As the wave of sexual harassment scandals continues to spread, nearly 100 women and men have told the Financial Times about their own experiences of inappropriate behaviour in finance and other industries.
Some of the accounts submitted by readers feature allegations of serious crimes, including rape, other physical assault and stalking. These are being further investigated by the FT. Others describe systematic verbal abuse and objectification, which in some cases prompted workers to leave their jobs and industries.
“The sexual harassment I experienced mostly falls into a grey area . . . countless unwanted comments like, ‘Love it when you run past here in those heels!’ and ‘I’ve been fantasising about you’,” recalls one woman who worked as personal assistant to a partner at an investment bank.
She also describes a “more troubling” incident when she was cornered by a married banker who repeatedly tried to kiss her at an after-work event and says the experiences were “definitely” a factor in her recent decision to leave the bank.
Many of those who wrote in said their employers ignored serious allegations and that the perpetrators had gone on to greater careers while their victims were sidelined or sacked.
“I approached HR for a diplomatic solution, after my own attempts to resolve or avoid the problem had failed, partly because I had met my boss’s wife and did not want to cause her grief, and was stonewalled,” recalls one woman who was asked to discuss her career in hotel rooms. “Money prevailed over any concern for younger employees, including the civilised younger male brokers who did not want to join in the culture of sleaze in order to advance.”
Some had more positive experiences when they reported bad behaviour. After a woman was inappropriately propositioned by a client, she says her boss told her: “I don’t care if he is the best client we have, we will not tolerate this kind of thing.”
But many more stayed silent. “I have never made a complaint against any of these men and I am a strong feminist, because I know that it would lead to nothing except my ruin,” recalls one female banker, who recalls being repeatedly pulled on to her boss’s knee and having her breasts fondled.
The accounts highlight unwanted sexual attention from clients, mentors and colleagues: an invite to a hotel room after midnight, persistent requests for dates, comments on outfits and a hand on a knee in a darkened taxi.
“On average I encounter some form of physical sexual advance every 18 months, and am the subject of one verbal sexual comment per quarter,” says one London-based woman in finance. “I have become immune to the inappropriate verbal comments and really nothing surprises me any more.” She now deliberately wears unflattering clothes in the hope of attracting fewer unwanted advances.
Most of the responses came from women, but a few were from men who said they had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour from both female and male superiors.
Many of those who wrote in played down the seriousness of what happened. “If a friend told me that these stories had happened to her, I’d say she was assaulted, yet I don’t consider myself a victim of sexual assault even though I certainly am. I think it’s a coping mechanism,” writes one woman of various attempts to forcibly kiss and grope her.
And some writers worry that, while there are many genuine examples of sexual harassment and assault out there, the FT’s work could create the perception that the issue is more widespread than it really is.
“It would be more helpful also to understand the proportion of people in the workplace who have not encountered misconduct,” writes one man who has worked in financial services consultancy for decades and not seen any transgressions. “Then it might be possible to assess whether misconduct is endemic, whether it’s widespread in certain sectors, or whether there are lots of individual cases but they are not widespread.”
A representative, sector-grouped sample of the responses is below, edited for clarity and brevity, and to remove any identifying aspects.
Responses compiled by Lilah Raptopoulos, FT community manager
“My first City job, two years ago, was with a small recruitment firm that was largely male dominated. Despite being in a research role, I was encouraged to accompany the CEOs to male candidate/client meetings. I was told to wear a tight skirt, make-up and heels on each occasion, to accentuate my ‘feminine charm’. As I am Asian, I was also asked to entertain Asian male clients, drink with them and flirt to get roles for the company to work on. I was told on a daily basis that I was good at my job because I am ‘sexy’, and all of my achievements were swept under the carpet: the boss asserted regularly that because I was pretty, they didn’t count.”
“I worked for a large secured loan broker who regularly had parties thrown for us from the lenders for whom we packaged our cases. At one of these parties in 2015, I was standing at the bar when I felt a hand go up the back of my shirt and try to undo my bra. I immediately turned around to find one of the higher managers asking if this was OK. I quickly said no and walked off, but this was a 60-year-old married man with a daughter my age. I carried on working with him until I left the firm.”
“I was a single mom in my late 20s and naive. I was working in an orthopaedic group doing office work. The group’s manager was a man several years older than me. Every time I needed to speak to him, he would say, ‘Sure, take your clothes off and come into my office.’ ”
“I worked at a large investment bank as a partner-level administrative assistant. I recently left the bank, and the unpleasant experiences of a sexual nature were definitely a factor in my decision. The sexual harassment I experienced mostly falls into a grey area. I can describe countless unwanted comments like, ‘Love it when you run past here in those heels!’ and ‘I’ve been fantasising about you.’ Most other assistants would dismiss these as compliments and not give them another thought. To me, it was revolting. Eventually, to discourage this kind of attention, I stopped wearing heels, cute dresses and make-up.
One incident, at an after-work drinks party to celebrate a successful deal, was more troubling. One of the bankers, a married man, made his way to me straight away. He was in a cheerful mood and had clearly had a drink too many. It started out innocently enough with small talk. He was standing very close to me, touching my waist, in full view of our colleagues. It made me feel very uncomfortable, but there was little room to move. All of a sudden, I could feel his erection pressing against my thigh. He said, ‘You can’t deny there’s chemistry between us’.
I quickly made an excuse to go to the ladies’ room. My plan didn’t work, as he was waiting for me outside the loo as I came out. He trapped me into a dark corner, out of sight of our colleagues, and proceeded to make multiple attempts to kiss me. I remember I kept telling him, ‘You’re married, please stop this!’ Finally, he gave up and released me. The next morning, he came to apologise for his drunken behaviour.
It is important to highlight the power dynamics at play in situations like this. My position as an assistant made me less forceful in my rejection of unwanted advances and lewd comments. There was little doubt in my mind that rebuffing too strongly would affect my work environment for the worse.”
“It’s been hard over the last few months especially, to read these stories and realise that the things that have happened to you are really not acceptable. I’m a female in my 20s working on Wall Street. In one instance, a large client of the bank got wind that there was a young, single woman now covering him. In a large group chat, the head trader wasted little time in flirting with me in front of my boss, co-workers and peers. The last straw was when he asked me what my plans were for the weekend, and said, ‘You should go out with [junior trader]. He has a huge penis!’
I had no idea what to say. My boss pulled me aside to talk with me. He said it was inappropriate and he would have a talk with the client. A few days later, the client requested to have primary coverage moved to me. My boss was not happy but acquiesced. This was when I started feeling that there was a lot more going on behind the scenes than I realised. A few senior salespeople started whispering about me. One old-school saleswoman was particularly nasty. She made it no secret that she thought I had slept with the trader in order to get coverage. It was humiliating.
Of course, it only got worse. When we went out for a dinner once, he groped my thigh under the table. I thought I was an idiot for wearing a dress, so I made sure to wear pants next time. It didn’t matter. He forcibly kissed me and I made a quick exit. He texted me all the time, asking me, ‘Do you miss me?’ I blocked his number and just hoped that I wouldn’t get screwed over on pay for it. It’s easy to just tell someone to quit, but this is my livelihood. The most humiliating part (and I hate myself a little for this) is that I still cover the account. I can’t afford not to.
95% of the men I’ve interacted with are standup, solid guys. A good amount of them don’t ‘get it’. One of my dearest friends was giving me some advice and told me to emulate my career after some senior women in our firm. He said, ‘They’ve figured out how to balance the creeps with getting paid.’ I asked him, ‘Why does it need to come down to that?’ He said, ‘Come on. We all have to do shit we don’t want to do.’ The difference is, the shit he doesn’t want to do is stay out too late and drink too much. The shit I don’t want to do is get sexually assaulted.”
“I am a man in my 40s and it happened to me, on my first day . . . He worked in the IT department, he gave a presentation to newcomers and I then met with him one or two more times that day (to get usernames/passwords and hardware). I guess it is fair to say that I was a bit sheltered (even in my late 20s!) so it was probably more surprise than anything else when he made several rather clichéd come-on attempts.
I would have been equally surprised had it been a woman in the same circumstances. His approach was repeated over the course of the day and when I would see him around the building in subsequent years, he did seem to stare a lot.
When I mentioned it to colleagues, in passing, sometime later, the reaction was interesting. Most people just laughed. I wonder if this was just a social response, in the absence of knowing what else to say. A multicultural environment can be a factor. What might be acceptable as ‘banter’ in one country could be considered offensive elsewhere.
I have, unfortunately, had to support some female colleagues who were subject to harassment and I like to think that my own experience has helped me to better understand such situations — even if my experience was at the least extreme end of the spectrum.”
“I am now 49. When I was 26, I began working in an American futures trading bank as secretary. From day one I experienced comments about my female body parts and monthly cycles. Sexually explicit conversations that were was so crude, but very acceptable and deemed normal behaviour at the time. I felt I had to accept and laugh at this behaviour, but it actually made me feel like an outcast and small. This went on until I finally left the bank . . . and banking.”
“I started my career in investment banking in 1987 as an analyst in London. One evening around 10pm, I was working on a term sheet for a director. We were the only two people left in the office. He came up behind me and started massaging me and telling me that since living in Japan, he had become very good at giving massages. Would I not like for him to give me one? I managed to get out of that situation but he never talked to me again.
Later, while working in New York, a managing director put his hand up my skirt in the back of a limo while riding downtown for work. I was able to get out of that situation as well, but he did ask me to go up to his apartment for a ‘nooner’. (This meant having sex during lunchtime, which many traders did in their pied-a-terres in Manhattan.) I moved to another bank in 1993 and my boss was a womaniser. He would come sit on my chair and pull me on top of him so that I would sit on his knee. He more than once touched my breasts. He became the head of the Sexual Discrimination Committee, if you can believe it.
I have never made a complaint against any of these men, and I am a strong feminist, because I know that it would lead to nothing except my ruin. Any complaint would only lead to me never finding another job in the industry.
Thankfully, there are more rules against such behaviours nowadays, but I now work in technology and have found that the younger generation just exclude females. The exterior behaviour has changed, but the belief doesn’t seem to have changed at all.”
“On average I encounter some form of physical sexual advance every 18 months, and [am the] subject of one verbal sexual comment per quarter. I have become immune to the inappropriate verbal comments and really nothing surprises me any more. It’s a really sad state to be in, considering how hard I work. I do feel like I need to tell my story to warn other young girls in the industry.
When I was a 21-year-old intern at an investment bank, a 27-year-old trader invited me out to work drinks. I only realised when I turned up it was meant to be just us two. I was very young and naive and honestly thought he was trying to get to know me better as a fellow colleague. He invited me back to hang out with his flatmates. However, when I went back to his place, I realised it was empty. I immediately felt uncomfortable and proceeded to make excuses about how I needed to go home. He insisted on giving me a tour of his place and started getting angry when I wasn’t reciprocating his advances. When he become too aggressive I ran out of his flat and luckily hailed a taxi. I sat on the back of the taxi, put a scarf over my face and cried all the way home. Until this day I still cringe at the thought of how he’s able to carry himself so confidently at work, and yet used his position to make me feel so uncomfortable.
At my current job, every time I build a strong rapport with a fellow male colleague or accomplish a task with a male colleague around my age, my team members will try to insinuate an inappropriate relationship or start a rumour. They often suggest I only do well because I’m female and have the ability to entice others to my advantage. I find this rather insulting, considering how hard I work and how I go out of my way to establish a strictly professional relationship with all of my colleagues.
I’m sure my examples are common, just not commonly shared. I think there’s a perception that if you report inappropriate behaviour, your superior or HR will often try and get the harasser’s side of the story in the name of fairness, and turn it against you. As a junior, it’s just not worth the battle or the risk of losing your job.”
Travel and Leisure
“It was in 2009, during the recession. I was a young guy straight out of university working Christmas break at the front office of a 5-star hotel in London to make ends meet, and my manager, a married 30-something woman, forced me into sleeping with her or I would be fired. Believe me, sexual terrorism is gender agnostic.”
“I was working as a photographer in the late 80s/early 90s on a regional newspaper. Sometimes I would go to the head office to process late-breaking news photos. One of the darkroom assistants was pretty helpful, and a bit of a laugh to be around. It was fun to chat. On one occasion he came in the darkroom with me to process film — not particularly unusual until he leaned against the door, slid the lock across, pulled me up against him and shoved his tongue in my mouth. I was shocked but tried to laugh it off and just said, ‘I’m too busy, no time for shenanigans.’
I don’t remember how much time elapsed, but I just avoided him and our shifts didn’t coincide for a while. It later happened again — this time he started to undo his belt and zip, telling me I wanted it. I remember saying I really wasn’t interested, that he’d gone too far this time and if he ever touched me again I’d make an official complaint. He had a bit of a record for womanising as well as family links at the paper, so I wasn’t that confident that a complaint would have worked.
Thankfully, he never did it again to me. But I found out later that this had happened to other girls working there.”
“Our factory exports internationally and our clients often come to visit it. It was on one of those occasions that I hosted a group from Malaysia. We were all in the same hotel. At 1.30am, a message arrived from one of them: ‘Would you like to come to my room for a chat?’ I replied ‘no’ and went to sleep, fully expecting that to be the end of it. Later that afternoon, the messages arrived again: ‘Take me to a romantic place in Rome tonight, I just want to spend a nice time with you, don’t worry about the extra cost.’
For some minutes, I lost it. Everything ran through my head at the very same time: Did he expect me to say yes? If I answer badly, would I jeopardise all our sales and marketing efforts? After all, he had been a supporter of our products. Would my colleagues then hold it against me? I started to doubt myself: Did I carry myself in a wrong way? Did I lead him on? Did I say something to make him think that I was interested?
I spent the next minutes painfully dissecting our interaction of the day, even if all of this made me feel physically sick. Should I tell my boss? What if it makes him think that I can’t handle my clients, so I will never be allowed to meet clients again? Is it even relevant to note that he is married with children? Evidently it didn’t matter to him at all. I felt disgusted, violated, furious. Thanks to all the articles and policies about professional women and harassment that I had read, I knew I could confidently say no. So I replied with the two letters again: ‘No’.
A few days later I worked up the courage to tell my manager about the incident. He got angry with the client too. ‘I don’t care if he is the best client we have, we do not tolerate this kind of thing.’ I felt supported and protected. He asked if I wanted to make a formal report, but I decided against it. I wasn’t going to see the client again, and I told the local sales representatives briefly about the client, just in case they need to be wary.”
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