Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Article: Dances with Dinosaurs

Dances with Dinosaurs by Derek Drewry
1 February 1996, Canadian Business Vol. 69, No. 2
COPYRIGHT 1996 CB Media Ltd. (Canada)

How does a woman survive on the testosterone-charged trading floor of the Toronto Stock Exchange? By humoring the boys and keeping her eye on the money.

It's a Friday morning in mid-December. June Guerreiro rubs her eyes and looks out from her First Marathon Securities Ltd. trading booth on the west side of the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSE) trading floor. The low-walled cubicle is one of many lined up in tiers along two sides of the room. On the floor in between are eight trading squares, each marked by a console, or "trading post," around which most deals are transacted. With its wood paneling, stained carpet, old sports pages, pinup girls, silly trophies and the occasional miniature basketball net for errant balls of paper, the floor resembles an oversized fraternity rec room. Only this gathering place comes complete with banks of computer screens, ringing telephones, a dress code and enough coffee and adrenaline to keep a fair-sized town wired for about a year. This being the morning after her firm's Christmas party, it also comes with a male trader intent on talking to Guerreiro - who is one of only three female floor traders at the TSE - about another woman who was at the party, the one with "the sweet ass." Guerreiro rolls her eyes. "You guys," she says, laughing.

Welcome to the workplace that time forgot. Where men are men and women are girls. Guerreiro, 39, has been a card-carrying member here since becoming a floor trader in 1980. Day after day, she and her two female counterparts, Lori Hamer-Sexton and Pat Serrao, descend into this testosterone-driven bear pit of capitalism to go toe-to-toe with 127 male traders - each one routinely wielding whatever physical or institutional leverage they can muster to get the biggest possible slice of the $819 million that changes hands on the TSE on an average day.

For the women, it's a neverending stream of dirty jokes, uneven professional treatment, boyish taunts and sexist pranks. But they're hardly masochists. They like being traders and all that it brings - excitement, variety, independence and a handsome salary. Right now all three work as retail and institutional order traders, buying and selling stock on orders from their head offices. Order traders make up about 23% of all traders on the TSE floor. Including bonuses, their yearly incomes can range from $35,000 to $150,000. In the late '80s, Guerreiro made the step up to pro trader - a higher-risk, higher-reward club whose members get blocks of money from their firms and are then set loose on the floor to buy and sell at will. Pro traders live entirely on their commissions, with good ones pulling down much more than order traders. Guerreiro did it for a year and a half, trading in options, before the crash of 1987 drove her back to the security of a salary. Lately, however, she's been angling to get herself back into pro trading, this time in equities.

To an outsider, it all makes for a peculiar, highly charged mix. But ask the women and they'll say their dance with the dinosaurs is just one more challenge in a job where obstacles fly so fast and furiously that it becomes as natural as picking up the phone when it rings. It's certainly not for all women, but nor is it for all men. And it doesn't take someone long to find out if they belong. Those that do have one aspiration - to trade pro and pull down six-figure dough.

At Guerreiro's booth, the banter ends abruptly when one First Marathon pro trader hurries up to her, waving a scrap of paper. "Hi ya, June," he says. "Here's 5,000 Abitibi at [US$] 15 1/8. Can you lock in a rate for me?"

They talk briefly about the party, then the trader leaves and Guerreiro goes for the phone. She punches up one of her firm's institutional trading desks that can give her the US exchange rate. The line's busy. She tries another. Busy too. Guerreiro's tension starts to show. The pro is an arbitrage specialist, buying stock on one exchange and selling it on another, hoping to capitalize on slight variations in price and exchange rates. His deal hinges on a quick flip. Guerreiro tries six times before getting through. She gets the rate locked in just as the trader returns, smiling.

"June, did you get that Abitibi rate?" he asks.

"Sorry, I just got it now," says Guerreiro, matching his smile. "I tried both [desks] three times."

The trader, upset that the delay has cost him his edge, says nothing. He turns and walks away, shaking his head.

Such is life on the floor, where sudden mood swings and stop-and-go action are the norm. The stereotypical scene of a tightly packed group of traders jousting for position around a post, screaming bids on a hot stock, is real but infrequent. The stress is usually subterranean. Traders will work on crossword puzzles, talk to friends or read the paper, all the while watching their stocks, the price of the dollar, the cost of gold, the action in other markets. Then something changes - a stock reaches a certain price, the dollar slackens or picks up - and the only thing that matters is closing the deal. They must always be ready, from the second the opening siren blows at 9:30 a.m. until it blows again at 4 p.m.

Guerreiro, Hamer-Sexton and Serrao are rare in number and in spirit, and they know it. "Not a lot of women feel comfortable in this environment," says Serrao, an employee of Midland Walwyn Capital Inc. who started trading two years ago. "I personally feel different on that count." Her two colleagues are equally strong, but the three are by no means identical. Hamer-Sexton and Guerreiro are both veterans, having practically grown up on the floor. Guerreiro is genuine and talkative, yet still displays vestiges of a shyness that she says made her "blush constantly" when she first came to the floor as an input operator in 1976. Hamer-Sexton, also of Midland Walwyn, is more serious, constantly watching, weighing her words, a woman not to be toyed with. Now 37, she started at the TSE as an input operator right out of Grade 13 and can't see herself working anywhere else. Serrao, 28, is the only university graduate of the three. At home with herself, friendly and quick-witted, she loves the floor's energy.

Women like these were a long time coming to the TSE floor. For more than a century, all of the TSE traders were men. Usually hired out of high school, they earned their positions more from an ability to think on their feet than academic prowess; coarse language and off-color jokes were onmipresent. Women, when they appeared at all, were limited to supporting roles. For a time they had to settle for jobs as teletype operators, keying in the results of the day's trades in an area under the trading floor known as the dungeon. The first woman made it to the floor as a trader in 1973. Fittingly, even TSE staff remember little about her now - except that she lasted only a short time and that she always wore pants.

Guerreiro was part of the first real breakthrough three years later, when the TSE took a step out of the Stone Age, hiring five women to act as input operators - the standard entry-level position for stock traders - in the newly opened options trading square. Input operators perform an important role, processing traders' buy and sell orders; without them, a lot of deals don't get done. Because of this responsibility, Guerreiro remembers the supervisor asking applicants during their interviews if they could handle working around so many men: "She also warned us that if the guys objected dramatically to us, she was going to have to hire five male input operators instead." As it turned out, most of the men were happy to have the women on the floor. They were quickly dubbed the "Options Angels" after the cheesy 1970s TV show Charlie's Angels and, after a brief feeling-out period, the men went on with their dirty jokes and locker-room talk. It was business with the boys, as usual.

Women also got onto the floor at about the same time by working as phone clerks in different brokers' trading booths. That's where Hamer-Sexton wound up after two years as a TSE input operator. A phone clerk's main job is to take orders and other instructions over the phone and relay them to the traders. It also means getting coffee, lunch or whatever else the traders need. Going for coffee was also about the only way these "girls" could expect to see even a tiny fraction of the profits going into the men's pockets. Whenever a trader asked a clerk to get him a coffee, he'd tell her to get herself one too. Thirty or 40 coffees, a few lunches and the change started to add up. But it was still change, compared with what the female traders are making now.

Hamer-Sexton graduated to a job as an order floor trader in the early '80s. She had to ask her boss several times, until he finally said, "'OK, you do my job and I'll do yours,'" says Hamer-Sexton. With that, he gave her a stack of orders and sent her into the square. "It was three o'clock in the afternoon, the market was moving so fast the girls [input operators] couldn't keep up to the price changes. You'd call out the market and they'd say, 'Sold you this, sold you that,' and I'd say, 'Bought, bought.' I don't know if I ever really looked up because I was so nervous."

Being a woman also brought her added pressure. "It was really important to me to be successful because I felt there were a lot of eyes on me," says Hamer-Sexton. "Since then there have been a couple of times when I wanted to throw my book down and I've left. There have been a couple of times when I've wanted to cry. I've never done that on the floor. I've left, gone to the bathroom, cried and then come back. I've tried not to let them see that weakness in me. It's like, 'No, I can do this too.'"

It sounds almost valiant, given that the trial-by-fire method of training was reserved almost exclusively for women. New male traders were usually sent out on a slow day with an experienced trader who could give them help if they fell into difficulties.

In the years since, it's also been harder for women than men to make the move from order trader to pro. While Guerreiro was one of three women pro traders in the late '80s (when the total of women traders on the floor peaked at seven or eight), she says she had to push for the job much harder than her male counterparts. Hamer-Sexton had been trading about 10 years when she asked her boss if she could turn pro: "He said, 'You won't get the salary, Lori. You should stay with your salary - you should stay with the safer part of it.'" Only now, in the past seven or eight months, has she been given a small portfolio of her own, as a precursor to going completely pro - something she hopes she'll do within the year.

As the newest active female floor trader, Serrao feels things have changed for the better in recent years. "Lori and June were involved in the building stages. For me, it's different. I've never had some guy say to me, 'What are you doing here? You don't belong.'" Certainly there were major changes in the early '90s, as the brokerage business went through a time of great consolidation and downsizing. That, coupled with increasing computerization, which has moved more and more trading activity away from the floor, means there are far fewer floor traders than there were a decade ago. Most of the old-timers who remember the days when women never set foot on the floor have left. Their younger replacements, having grown up with women in the workplace, are more accepting. Even so, three women to 127 men is hardly an even ratio. (On the New York Stock Exchange, 150 out of 1,424 registered floor traders are women, although only 33 are active.)

Often the gender gap looms largest in the trading squares. Executing a trade requires the ability to quickly gain the attention of an operator, who then places the order. If an operator is slow to notice, some traders have incredible temper tantrums - throwing their books, chairs, phones or whatever else comes to hand. Guerreiro says that operators tend to serve the men first because they figure if someone gets mad, a man will lose it worse than a woman. Serrao has seen it too - and when it happens, she explodes. "When I have to ask for the market twice and there's a male in the square and he gets attention right away, it totally pisses me off," Serrao says. "I get more aggressive and louder. If I don't raise my voice, I won't be heard."

Both women say fighting to gain operators' attention doesn't affect the quality of their trades. Like almost everything else about being a woman on the floor, it just makes life more difficult. John Lang, head trader at Jones Gable & Co. Ltd., who hired Guerreiro when they both worked at Pemberton Securities Ltd., agrees. "I've never heard a client complain about the level of service they've received from a female trader," he says.

Besides the money they make, all three women say they especially enjoy the strong feeling of community that exists on the trading floor. "As much as it's a men's club, I still feel part of the group," says Hamer-Sexton. They also insist that they like most of their coworkers and that they all get along - to a point. "Conversations happen and sometimes I don't fit in," says Serrao. Adds Hamer-Sexton: "There have been days when they tell me I don't have any B-A-L-L-S," she says, spelling it out. But even when they don't feel like one of the boys, each woman knows that to trade effectively they have to play along. "When you're down there, you have to go with the flow," says Guerreiro, even when that means putting up with male traders making comments about her heels, her hair or her skirt's length. "You've got to deal with that on top of dealing with the business at hand," says Serrao.

Having mastered all sides of such dealings, would Hamer-Sexton or Guerreiro want their daughters - aged eight and 20, respectively - to follow in their footsteps? "My daughter is different than I am," says Guerreiro. "She's been on the floor lots of times and she knows a lot of people down here. But I think she's more an office person." As for Hamer-Sexton? "If she wanted to, yeah, I don't think I'd have a problem with that," she says. "Sometimes it makes me feel a little bit special, to do what I do, because not very many people do it. I think she'd like that."

Such decisions could soon be moot. Computer-assisted trading, first introduced in 1977, has already wiped out about 500 full-time trading positions at the exchange. Were it not for some major technical glitches and political wrangling within the TSE, the trading floor already would have been eliminated, with all trading being done from terminals in outside offices. According to the current plan, that day may come sometime in the next year. Then the floor, along with its archaic male traditions, will be extinct technology undoing what decades of social evolution could not. Already, computer-assisted trading has helped women stake their claim in the brokerage houses. Ninety percent of all trades now bypass the floor entirely and 37% of the people who execute those trades from the comfort of their offices are women.

Standing with her arms crossed at the back of her trading square, Hamer-Sexton has just filled an order and is watching the market on a bank of computer screens up on the post. Behind her, the pinup girls and sports pages along the cubicle walls are frayed and peeling. Computerization may be good for gender politics but, for Hamer-Sexton, it heralds the end of an era. "Sure, I'll go and trade from an office," she says, with a shrug. "But it's not going to be the same. There's something about the floor that you just can't get anywhere else."

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