Women Who Rocked the Finance World — Isabel Benham

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The finance world has been largely male-dominated to date. That’s no secret! But did you know that many women have also made their mark on the industry?

Yes! There have been feisty females throughout the ages who have pushed for change. And as Contentworks is a financial services marketing agency spearheaded by female CEOS with a passion for equality, we’ve been delving deeper into the lives of these game-changers.

In this article we’ll be looking at Wall Street pioneer and financial revolutionary Isabel Benham.

A Passion for Education and Endless Determination

Born in New York state on August 4th, 1909, Isabel Benham grew up breaking boundaries and pushing for change. Unlike many women of her time, she was dissatisfied with the idea of becoming a secretary or settling down and starting a family. So, she decided to pursue education instead. But things didn’t run smoothly. The women’s college she admired, Bryn Mawr, didn’t even offer an economics degree in the 1920s and therefore Behnam first had to insist that the school provided an economics-based education. Due to her passion and determination, she became one of five women to graduate with an economics degree in 1931.

The Great Depression and Gender Discrimination

After graduation, Benham faced an array of barriers making it difficult for her to land a stable job. As well as the Great Depression putting pressure on the economy, Behnam faced an abundance of gender discrimination. Indeed, when she first expressed her desire to work on Wall Street she was faced with instant criticism and continuous discouragement. Many people told her to go home to her parents or find a partner and have children in order to live happily ever after. The idea of a woman in finance was still very much taboo.

Benham initially supported herself by selling magazine subscriptions. At unsuccessful job interviews, she would ask executives to buy one. And as they felt bad for turning her down, they often made the purchase. Such sharp intellect resulted in her raking in an impressive $118 dollars in just one week following a string of professional rejections. This turned out to be a salary she wouldn’t match until many years later.

First Big Break and the Climb to Wall Street

Determined to pursue a Wall Street career, Benham got her first big break at Wall Street bond firm RW Pressprich working as a bond statistician for a boss who ‘made things difficult.’ She quickly developed a reputation for churning out impressively accurate reports on America’s railroad industry and by the 1960s, Benham was recognised as a top railroad analyst. She proved herself to be a top asset to the company soon becoming the organisation’s first female partner and the first woman to have achieved such a position within a Wall Street bond firm. Her achievements are celebrated by the Museum of American Finance in downtown New York.

Andy Petery, a former analyst at Morgan Stanley who used to compete against Benham talked about her in a positive light, stating: “She was the grande dame of the railroad at a time when securities analysis was in its infancy and when there were few women in the business.”

‘Madam Railroad’

Benham’s list of achievements continued as her railroad career went from strength-to-strength landing her the nickname ‘Madam Railroad’.

As well as being the first woman on Wall Street to study the railroad industry, she was also the first woman to be appointed to the Board of Directors of a railroad and the first woman to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She also became the first female Vice President and voting stockholder at Shearson Hammill (later Salomon Smith Barney). In 2015, Benham gifted Bryn Mawr college $15 million to encourage female education.

Maintaining High Standards

Isabel Benham was renowned for her meticulous appearance. She liked to don an upmarket suit and her trademark string of beads helped complete her fierce yet feminine business look. Her reputation as an expert on railroad finance could not be faltered. Benham worked as an appraiser for railroad properties and even served as an advisor to the British government regarding the state of the British railway system.

Taking a hands-on approach to guarantee the highest standard of work, Benham would ride the railroad herself and inspect all rail facilities. She would study rail manuals and annual reports to ensure she was fully clued up at all times. Those walking into her office for the best part of six decades would likely find a tiny replica of a diesel locomotive on her desk amid an abundance of finance-related documents and reports.

Benham died in 2013 at the age of 103, leaving behind a sensational legacy within the finance realm. We salute you!

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