November 12, 2010

There was a very interesting article in the New York Times on Wednesday, Nov. 10, about Ruth Porat, a long-time Morgan Stanley executive who ran the investment bank's financial institutions group and was recently named to be the company's chief financial officer -- a role that has proved to be the downfall of several other high-profile Wall Street women, most famously Erin Callan, who was CFO of Lehman Brothers at the time of its collapse.

Porat comes across in the article as a very smart, very organized and focused and extremely determined individual with a good track record who not only has often been in the right place at the right time, but who also has overcome tremendous challenges, both professional and personal -- including two bouts with cancer. Porat declined to be interviewed by the Times, but many other people who she has worked with over the years were willing to go on the record about her capabilities and performance.

Which brings me to the quote in the article that left me reeling. As head of Morgan Stanley's financial institutions group, one of the companies Porat helped take public was the private equity firm Blackstone Group. Here's how Blackstone's president described her performance:

Tony James, president of Blackstone, said Ms. Porat was available at all hours to handle issues. "She never makes you feel like you are disturbing her personal life; I don't even know if she has one."

Wow -- my head is still spinning from this blunt comment. I am still trying to figure out if this is supposed to be a compliment, or an indirect criticism. Does it imply that he expected to get pushback from Porat because of her family and her health issues? Has he resented working with other women because somehow their personal lives got in the way? Has Porat worried about sacrificing her professional standing because of family commitments -- or vice versa? Does she ignore her children in favor of her clients? Does she "do it all" because she has no choice? Does she have to "suck it up" because of the scrutiny women in high positions in financial services get (especially when they encounter problems)?

It's probably some combination of "all of the above." One way or the other, it's a shocking and very sobering reminder of how tough the business world is right now -- and how much tougher it can be for women, even in 2010.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & ...