Women on Wall Street: As Many Leave the Industry, Some Live in Fear

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A lawsuit filed by three women who have accused investment bank Goldman Sachs (GS) of sex discrimination underscores one of the major trends on Wall Street in recent years: Despite a growing movement toward equality in the business world, financial services is an increasingly male-dominated industry.

"Statistics show that as women are leaving Wall Street, men are coming in," says Robert Ottinger, an employment lawyer in the financial district. "There are plenty of qualified women to work here, so it's not a question of qualifications. It's a question of preference and comfort for the employers."

Troublesome Trend

According to statistics gathered by Fin.com, in the past decade 141,0000 women, or 2.6% of the female workers in finance, left the industry, while the number of men working on Wall Street grew by 389,000, or 9.6%. The trend is particularly pronounced among young women aged 20-35, where 16.5% of women left the financial industry.

"There are laws that prohibit sex discrimination and sexual harassment on the books, but the reality is they don't really work," Ottinger says. "Occasionally women get lucky, but what you don't hear about in the news are all the other people who are victims of this and no one ever hears their story."

The three women in the Goldman suit contend the investment bank pays its male employees more than women and gives men more frequent promotions. The complaint says women make up 29% of the firm's vice presidents, 17% of its managing directors and 14% of its partners.

"The number of women in management positions at Goldman Sachs dwindles as the level of management rises," the women said in their lawsuit, which seeks class-action status for women who have worked as executives at the firm.

Denials, Settlements, and Surprising Statistics

"We believe this suit is without merit," a Goldman Sachs spokesman said in an emailed statement to Daily Finance. "People are critical to our business, and we make extraordinary efforts to recruit, develop and retain outstanding women professionals."

Three female investment advisers at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC) also sued their employer in March, claiming they had been discriminated against. The bank denied the charges.

In 2004, investment bank Morgan Stanley (MS) settled accusations that it had paid women less than men and denied them promotions by paying the plaintiffs $54 million.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the number of sexual harassment charges in finance, insurance and real estate has decreased by half from 2005 to 2009, from 287 cases to 119.

Ottinger maintains that discrimination complaints are declining on Wall Street not because there is less discrimination in the workplace, but because women are more fearful for their jobs. "What's really going on is that it's a small community," she says. 'When you get to the higher levels, word travels. If you sue a company or make an accusation of gender bias or sexual harassment, there is a perception that your career will be over."

The three women involved in the Goldman Sachs suit, Lisa Parisi, 48, Christina Chen-Oster, 39, and Shanna Orlich, 30, have all left the firm.

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