Viewpoint -- Have We Come A Long Way Baby?

Dec. 21, 2004
Women still face unfair treatment in finances and business.

My boyfriend and I recently bought our first house. If it weren't for the rules of grammar, I would say that me and my boyfriend bought a house -- but I can't. And in the eyes of our mortgage company, my name shouldn't go first either. It seems that the man's name -- regardless of financial worth, credit history, or job security -- should appear first on the deed. I was assured that "clerical concerns" were the reason for such a positioning of names. Although the unfair treatment I received is small potatoes in comparison, I received a dose of what many women in business have to deal with daily: discrimination. In my situation I was told I was signing on the wrong line of myriad documents that go along with buying a home. I was signing on the "borrower" line -- I am not the borrower. I am the co-borrower, which means that my signature goes on the last line. My boyfriend hung his head and mumbled to the loan specialist that he shouldn't have opened that can of worms. Too late. "Why am I not the 'borrower'?" I asked. I knew what his response was going to be; I just wanted to see if he would say the words. His preface: "You're not going to like this." My boyfriend now was fidgeting in his chair like an 8-year-old whose mom had just found out he put the cat in the dryer. "Try me," I said. The loan specialist, who also was fidgeting, told me that if a woman's name is listed first on the mortgage documents, then the processing department assumes that there are no other borrowers. The loan company didn't want to risk not getting the man's name on the deed, so it preferred the man's name appearing first. Many thoughts ran through my mind:

  • The phrase: To assume makes an ass out of you and me.
  • The question: Do I want to do business with people who admit they can't execute paperwork properly?
  • The statement: If he started the sentence with, "You're not going to like this," he knows it's wrong. I maybe could understand if my boyfriend were putting more money, time and effort into buying our new home -- but we were walking into the process as complete equals. And while I don't make the list of the world's wealthiest people, my financial situation is a little better than my boyfriend's. So why the chauvinistic attitude? Unfortunately, women and minorities are still dealing with discrimination when it comes to bank and business loans. And ironically when my newfound nemesis realized I was a journalist, he asked me what I wrote about. I said proudly, "discrimination." I told him about Rebecca Boenigk, CEO and chairman of Neutral Posture Ergonomics Inc. In July 1999 I wrote about Boenigk's struggle to start her own company and make the bank recognize that she was the owner of the company, not her husband. "My husband has been retired for five years and draws no income, but he was still required to cosign for me because he is a guy," Boenigk told me in 1999. Boenigk won her fight with the bank the day she signed papers to buy a new building in which to house her business. When Boenigk and her mother, Jaye Congleton -- who is executive vice president of product development for Neutral Posture -- realized that their husbands' names were on the loan they demanded to see all business loans made to men and have the bank show them where they had the wives cosign for the loans. The loan was redrawn, and Boenigk and Congleton were the sole owners. Our stories aren't the only ones. Day after day women go up against banks that have what I consider preconceived notions of what a borrower should be: male, preferably white. It's a shame, since the number of women-owned businesses increased 16% between 1992 and 1997, almost triple the rate of 6% for all privately held firms. I'll bet many of those businesses are thriving and even outlasting businesses that had no problems getting loans. As for me, I succeeded in making the loan specialist uncomfortable -- he offered to put my name first. Traci Purdum is an IW associate editor based in Cleveland.
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