Sweaty Betty was one of the first women traders to work on the floor of the London Stock Exchange. Her real name was Elizabeth Sullivan and she earned her nickname because of the pungent perfume she wore.
Sullivan got off lightly; one of her fellow women workers was nicknamed Anne Boleyn, which, in City code, meant good body, shame about the head. Sullivan and her sisters not only put up with the ribaldry but took part; they gave as good as they got, or left. In many ways, the City has been a great place for women to work over the past two decades – meritocratic and buzzy. There are many, many women who have made it to the top, particularly in fund management, despite the institutionalised sexism which most of them, like Sullivan, chose to ignore, or join in with.
But today's women are more circumspect; our daughters have been brought up at home and at school and university to expect equality in the workplace, and mutual respect from male colleagues. So many of them are genuinely staggered at the latent sexism and bullying that greets them, stepping out into the City for the first time. Many of the older-style money-brokers and trading floors have cleaned up their acts; brokers such as Icap and Cantor Fitzgerald have made a big push to tone down the more testosterone-fuelled antics.
Even so, there has been a string of high-profile sexual harassment actions and challenges on equal pay against financial firms, as well as the most recent case when one woman claimed she had been forced to watch lap-dancing to entertain clients. Some cases have shown serious injustice while others do appear to have been brought by savvy women taking the opportunity to make money out of their gender, and you can see why so many City bankers are retaliating, accusing women of using their sex for unfair advantage.
That's why it is refreshing to see that the Treasury Select Committee has decided to take the issue seriously. John McFall's committee will hold two hearings this autumn looking at allegations that women earn far less than their male peers, as well as to what extent the laddish City culture is sexist and exploitative.
Now there's no question this is going to be a complicated issue; all the more so because the City is just about as competitive and adrenaline-charged as you can get. Power equals money, and there is as much homoerotic power-play that goes on between men as there is between men and women.
If the Treasury committee – which, ironically, has just one woman member – is going to get the most out of the hearings, it must invite as many grown-up male bankers and brokers to be witnesses as possible. What I would like to know is what they think about the state of the sexes: Is sexism rampant? Are women wimps? Are they manipulative? Do they now take themselves too seriously? Are most men misogynists at heart? Do they really hate women at work? Let's find out first hand; McFall's select committee into the banking crisis has already proved riveting TV drama, and this hearing promises more of the same.
Humour still has a big role to play, and should remain high up the agenda of any debate. It's worth remembering that in Sweaty Betty's day, the men had nicknames which were equally crude. One dealer was considered so well-endowed that he was known throughout the Square Mile as Hosepipe, while another, tall with curly blond hair, was Shirley Temple. And pity the poor trader dubbed the Wide-Mouthed Tree Frog – to this day no one knows why.Reuse content