LONDON — Male dominance in the City of London financial district is coming under attack as women make their mark in the fast and furious world of financial futures.
While immaculately dressed financiers with bowler hats and furled umbrellas can still be seen around the city, its image as an all-male bastion is fading quickly, particularly on one of its youngest and fastest-growing markets, the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE).
The exchange opened in 1982 to trade financial futures--contracts to buy or sell currencies and bonds at a future date. Huge sums can be made and lost in an instant as prices fluctuate violently in reaction to the latest financial news.
Unencumbered by traditions that prevented women from trading on the nearby Stock Exchange until the mid-1970s, LIFFE was open to both sexes from the outset.
Now a Director
It has already produced a high-flier seen by many women traders as an example of how far they can go. Rosalyn Wilton moved off the LIFFE trading floor after two years and is now a main board director of commodities brokers Drexel Burnham Lambert and a director of the exchange itself.
"If you're good at the job, work hard and apply yourself to it, you'll get on. It makes no difference whether you're a man or a woman," said Wilton, a trained mathematician.
But there are times when it can be hard being a woman on LIFFE, especially when the market is hectic.
Futures contracts are traded in "pits" by traders shouting their prices. Price movements and trading orders are relayed through a combination of complex hand signals and sheer lung power to and from booths around the floor, where customer orders are phoned in and paper work is done.
Market-moving news can turn the pits into a deafening melee of burly young men frantically jostling each other as they look for buyers or sellers at the right price.
"A woman's voice is harder to hear when men are shouting," said Gail Boland of Bailey Shatkin Commodities.
"Being short is a disadvantage in the pit, particularly as you're not allowed to wear high heels . . . You can't see out to your booth," said Boland's sister Suzi Weston, who trades for the same company.
However, some women find they attract attention more easily because of their appearance and higher voice when trading is quieter.
Tend to Notice Voices
"The men tend to notice your voice, even if they don't like the sound of it. Also you look different so they notice you," said Maria Jones of Continental Illinois National Bank of Chicago.
Women apparently fare better in the booths--male traders say they tend to be well-organized and tidy in the extremely limited space there and remain cool at crucial times when several customers are ringing at once.
But while women have made their presence felt, between 80% and 90% of the 300 or so dealers and traders are men. The tone at LIFFE, sometimes compared by cynics to a gambling den, is palpably male. Horseplay relieves tension in dull moments and humor is robust rather than refined.
Most of the women questioned agreed that the atmosphere of the market is macho, but their reaction to it varied from cultivated indifference to active enjoyment.
"Yes, it's macho but I like it," said one woman trader from a U.S.-based bank. The view of Maria Jones of Continental is: "You can ignore it, which is no fun for you or them. You can blush, which encourages them, or you can make sure you always get the last word in."
Almost none of the women complained of chauvinism, apart from odd pockets of old-fashioned male attitudes.
"People are younger and more open-minded than in other places," said one. While a woman trader now with an American bank contrasted it with a previous job: "I had more trouble with chauvinism at the Stock Exchange. Here people are younger and there are more women."