The cliché: Yesterday evening, The Wall Street Journal reported on the ouster of Sallie Krawcheck from her position at Bank of America with this lede: "Senior female executives on Wall Street are like bald eagles: Majestic, but extremely rare." Today, The New York Times Dealbook blog ran an eerily similar opening line: "Women — always a rare breed in the upper echelons of Wall Street — are looking like an endangered species in the executive suite of big banks." The Journal's headline, it should be noted, was "Culling the Herd (Again) of Top Wall Street Women." It seems that the news of Krawchek's departure has created much temptation to see women financiers as near-extinct animals.
Why it's catching on: The shockingly low number of women at the top levels of Wall Street is not new. In 2008, Krawcheck left Citigroup, making her the third prominent female Wall Street executive to leave in the wake of the 2008 crash. The New York Times story about that departure was largely recycled today and similar articles have run pretty much continually in the interim.) So it's no surprise that 2011 does not mark the first time a journalist has placed Wall Street women on the endangered species list. "Women are so thinly represented in the most senior positions that as securities firms shed workers, they are becoming an endangered species," wrote Forbes in 2009. See also this one from Dealbook from June: "Women deal makers, financiers and entrepreneurs are a rare breed in the Middle East." In this case, we think the particular history of women's numbers on Wall Street draws writers to the "endangered species" metaphors. Women have always faced challenges breaking into finance, but this particular challenge comes about after they made great progress during the boom years and then took disproportionate hits during the cutbacks. (There are many theories as to why.) So they work well in their role as a species that was once populated and now threatened as opposed to a breed that was just always rare.
Why else? It's a cliché with curious implications. The Wall Street Journal lede in particular, which paints the woman on Wall Street as "majestic" but "rare" also sets her apart as somehow different in nature from the man of Wall Street. It isn't necessarily a sexist image, but it does also shed light on some of the mentality that might nudge women away from Wall Street in the first place. So while we've never seen anyone offended by a comparison to a bald eagle, we understand why such animal metaphors might put Krawcheck, as well as other women who still work on Wall Street, on edge.