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The fiasco -- extreme but far from rare, says the author -- and its fallout inspired the 20-year industry veteran to revisit her 'high road' approach
March 8, 2016 — 6:09 PM UTC by Anonymous Guest Columnist
Brooke’s Note: The reason that this column is written anonymously will become evident quickly. Even so, it was courageous for our guest columnist to put these words to paper with a degree of specificity that is rare. And that is part of the point. In these pages we write all the time about Wall Street culture and its lingering machismo. But here, at night, in mixed company, away from the office proper but within Wall Street culture’s grip, is where it manifests in the ugliest way and can do serious damage. Part of the damage is that it scares away good women from an industry that desperately needs more of them. After this article, you’ll better understand another reason why and what makes it so hard to counter. It’s clear here how encumbered women are in trying to fight for their rights and battle their way up Wall Street’s corporate ranks at the same time.
I never thought I’d write an article depicting the gritty side of sexism in the Wall Street workplace.
I am a “take the high road” kind of gal who believes that credibility and respectability shine through over the duration of a career.
I also like to think that sexism can be discussed without revealing gory details — as illustrated in portrayals of Wall Street as an endless cocaine and hooker party scene (and, yes, I have seen my share of prostitutes and blow circulate in my Wall Street midst) — to describe how men groped or otherwise harassed me during my 20 years in a Wall Street setting. Historically, I have preferred to focus on the optimistic business pitch of rising tides lifting boats as the chief determinant for fairness, respect and diversity in the workplace.
A recent series of events, however, made me stop and reconsider this laissez-faire mentality. I now realize that such thinking is flawed. The choice of the majority of Wall Street women to choose the high road of low reporting ensures that we will continue to work under adverse and hostile circumstances. It is time I tell a part of my story that depicts how these forces play out in a woman’s career in finance. See: Extraordinary women awaken the RIA business, shepherd billions
My tipping point was a recent business trip that coincided with immersing myself in thoughts related to gender issues in the workplace. On my flight to said business trip, I wrote a general article on this topic based on gender and diversity studies relating to the workplace. I am a fan of some of the newer feminist movements such as The Representation Project.. I am inspired, too, by movements that enhance and broaden the American male experience, like The Good Men Project. They have pushed me to organize my thoughts and put pen to paper.
'Mr. Hands’ and 'The Suit’
This article, however, was prompted by a series of incidents that, despite my familiarity with the issue, caught me off guard.
The trip started out well enough with a productive day in the office. I met new employees. I pitched an idea to my firm’s founder about overcoming a bottleneck that was harming my department. I was looking forward to a gathering planned for that evening. Before the festivities, I met with a woman that my company was trying to hire and who later decided to join the firm. When I got to the cocktail party, I had energetic conversations with young and long-standing employees alike.
The first sign of trouble came when a senior employee began touching me. For those that need a graphic on this one, we are talking about rubbing my back up and down and attempting to explore my backside, then rubbing my arm through the narrow access point between the front and back seat of a cab while his wife sat five feet away from me. Let us call him Mr. Hands.
The next affront came when we arrived at our destination and I brought a team member up to speed to help me run interference.
But my would-be Samaritan defended Mr. Hands, explaining that he had marital problems that had left him “horny.”
With testosterone hanging thickly in the ambient air, another co-worker picked a fight with a younger man who spoke ill of his suit. It quickly escalated to comic- bookish levels when my colleague ripped open his Brooks Brothers shirt, sending buttons flying.
“You don’t like my suit?” he said.
Sadly, the jostling I experienced from that incident was preferable to the alternative I’m-sorry-but-let-me-rub-your-back-again rap from Mr. Hands. After Brooks Brothers cooled off in the snow, with the help of two police officers, and amid the drunken ramblings of Mr. Hands, the crew regrouped and went across the street in search of food.
As I trailed behind the group, considering the ugly absurdity of the situation, a fellow straggler struck up a conversation.
About 10 seconds after we entered the second establishment, he was all over me. His open mouth brushed across half of my lips and his hands brushed past my groin before I could throw him off of me. I was so shocked that I could only consider it a bad joke aimed at making fun of Mr. Hands. I got my bearings at the bar then told this latest serial groper, who I still thought was just clowning around, that I was going to duck out.
He then asked me if we should share a cab. I paused. Still thinking he’d been joking about the maul, I was mostly concerned with sharing a cab with a drunk guy who did not know where he was going. He was staying at a different hotel and I had no interest in having my night prolonged with a babysitting job. Before I could answer, he smiled a sideways grin, attempted a come hither look and said, “If we leave together, I am going to do that again.”
My shock couldn’t have been greater had I just undergone an ice bucket challenge. I threw my hands up in the air and said, “That wasn’t a joke!?!”
I then excused myself, saying I was “going to the bathroom” with the real intention of finding a back exit. He briefly intercepted my attempted escape and tried to pull me back in, but I got to a cab.
During the long ride back to my hotel the details of the evening started to set in. I am happy to say that I am too old to cry about other people shifting my momentum, but I did feel derailed.
When someone, or something, takes me off course, I right the ship, or try. I spent a lot of time that weekend thinking about how I would handle the situation. The reality was that I still worked at a place where two people compromised my position — loose cannons that could repeat this behavior.
Here is what I did: Monday morning I contacted my boss and recounted the story. His jaw dropped and he apologized profusely and sincerely. He asked what I wanted to do about it. I knew my answer. I told him what was going to happen. I was going to handle groper No. 2 because he is a day-to-day team member and I’m expected to have a good working relationship with him.
I asked that the firm handle Mr. Hands because I don’t know him well. We agreed they both represented a legal risk to the firm if the behavior was not altered.
Then I said the firm was long overdue for sensitivity training and that we should consider implementing a basic program. My boss had me talk to the founder of the firm. I told him this was an opportunity to learn — that by creating a corporate culture in keeping with the times we could grow as a firm. I then talked to No. 2, who apologized and said it was a one-off happening for him. The firm talked to Mr. Hands, who then called me to apologize. I assured everyone that, assuming there was follow through with sensitivity training, the issue was dead for me. See: Monica Lewinsky is giving a keynote at Ron Carson’s Peak conference
Here’s the part of story that people don’t get: The victim is not in control of putting an issue to bed.
More often than not, the perpetrators have lingering feelings of either resentment or guilt. These feelings aren’t necessarily handled on their therapists’ couch. It is common for the victim to then have a second round of insults thrown her way. Insults like getting no response to normal business requests from victim to perp. Insults like finding out the victim was bad-mouthed to other professionals, presumably with the intention of discrediting her in the event the harassment story ever got out. Insults like barely acknowledging — or flat-out ignoring — the victim at an industry event.
I ask the reader to focus on this as much as on the details of the original offense, which, more often than not, is resolved after the victim reveals it to her superiors.
But the ensuing blast zone can have significant fallout. The person that thought of you in relation to his nether region now potentially treats you like a sex object in front of other people — people in the chain of command with regard to managing these types of complaints. The ongoing fallout from an harassment incident can last for years. See: She settled with Merrill Lynch over discrimination, loved Merrill again for years but then bigger problems arose
Most people don’t have such years to waste with a blemish on their records. The old saying goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” I imagine many folks have experienced that in either a positive or negative way throughout their careers. If you buy into that line of thinking, then sexual harassment and the discrediting that often follows can be very damaging to one’s career. I daresay it can even be a career-ender if the community is small and the rumor mill is well oiled.
Wall Street may be big in terms of its overall impact on American culture, but the degrees of separation in terms of people is razor thin. As a woman, I am a minority player and my visibility is higher, which places me in a state of de facto probation. I believe it’s not paranoid to say that if my reputation gets tarnished, it could stick for years. See: How an ex-Goldman superstar asset gatherer in LA is bringing her bazooka to the RIA knife fight
I would like to say that what happened on my recent business trip was an outlier in my experience as a woman who has worked on Wall Street for nearly two decades. But I can’t come close to saying that. Besides wandering hands landing on my body parts at professional events, here is a partial list of other indignities I have endured over the course of my chosen career.
- Chatter unwittingly relayed to my boyfriend at an industry event pointing me out and describing how I work out at the gym
- A male acquaintance walking up to me and untying my belt at an industry event
- A male acquaintance grabbing my chest and falling on me at an industry event
- Being bluntly propositioned for sex at industry events
- Being followed to my hotel room or receiving calls to my room during an industry conference
- Being asked by an corporate executive at an industry event if I worked for the bank hosting the event, or if I was the “hired help”
- Predatory drinking strategies (one day I’ll write an article called “The New Date Rape”)
- Slander by perpetrators of sexual harassment
Realism vs. positivity
I’ll end by sharing an exchange I had prior to what turned out to be that appalling industry conference — one that got me thinking about the promise and the limits of positive thinking in the service of overcoming challenges.
As I was checking in, I began a conversation with the front-desk clerk about women in my chosen career.
“I don’t believe in the glass ceiling,” said the fellow, a young man in his 20s.
I was happy to hear the phrase roll off his tongue. It meant that somewhere along the way, he had given the topic some thought.
Then he added: “I just like to be positive.”
I agree with him that maintaining a positive mindset in life is critical. Happiness on any level will not come without an upbeat attitude.
I don’t, however, think being realistic hampers one’s ability to be positive. I think it’s important to recognize patterns in order to affect change. I don’t think there is anything more positive than making a difference with regard to issues and endeavors for which we feel passionate. See: Bristling’ at 'pink-it-and-shrink-it’ pitfalls, Sallie Krawcheck files an ADV
In fact, I don’t think there is anything more positive than looking squarely at the challenges that I have personally overcome during my years on Wall Street.
I’m comfortable in my own skin. I feel focused and determined to persevere in life. If it comes to turning away from Wall Street toward more favorable settings, it is Wall Street that loses.
Until then, I’ll take a couple of words out of Papillon’s mouth: “Hey you bastards, I’m still here!”
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