The Lasting Legacy of Muriel Siebert, 'First Lady of Finance'

Wall StreetKnown as The First Woman of Finance, Muriel Siebert was the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and the first woman to head one of the NYSE's member firms. She joined the 1,365 male members of the exchange on . Alisa Roost looks at her legacy.

Just over two weeks ago, Muriel Siebert died. In 1993, I worked as a temporary employee for her company, Siebert Financial Corporation. The culture of that company differed from any other place I temped; she created a nurturing firm and I learned an invaluable lesson: women need to negotiate on their own behalf.

In 1993, I arrived in New York with a bachelor's degree in Theater. I did what so many with unmarketable degrees have always done to pay the rent; I temped. At the time, minimum wage was $4.25. I grew up in a small, town in Oregon and had previously worked  graveyard shift in a cannery for $7 an hour with no weekends, so when the agency offered me $10 an hour, with weekends and holidays and a desk, I felt like I'd won the lottery! My best friend and I shared a studio apartment. I made ends meet while living in the city of my dreams. 

The second week the agency sent me to Siebert's company in the Lipstick Building, which she founded after she became the first woman to have a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. At that time, it didn't occur to me that a woman-owned business would be any different from another one, but it was. I supported Ms. Siebert's personal assistant, a fastidious, older gentleman who took time to get to know me and provided surprising mentoring for a temporary employee.  I didn't know anything about the quick woman with the little dog. 

I'd see her coming and she did take the time to meet me, but I never had a substantive conversation with her. Much about New York intimidated me, including this boss. 

Halfway through my week, her assistant asked how much I earned.  The answer outraged him.  He gave me the name of another agency, told me to take a long lunch break the next day, demand $15 an hour, and put him down as a recommendation. I did, and never worked for less again. 

I temped for the next eight years while I earned my PhD. I worked for some good companies and some bad. Mostly they treated me well. In fact, administrative assistants in the $15 an hour range were uniformly treated better than receptionists earning $10. But no other CEO came out to meet a new temp. And no one ever inquired if I was fairly paid. Emboldened by that experience, however, I would talk to new temps surreptitiously in the ladies room, trying to give them a sense of the salary parameters, and encouraging them to negotiate. It was easy to look out for other people, but, much to my detriment, I didn't demand another raise for myself. When I got a temp job at Goldman Sachs I asked around and found out they were paying me $6 an hour less than any of the other presentation assistants. I talked to my agency and they said I should have asked for more. So I asked for a raise, and they said it was too late.  After I demanded an early evaluation, the agency told me I shouldn't have been talking to other temps about salary and accepted my resignation. 

Muriel Siebert had a substantive impact on the lives of women in business.

She forced clubs to admit women in New York City in the 1970s, had a woman's bathroom installed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 1987, and funded women-owned start-ups. 

She broke the glass ceiling and then built a ladder for other strong women to follow, but the culture she created at her company is equally revolutionary. 

From what I saw, she nurtured a model that valued everyone, even a short-term temp.  Her company also encouraged me, at least, to talk more openly about money. My week with Muriel Siebert taught me a lesson that women still fundamentally ignore; ask for more. In Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation To Get What They Want, Linda Babock reported that only 7% of women with MBAs negotiate their salary; it is unlikely women with less business training are doing a better job. With all of two weeks of experience, I asked for and received a 50% wage increase.  Every other temp job I held has based my salary on my previous income; I probably couldn't have finished my PhD without massive loans if I hadn't asked for that raise. 

And when I received my first tenure-track job offer, I did what no other woman starting at that college that year did - I negotiated my starting salary.  It was only 3% more, but every annual raise was calculated as a percentage of my previous salary. My future jobs also used my previous salary as a foundation, giving me the opportunity to buy an apartment- a long way from my studio-sharing days. 

Muriel Siebert did many things to encourage the strongest women in business to speak up for themselves.

She smashed through barriers and lifted a helping hand to women leaders coming behind her. 

Equally remarkably, she ran a company that looked out for everyone; even the timid, the temporary, and the theatrical. Recently, I used those negotiation skills to agree on a lower rate on my mortgage than previously offered; I raise a glass to the Lipstick Building and toast the fighting spirit that set an example for so many women! 

Alisa Roost is an assistant professor of humanities at Hostos Community College, where she teaches all students to stand up for their own interests. She temped at Siebert Financial Company for an entire week in November of 1993.

Image courtesy of Emmanuel Huybrechts

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