allegations by the regulator that Registered Senior Client Associate Judith Martin had altered without prior customer authorization 25 forms, I also launched into a commentary about the use of the four-word job title assigned to her by Wells Fargo Advisors, LLP. I argued that Wall Street's love affair with so many fanciful titles that don't accurately depict the employee's true job has negative consequences. Among those consequences were confusing the public and perpetuating pay disparity among women and minorities.This is not an issue solely at Wells Fargo but a larger societal challenge at most of the major industry firms, be that Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, or whatever.

Overwhelmingly, the job of a stockbroker remains the preserve of white males and the supporting roles persist in being disproportionately handled by females and minorities. Has Wall Street opened up in recent years? Absolutely. Notably, there are more female and minority analysts, traders, and executives.  But let's not spend too much time congratulating ourselves for doing the right thing.

On the other hand, walk into a typical branch office and you won't see all that much difference from the 1950s.  The managers and stockbrokers will tend to be overwhelmingly men.  The support staff will tend to be overwhelmingly women.  Is it all that much different at law firms, accounting firms, or other professions? No - and don't expect me to engage in such a hypocritical defense.

And before you get all huffy with me, do the following.  Take out a piece of paper and a pen.  Okay, now, write down the names of ten brokerage firms that you know.  Next, tell me how many of those have female or minority CEOs.  Keep in mind that more than half the U.S. population is female.

A Critic Disagrees

In response to my personal dislike for industry job descriptions such as Registered Senior Client Associate, one commentator ("WFA Worker") posted the following:

I agree with you, Bill. What she did was wrong, and should have known better. Her title alone means she was not new to the industry.

We will have to agree to disagree though on your comment regarding confusing the clients out there with our titles. While I am very well treated and respected by my brokers and clients, our clients have no doubt who the brokers are. They know I run the administrative side of our business and my brokers do the other. Our clients like knowing they can come to me with a problem and I will do my best to resolve it. No confusion with us. But we are not everyone, I know.

I was actually a broker in another life, but just could not stand the commission pressure of another regional firm that has a lot of koolaid drinkers. It seems a cliche, but being a woman in this business is still incredibly difficult.

In response to that comment, I wrote:

It somewhat saddens me when you say that "we will have to agree to disagree . . ." on the issue of the excess of Wall Street titles and my advocacy for more equal treatment of the industry's women because I sense that you are very sincere in your positions and I applaud your civility in engaging me in a dialog. My sense of things is that I have not competently explained my annoyance with these overblown titles and their prevalent utilization in perpetuating the unequal treatment of many women in Wall Street. Would you do me a favor - please read "Morgan Stanley Smith Barney Female Employee Suspended and Fined for Unauthorized Signatures" (BrokeAndBroker, September 23, 2011) and tell me if that article better explains my position.

As an apparent industry veteran, I'm sure that you are aware of the fact that a disproportionate number of so-called client service/administrative jobs are staffed by females - particularly females, like yourself, who have passed a number of industry registration exams but just don't seem to wind up in full-fledged production. Similarly, while you note that you "run the administrative side of our business and my brokers do the other," the disparity in your pay and that of the the brokers that you support is typically substantial and, in my opinion, does not fairly represent the contribution of those providing such support, particularly when, like yourself, they are registered. Not only do so-called client support staff not receive commissions or a fair share of same, but starting salaries are often around $40,000 or so. I doubt that the brokers you support earn that amount.

As you note and as I have long advocated over my career, "being a woman in this business is still incredibly difficult." Unfortunately, Wall Street's cynical use of "titles" in lieu of meaningful and fair compensation only serves to maintain what I view as a system of pay disparity and unequal opportunity for women and many minorities. You should understand that the title of "Registered Senior Client Associate" connotates to the public far more than someone who is merely doing back-office, administrative tasks. That title suggests a highly qualified individual capable of interacting with a client and providing investment recommendations and portfolio analysis - which, I believe you confirm, isn't exactly what the job is about. This puffed up title is more likely a bone tossed to many women in lieu of a salary more commensurate with the nature of the job. Moreover, in truth, when you say that you run the administrative side of the business and "my brokers do the other," just exactly what is that other side anyway - cold calling?

As you say, we will respectfully and professionally agree to disagree. I thank you for your comment and look forward to future exchanges.


Look It Up

Way back in 2009, I published a seminal article on the issue of the proliferation of job titles on Wall Street: The Death Of The Salesman(August 7, 2009).

In addition to the above, I would refer you to my Street Sweeper column: Bill Singer Replies to SEC Commissioner Aguilar's Call for Diversity" (May 3, 2011).

As to the issue of whether Wall Street's many titles confuses the public (as I suggest) or doesn't (as the above poster argues), I would refer you to industry pundit Josh Brown's excellent commentary: What is a Stockbroker? America Has No Clue (Street Talk, September 20, 2010).