By Catherine Miller
Within seconds of the opening bell on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange the trading pit is a seething mass of fists and sweaty shirtsleeves.
No room for the fainthearted
Traders yell prices at the top of their lungs while their clerks, perched at the edge of the fray, frantically relay information with lightning speed hand-signals.
"As soon as I saw it, I felt this combination of being repulsed and being completely drawn in," says Cari Lynn, author of Legging the Spread, a new account of the gender politics of what is the world's largest futures exchange.
"The pits were violent, I saw fistfights breaking out, it was shoulder-to-shoulder, people getting elbowed and I couldn't see any women.
"I was riveted. And I wanted to find out how women could make it in this world."
Not so trigger-happy
With ambitions of learning to trade herself, Ms Lynn began clerking for a trader friend, becoming his eyes and ears on the floor while he conducted electronic trades from home.
But despite feeling confident practising on simulated electronic trading machines, the real deal was a different matter.
"My boss let me trade on his account and that's when I really felt it - my finger was hovering in fear over that button and I had so much anxiety when it really came down to it," she recalls.
"Women's biggest failing is by and large that they're afraid to pull the trigger. Men have the opposite problem and that's how they can lose a lot of money. Women will sit and watch the good trades go by".
On the trading floor, women have not only to overcome their fear but also the broad shoulders and biting taunts of American footballer-sized fellow traders.
"The idea [of trading] is probably not as appealing to women because of the physical element," says broker David Hartney.
"A lot of these men are big and nasty looking and it turns a lot of people off - not just women - but I think it is daunting for women."
"At times it can be like a men's locker room," agrees veteran trader John Brady.
"But there have been women who have been able to push that testosterone aside and do very well for themselves."
Smarter, not harder
The success stories are varied.
There is 23-year-old Natalie, who sports a glitter-edged trader's jacket over her skin-tight trousers and marks her trades with a pink feather pom-pom pencil.
There is Ginni, who has become the matriarch of the wheat options pit at the neighbouring Board of Trade exchange.
And there is Bev, the "dynamo" of the eurodollar pit who could walk off the floor with a $4m profit after a single day of trading.
Ms Lynn notes a common trait.
"They can be tough when they need to be but they can shed all of that when they walk out of the pit so they're respected as traders, they're respected as women.
"The chances are a woman is not going to be taller than the men, or louder than the men or overpower the men. She's got to outsmart the men - that's the bottom line."
And, judging by Ms Lynn's account, she also has to be able to withstand a fair amount of old-fashioned chauvinism.
One female clerk was given breast enhancement as a Christmas bonus, while Ms Lynn was offered substantial sums simply to lift her shirt.
"It's primal," she says.
"Trading is a lot about intimidation, it's 'I want this trade and there are 50 other guys vying for it, so I'm going to be louder and stronger and scarier', and that translates into treating everyone like that and women are no exception."
But, she says, women too are not innocent in the sexual politics of the floor. The title of her book refers to a trading term - a trader buys something in one market, constituting one leg, he needs two legs to stand on so sells something in another market.
"You can make money by legging the spread," Ms Lynn notes, adding that it can also be done the other way around.
Clerking is an attractive prospect for a woman looking to snag a husband with a healthy bank balance. Ms Lynn found that rumours of women sleeping their way to success were quite often substantiated.
"Certainly, 'working it' is alive and well in this world," she says.
"I was surprised that it was so old-fashioned in that way, that there were women in short skirts and stiletto heels on that trading floor, traipsing around completely done up."
This brazen approach leads to a great deal of honesty about the sexual dynamics of the floor and results in relatively few lawsuits for sexual harassment.
"You do have to accept it for what it is," says Ms Lynn.
"Anything goes. There is no such thing as political correctness on a trading floor and in an odd way it's refreshing.
"At first the traders came off as crude, unrefined brutes, but there's another side to it. They are very reliable, good friends, they're completely honest with everyone and that's something you don't often find."