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'Fearless Girl' takes Wall Street by storm
00:53 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Susan Antilla is an award-winning financial columnist and author of “Tales from the Boom-Boom Room: The Landmark Legal Battles that Exposed Wall Street’s Shocking Culture of Sexual Harassment.” She has written about Wall Street, securities regulation and gender discrimination for The New York Times, Bloomberg and TheStreet. You can follow her on Twitter @antillaview. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

Story highlights

This week, State Street paid for a statue of Fearless Girl, a young defiant woman, to appear opposite the Wall Street bull

Susan Antilla: Fearless Girl must be prepared for the misogyny she will encounter once she starts earning a paycheck

There are a lot of smoke and mirrors when it comes to diversity in the workplace, writes Antilla

CNN  — 

You’ve got me thinking about women and power, Fearless Girl.

My generation is inclined to say goofy things like “Godspeed’ to a girl like you, but I figure you’d be more amenable to a simple, “You go, girl.”

Everyone is paying attention. You are a certifiable superstar in your lustrous bronze-ness, facing off against that bull in Manhattan’s Bowling Green Park.

Susan Antilla

It’s great that you’re getting early experience confronting an animal so ferocious and pumped-up with testosterone, because I expect you’ll be dealing with more of them once you’re cashing a paycheck.

Still, I’m a tad worried that you’re new at this in-your-face work and may not be properly armed. A lot of people, frankly, would rather you skipped back off to soccer practice and stopped getting your global sisters all worked up.

By the way, kudos to the investment firm that sponsored the sculptor who created you. State Street Global Advisors is pushing public companies to put women on their boards of directors lest they be on the firm’s bad side. Your benefactor runs big bucks and thus controls lots of votes that could be used to, um, “motivate” errant managements of public companies.

In the press release announcing that they’d be getting tough on corporate slackers, State Street said they’d plunked you smack in the middle of the financial district, and that you represented “the future.”

But let’s get real, girlfriend. State Street, a leader in the “Wall Street wants women to get ahead, really it does” arena, has three women on its 11-person board, two women on its 14-member management committee and 17 women among its 79 executive leaders. And in the financial world, that makes State Street a diversity overachiever.

Not that women have it easy in companies that aren’t in finance. Did you read that crazy story late last month about the women who worked at Sterling Jewelers? You’ve passed their stores when you’re at the mall: Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers are Sterling stores.

Well a couple hundred Sterling women, and even some men, signed sworn declarations that described some pretty ugly stuff that allegedly was going on at work. (Sterling says it investigated, and the allegations aren’t substantiated by facts.) You’re a tad young for all this, but suffice it to say that the company party where some people were in the pool with their clothes off was not the worst example of Sterling’s culture.

Anyway, we women and a corps of right-minded men are all worked up that you’ve arrived on the scene, and we’re tickled that you’re a symbol of the power women deserve. So drop those hands from your hips for a minute and take some notes.

First, be alert that every company will tell you it’s devoted to diversity, but those claims mean nothing. If you want to know whether they mean it, take a tour around the office. Who’s running the show when you peek into meeting rooms? Are the women in those rooms doing any talking? If the only women you can find are sitting outside the bosses’ offices making appointments, you’ve got a lemon there.

Do a Google search. Seriously. Type in a company’s name and then type in “lawsuit” or “arrest” or “harassment” or “confidential agreement.” Do the same thing with names of top managers. These folks have a lot of tricks up their sleeves to make problems disappear, but it’s at least worth a try to see if there’s a bad history they weren’t able to muzzle.

And whatever you do, don’t fall for the applause that companies get when they land on those “best places to work for women” lists. If you really want to know how things work, sneak into one of the “best places” awards ceremonies and see who’s bought all the expensive tables and taken out ads in the glossy awards brochures.

Times are tough for the media business, Fearless, and a rare remaining profit center is the business of giving out awards to honorees who are happy to write big, fat checks in return for the accolades.

Down in your neighborhood, people got pretty excited back in the mid-1990s when a group of women at Smith Barney sued the firm for gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The case was pretty wild. In one of the firm’s branches in Long Island, the boys loved playing tricks on the women brokers and assistants, like sending condoms down a tube to the female clerks and inviting women in the branch to office birthday celebrations that featured strip-o-grams.

That 1996 lawsuit cost Smith Barney $150 million and got people talking about the advent of “historic” change for Wall Street. Twenty years later, data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that women in finance were making 52 cents for every dollar men made.

You’ve got your work cut out for you.

But I’m confident that, armed with a little history, you’ll spot the dishonest spin as fast as you hear it. Just understand that you’re dealing with powerful people whose chutzpah knows no bounds, so be prepared for things you might not have imagined possible.

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    You know those women at Sterling Jewelers who I told you about? They’re not allowed to sue Sterling because the company won’t hire anyone who doesn’t agree to give up their right to use the public courts. So, when their hush-hush private arbitration was approaching a hearing in 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government agency that’s charged with enforcing the nation’s discrimination laws, had to ask permission to attend. And they were turned down.

    Take a look down the street and you’ll see the EEOC’s New York City offices at 33 Whitehall Street. Scribble down the address for when you get out of college. They could use a few fearless girls like you.