How fitting on Women’s Equality Day to recognize the stellar achievements of financial executive Muriel F. “Mickie” Siebert. After learning that she was being paid less than a man to do the same work at her brokerage firm, Siebert decided to become her own boss. She spent $445,000 to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. On December 28, 1967, Siebert became the first woman eligible to trade on the Big Board.
Why is that event so important on Women’s Equality Day? It’s important because when Siebert made her first trade, she broke a 175-year-long history in which only men had had that privilege. And, she took one step toward bringing equality for women to Wall Street.
The reason she decided to go out on her own is fascinating.
As the story goes, Siebert arrived in New York City in 1954 with $500 in her pocket and took a job for $65 a week as an analyst for the Wall Street firm Bache & Company. She moved to other firms while building her research expertise in the entertainment and aviation industries, among others. She was apparently quite good at her job — she impressed a Boeing executive with her facility with numbers — and by 1965, she was earning several hundred thousand dollars a year and had made partner at the brokerage firm Brimberg and Co. However, the money and partnership weren’t enough to offset the fact that she was paid just 60 percent of what men were paid to do the same job.
Which large firm could she go to and earn the same pay as a man, Siebert wondered? To find out, she asked Gerald Tsai, Jr., who was then one of the most successful men on Wall Street. As Siebert recounts, Tsai told her “don’t be ridiculous. You won’t,” and advised her to work for herself. In 1967, she did just that, buying a coveted seat on the New York Stock Exchange. In so doing, she became not just the first woman to hold a seat there, but the first woman to even ask for one. She remained in this exclusive one-member club for almost 10 years. As Siebert said, “It was 1,365 men and me.”
She solidified her position as a Wall Street pioneer when she became the first woman to own and operate her own brokerage firm, Muriel Siebert & Company, in 1969. In 1977, she became the first woman superintendent of banks in New York State. Siebert told those stories and more in her 2002 memoir “Changing the Rules: Adventures of a Wall Street Maverick” (with Aimee Lee Bell). Siebert died August 24 at age 84.
In the video initiative “Makers: Women Who Make America,” Siebert noted how far women have come since 1967. As Siebert said, “Women today can do whatever they want to do. That was part of being a feminist. We opened up jobs for people. We created equality for women. In 1977, I was a beneficiary of the women’s movement when I was appointed superintendent of banks (in New York). People never thought a woman could do that. There have been four women since then!”
I never met Muriel Siebert. But, I certainly was aware of who she was while I was working as an analyst at Lehman Brothers in the mid-1980s. Even then, women at the firm and on Wall Street were few and far between. (Mary Tanner became Lehman’s first female partner in 1984, and the number of female investment banking partners or managing directors at major firms in 1985 could be counted on one hand plus two fingers.) To avoid being mistaken for secretaries, women had to wear ridiculous-looking bow ties with their $600 Paul Stuart suits and carry briefcases instead of purses.
“The lack of women partners at the top firms is a disgrace,” said Siebert in an interview for a 1985 cover story for Institutional Investor titled “Wall Street women: You’ve come a short way, baby.”
The discrimination was pervasive. Some male mergers-and-acquisitions bankers at these top firms believed that women could not hack the rough nature of investment banking, or that women would not be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make it to the top.
With her achievements in the financial world and beyond, Siebert proved that these beliefs were fallacies. Yet, Siebert’s achievements haven’t been enough. More than four decades after Siebert marched onto Wall Street’s floor, no woman has yet marched to the top of a major Wall Street firm.