When Muriel Siebert became the first female member of the New York Stock Exchange back in 1967, it was more than two years before someone took pity on her and showed her where there was a ladies’ room on the trading floor, left over from the Korean War days when the draft meant the exchange had to hire women as clerks.
Having a woman as a member was a different matter altogether, Siebert told me in a 2008 conversation. “You know that phrase, ‘feeling the love’? Well, let’s just say that I didn’t feel any of that, at all, not one little bit, for quite a while. I was shaking up the boy’s club, and while they were polite most of the time, these guys would have been just as happy if I had decided to be a housewife, or a librarian.”
Siebert, who died at the age of 80 on Saturday, was having none of that. She had to get past obstacles that her male colleagues never encountered – the exchange demanded a guarantee from her bank that they would lend her the $300,000 needed to pay for her seat, something they had never asked a male broker to produce – but she carved a path for women in finance.
After Siebert made her debut on the floor, it got harder for opponents to suggest that women were temperamentally unsuited to being traders or bankers. Siebert herself was a big advocate of diversity in business and especially in finance. “The more everybody looks alike, the more they are going to think alike,” she told me in the wake of the financial crisis. “And the more everyone thinks alike, the more likely were to end up in a mess like this.”
It would be an overstatement to credit the inroads that women have made on Wall Street – however meager they may feel and however macho and misogynistic the Street’s culture may still feel at times – solely to Siebert. She happened to be on the spot and to be prepared to act at a time when the winds of change began to whisper, if not blow, down the canyons of lower Manhattan. Someone was going to be first female member to trade on the Big Board, and it happened to be Siebert.
Now, with thousands of professional women in the upper tiers of management at firms nationwide, the only question is when a woman will become CEO of a major U.S. financial institution, not if. It’s too bad that Siebert didn’t live long enough to see that happen, too.