Brooksley Born Part III: The Boys Club

Brooksely Born was a lone woman in a man’s world. She spent much of her career, and even her education, this way. Now, when she began college, it was to be expected. That it was still the case in 1998 I do find shocking. Even more shocking are the ways in which this "lone woman" phenomenon still happens. While there are more women working in finance, and more women in politics and government, we are still outnumbered by men in many situations. And some of those men are reluctant to end the games and open up the boys club to everyone.

We’ve seen it happen this week with the hearing on HR3, when Eleanor Holmes Norton was denied her right to testify before the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, which does not include a single woman. (In case you were wondering, the entire Judiciary Committee has 7 women, which makes up 17% of the committee.)

The President’s current economic team is almost identical to that of former President Clinton’s. The same men who pushed off warnings of a crisis in 1998 are working to get us out of the crisis from 2008. Oh, the irony! Or is that just how Washington works? Everyone says they want an outsider to take over, but it doesn’t take long to become an insider, and, while institutional knowledge can be helpful, fresh eyes — and different genetic makeup — should be welcomed. Obama’s current Council of Economic Advisors includes four women out of a total of 14 members and staff.

Comments were often made about Born and her “handbag” among other financial regulators, and members of Congress. Yes, she carried her own purse. Is that really what we need to get hung up on? Would it have been better for her hand it off to a staffer? Leave it in her office? How does her carrying a purse have anything to do with her work at the CFTC?

Last May, Time Magazine had a cover story on the new women of Wall Street. It is the first time there have been multiple women in positions on power within financial regulation. While not actually from or working on Wall Street, there are now three women in position to make Wall Street clean up its act, and protect the people – sound familiar? That is what Born was attempting on her own more than 10 years ago. Sheila Bair, the chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Mary Schapiro, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chair — and first woman to hold that position — and Elizabeth Warren, former chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel on Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and currently creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) are women to watch as some of the first to step into such roles. Can we please focus on the work these women do and not on what bag they carry, what they’re wearing or what their office looks like?

In that same article, Treasury Secretary Geithner is quoted as saying at an event that “he had recently come across a headline that asked, ‘What If Women Ran Wall Street?’ ‘Now that’s an excellent question, but it’s kind of a low bar; how, you might ask, could women not have done better?’” It is amazing to me that we are just now realizing how few women have stepped in these types of roles. Yet another boys club will hopefully be opened to these women working to pull us from a financial crisis, and to prevent it from happening again.

I haven’t experienced the boys club issue much personally. In college, my school was more than 50% female and eligible male dates could be hard to come by. Even working in campaign politics, women outnumbered the men, and the non-profit sector is not much different. I’ve always been in an office made up by a large percentage of women. But then I get home and watch the news. And it seems to be so different. How do we change this? Why are men and women more often choosing entirely different industries to work in?

As women, we tend to spend time thanking those who came before us so long ago, but so little time noticing the glass ceilings being broken and cracked all around us. We did all acknowledge Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi — as we should. But other women are making strides, and without them those "boys only" clubs will continue. Where do you see women still being shut out or shot down from entrance? Even if they really should be part of that club, like Born should have been?

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  • This is a great question and, imo, there are many intersecting reasons why some women stay away from or leave organizations where an “old boys’ club” culture is alive and well.

    Part of the problem is sisterhood, or the lack of this consciousness among women. No one woman can or should take on an entrenched system by herself, not only because she sets herself up for failure, but she also sets herself up for being co-opted. In order to successfully press for the viewpoint and changes that can only be perceived by an out-group or a minority, you have to organize, organize, organize. Labor knows this and labor laws reflect this. An individual worker who complains about working conditions can get discharged, although the employer will often trump up “does bad work” or “is dishonest” reasons. However, if even 2 employees complain together, that is collective action, which is protected by the National Labor Relations Act (sorry, can’t remember what year this passed). These laws are adjudicated and enforced by the National Labor Relations Board, an agency of the Federal government. I happen to know this because my husband spent his entire career as an attorney for the NLRB.

    This consciousness among women is spotty. The good news is that women who are seriously at the effect of exploitation, such as domestic workers, service workers, etc., are organized or are organizing. Read Gloria Feldt’s new book, NO EXCUSES, for her discussion of the importance of getting angry TOGETHER and acting collectively with a consciousness of SISTERHOOD. It can’t be stressed enough, as far as I’m concerned, that until women realize that we’re all in the same boat, we won’t change the culture of patriarchy. Not only that, but a woman succeeding by herself may be inspiring, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into significant cultural/political change unless there is sufficient leverage. A lone woman has no leverage.