Cunningham, a 43-year-old with a careful, understated manner, has worked at the exchange for almost her entire career. She interned there while a college student at Lehigh University studying industrial engineering after her father, who worked at a brokerage firm, helped her land a job. Two years later, she became a floor clerk, one of about three dozen women among at least 1,300 men. The disparities weren’t just in representation. An article in the Wall Street Journal described the seventh-floor women’s restroom during that time as being located “inside an old phone booth.” The men’s room, by contrast, was described as “palatial,” with couches and a bathroom attendant. It may seem a small thing, but such details make clear the fact that until very recently, the presence of women at powerful institutions was an afterthought. Cunningham remained at the NYSE, with the exception of a break to attend cooking school and a stint at NASDAQ. Three years ago, she became the chief operating officer.
In a recent interview with CNBC, Cunningham touched on the historic nature of her ascent only in passing. She acknowledged that banking is male-dominated but added that this “is not something that’s been top of mind for me.” Last year, she told The Financial Times, “I never acted as though there was a question as to whether or not I should be where I was,” but then in a moment of deeper reflection added, “When I look back I think I took some things for granted.” Cunningham has mentioned her debt to a previous generation of women in finance, in particular, Muriel Siebert, who was the first woman to join the NYSE floor, in 1967, and became a Wall Street legend, moving around the floor in a multicolored fur-trading jacket. And Catherine Kinney served as a co-president of the exchange during the 2000s.
The CEO of the NYSE’s parent company, Jeff Sprecher, evoked that history in a press release announcing Cunningham’s new role: “More than a half-century after Muriel Siebert became the first woman to own a seat on the NYSE, Stacey represents a new generation of leadership for the NYSE Group.” What neither Cunningham nor Sprecher has emphasized is that her promotion comes at a particularly daunting time for the organization. In the past, going public on the exchange was a sought-after milestone for any entrepreneur. But the IPO market has been somewhat lackluster of late. The people running many of the most valuable companies in the world—the ones known as “unicorns,” such as Uber, Airbnb, SpaceX, and Palantir—are choosing to stay private, turned off by the regulatory and financial cost of an IPO, and the added stress of public shareholder pressure. Adding to the challenge are the changes that have been ushered in by technology. In the past, the NYSE and NASDAQ essentially had a duopoly on equities trading, but regulations and electronic trading have broken their hold. The NYSE’s share of U.S. stock-trading volume has fallen from nearly 40 percent, a decade ago, to 22 percent.