The XX Factor

Bank of America Settlement Puts a Big Price Tag on Gender Bias

$39 million to settle? Bollocks.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Bank of America will pay $39 million to settle claims of gender discrimination by women in its Merrill Lynch brokerage operation. The class action lawsuit, filed in March 2010 in the United States District Court in Brooklyn, accused the banking company of favoring male financial officers “with respect to business opportunities, compensation, professional support, and other terms and conditions of employment.” It alleged that women were less likely to be assigned lucrative, career-making clients and to receive promotions, and that those who submitted discrimination complaints were retaliated against. A culture of imperceptibly snowballing perks for men violated U.S. civil rights law, the lawyers successfully argued. Now the $39 million will branch off into 4,800 payouts to women who worked at Bank of America between 2007 and 2013. The company will also bring in an “applied organizational psychologist” to study the gendered reverberations of its policies. On the other hand, USA Today reports, Merrill Lynch admits no wrongdoing under the settlement.

A few observations on this. First, as Think Progress and others have already pointed out, Merrill Lynch has a dismal track record with all minorities. Just 10 days before Friday’s settlement, the firm resolved a racial discrimination lawsuit by agreeing to distribute $160 million among 1,200 black investment advisors—the largest racial bias payout on record.

Nor is this the first time women in particular have run up against fences around the Merrill Lynch field of dreams. In 1998, a group of 900 female employees led by Marybeth Cremin brought a discrimination suit against the company, which settled by promising to examine its practices and implement “diversity initiatives.” Unfortunately, most of those initiatives didn’t take. The firm has repeatedly “penalized female Financial Advisors financially for not being chosen for those advantages they [the firm] created,” according to plaintiff’s attorney Kelly M. Dermody. Even more blatant, woman trainees at Merrill Lynch were reportedly urged to read and emulate a book of advice called Seducing the Boys’ Club: Uncensored Tactics From a Woman at the Top. Sample tip? “Unless he is morbidly obese, there is no man on earth who won’t puff up at this sentence: Wow, you look great. Been working out?” Women were also pressured to go to events specifically “for them,” i.e. centered around totally not-demeaning themes like “dressing for success” and “preparing healthy meals while working full-time.” (With this in mind, it’s disconcerting that Merrill Lynch refuses to admit even just a little wrongdoing in the latest settlement. Just a smidge!)

Much Internet ink has been spilled trying to figure out Wall Street sexism. Some facets of it—Seducing the Boys’ Club, for instance—seem egregious; other strands are quieter or even disguised as best practices. For instance, according to Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan, firms like Bank of America court senior financial advisors by giving them lots of freedom, including the freedom to choose their junior partners without much oversight. In the absence of standardized selection criteria, older white men tend to put together teams of younger white men (birds of a feather, etc). Meanwhile, up-and-comers who don’t look like younger versions of their superiors are denied the same opportunities to jumpstart their careers. These behaviors are not obvious or even necessarily intentional, but that makes the pattern of discrimination they create no less real. At least, thanks to recent lawsuits, they’re also growing ever more costly.