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I was groped during my banking internship

Sexual harassment banking

This summer I interned in the investment banking division of a European bank in London. It went well: I got an offer to come back and work here when I graduate, but the experience was marred by a serious problem I had with my boss.

I’m not writing this because I want to attack my boss or to get him into more trouble than he’s already in. I’m writing this because I’m angry and want to get it out there. Hollywood has – or had – Harvey Weinstein. Banks have men like my boss.

When I arrived for the internship, it was pretty clear that this man – an experienced banker who’s worked in the City for years – was having marital problems. I knew it, and so did all his colleagues. We couldn’t not know it: he was often on the phone in the office talking about his messy divorce. We could hear what he was saying and it was very awkward. There were arguments with his wife, conversations with family members; things that colleagues shouldn’t be witness to.

Maybe it was because of these marital problems that my boss started making unwanted advances on me. The first time, he called me “baby” and “darling” and asked me to go for a drink with him. I turned him down; I was polite about it and explained that I didn’t want to get involved with anyone at work.

Some men who’ve been told “no” think it’s ok to try again. My boss was one of those. The next time we were alone in the office, he came up behind me and put his hands on me, asking why I didn’t like to be touched. He also said – in somewhat fewer words – that he wanted to sleep with me.

Now, I was just an intern. I worked hard to get that internship and I really wanted an offer at the end of it. My boss would be instrumental in me getting that offer. He knew that and he was exercising his power.

Even so, I went to HR. I actually went to HR the first time, just to let them know that he’d made an advance. This made it easier to go again the second time, when he touched me. They were hugely supportive. I was preparing to make an official complaint of sexual harassment when he left. Overnight. I got in the next day and he’d cleared all his stuff. I haven’t seen him since. Maybe he got a whiff of what was coming.

In some ways, I was lucky. Lucky that I had the courage to go to HR and talk out against a man who seemed to have power over my future. Lucky too that he wasn’t aggressive. And lucky that I had the support of the bank and my other bosses (some of whom were very angry).

However, his actions made me wonder about the experience of other young women in banking. This is an industry with a lot of men in senior positions and a lot of young women lower down the hierarchy. Those men have an opportunity to abuse this power. The fact that my (ex-) boss was so bold made me question whether he’d behaved like this before and got away with it. He’d had plenty of opportunity to do so during his long career.

There are a lot of good men in finance. There are also some young women who use their gender to their advantage and send confusing signals. However, the gender imbalance in banking is so skewed that – like Hollywood – this is an industry with significant potential for the abuse of male power. Until there are more women at the top, it’s up to HR departments and good men – like my other bosses – to protect young women whose careers are only just beginning.

Laura Smith is the pseudonym of an intern at a bank in London.


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Comments (11)

Comments
  1. I’ve had a tremendous amount of sexual harassment in my career from seniors. But the interns are there for a short time; most don’t get a ton of exposure to the senior or lead analyst/banker. There’s an air of being careful around them. Not just in a sexual harassment way but generally presenting the firm in the best light. Beyond that yes I think young(er) assistants and analysts/assocs get the most of it.It’s a power thing.

  2. My sincere regret of your unfortunate experience with a supervisor. Your account is an important reminder not to allow our family problems affect our professional relationship with associates. The advances the man took towards you including improper touching is troubling to hear; I am glad it did not get worse. Also, I praise your courage that I failed to demonstrate a long time ago.
    When I was young working at a job, a female manager slapped me on the rear. I knew it was wrong and was fearful of speaking up. She did not do that again. Maybe someone who witnessed it reported it on my behalf and the woman was counseled. It would, however, been empowering to me and help my self-esteem if I said it first and immediate. May both genders benefit from your positive example.

    Concerned Male Reply
     
  3. Pardon my double-sent, my appreciation for this article and I hope many will benefit from it.

    Concerned Male Reply
     
  4. There’s a huge potential for the abuse of power in finance.

    This is a good article, and the intern telling the story presents a fairly well-balanced view.

    Financial services is an industry with a large amount of well-paid young people, many with fairly large egos, and in any bank I’ve ever worked in, high octane and risqué banter is common. Much of it is sexual in nature, and much of it involves both males and females. In my experience, the people participating in it generally do so willingly and enjoy it. There are instances like the one the intern experienced and there are instances where men are used by women and sexual harassment complaints are used as a tool. Both are different forms of sexual harassment. The problem is the power structure in banks, and because there are more men in power in banks there will be more men harassing. If there were more women in power there would be more women harassing, although the harassment would take a different form. In my experience, the more senior someone is, the less likely they are to be complained about and the less likely anything is likely to be done about it if a complaint is made. Bullying in banks is commonplace and it isn’t always sexual in nature, as the first commenter said ‘it’s a power thing’.

    I’ve been sexually harassed in a bank I worked for and I still bear the scars years later. My harassers were both male and female, with the female harassers working in HR. So I empathise with anyone who has been sexually abused or harassed as it can be a horrible, terrible thing.

    The solution is complex, as it needs to be possible for women to work without being genuinely harassed and for men to be confident that they won’t be subject to false or vexatious complaints. HR needs to completely change how they deal with the issue (in every bank I’ve ever worked for ‘Working with Respect’ policies and the like are looked upon as something of a joke). It needs to be clear what is acceptable and what isn’t, and where problems occur, how the people involved move on afterwards. Dialogue is key, and some form of mediation is normally the best approach. Complaints need to be looked at fairly, and not dismissed prematurely or conversely over-sexualised. The solution needs to be to change the power structure in banks, making them more diverse and democratic. This will be difficult to achieve, as it would involve senior people in banks (mostly men but also some women) losing power, but it would be the only way to achieve genuine change.

    Finally, I’m sorry for the intern’s negative experiences and I hope that the man in the story was given some form of help and support by the bank and not hurriedly cast aside, as I know of men in these type of situations who went on to suffer catastrophic harm.

  5. I was an intern in the market division at a large british bank a few years ago. I had one female manager who routinely made inappropriate comments and advances. When I tried to speak with someone about the problem I was ridiculed to the extent where I simply kept quiet and got on with it. As a female I imagine you would feel threatened and frightened by a male making advances considering he would most likely be able to overpower you which I can sympathize with. I never went through those emotions but it was extremely humiliating to be dismissed simply because there is this false notion that men cannot be victims of sexual harassment.

  6. Financial services is an industry with a large amount of well-paid young people, many with fairly large egos, and in any bank I’ve ever worked in, high octane and risqué banter is common. Much of it is sexual in nature, and much of it involves both males and females. In my experience, the people participating in it generally do so willingly and enjoy it. There are instances like the one the intern experienced and there are instances where men are used by women and sexual harassment complaints are used as a tool. Both are different forms of sexual harassment. The problem is the power structure in banks, and because there are more men in power in banks there will be more men harassing. If there were more women in power there would be more women harassing, although the harassment would take a different form. In my experience, the more senior someone is, the less likely they are to be complained about and the less likely anything is likely to be done about it if a complaint is made. Bullying in banks is commonplace and it isn’t always sexual in nature, as the first commenter said ‘it’s a power thing’.

    I’ve been sexually harassed in a bank I worked for and I still bear the scars years later. My harassers were both male and female, with the female harassers working in HR. So I empathise with anyone who has been sexually abused or harassed as it can be a horrible, terrible thing.

    The solution is complex, as it needs to be possible for women to work without being genuinely harassed and for men to be confident that they won’t be subject to false or vexatious complaints. HR needs to completely change how they deal with the issue (in every bank I’ve ever worked for ‘Working with Respect’ policies and the like are looked upon as something of a joke). It needs to be clear what is acceptable and what isn’t, and where problems occur, how the people involved move on afterwards. Dialogue is key, and some form of mediation is normally the best approach. Complaints need to be looked at fairly, and not dismissed prematurely or conversely over-sexualised. The solution needs to be to change the power structure in banks, making them more diverse and democratic. This will be difficult to achieve, as it would involve senior people in banks (mostly men but also some women) losing power, but it would be the only way to achieve genuine change.

    Finally, I’m sorry for the intern’s negative experiences and I hope that the man in the story was given some form of help and support by the bank and not hurriedly cast aside, as I know of men in these type of situations who went on to suffer catastrophic harm.

  7. The problem is that people in HR (and most of them are women) very often take the side of senior management for various reasons you can think of. The intern in the article was lucky to have a supportive HR team behind her, but I’m sure there are many cases where people were made to choose between keeping their dream jobs and being treated fairly and respectfully. Things go unreported when people know they are unlikely to be getting any support within the organisation.

    Junior female banker Reply
     
  8. I completely agree with this – at any bank I’ve worked for HR act as a tool of management. In most of these banks, if a complaint of sexual harassment was made against a senior manager HR would say there’s nothing they can do. I’ve seen HR staff who have received a complaint go on to act as a witness for the bank and the accused where the matter has proceeded to court! On the other hand, I’ve seen junior or mid-level staff investigated over trivial matters or workplace conflicts which are not sexual in nature. I’ve seen HR encourage females to embellish, fabricate and sexualise complaints, and I’ve seen HR add elements to complaints which the complainant didn’t complain about in order to make the complaint seem more serious. Quite often managers, who have themselves harassed women, join in with the finger pointing. Cases like this usually result in the accused male being sexually harassed by HR and often result in psychological injury to the accused. This is done so that HR can say they are ‘taking complaints seriously’, but can also be due to abuse of power by HR.

    The long-term solution to this needs to be to change the power structure in banks – until then there will be claims of sexual harassment which aren’t investigated and also cases where males are wrongly accused or where accusations are embellished or not handled properly.

    In the short-term, HR need to be able to investigate complaints fairly and not be influenced by senior management or political considerations. They need to take not just accusations seriously, but also the response to the accusations. They need to not be afraid to investigate senior management accused of sexual harassment, but they also need to not be afraid to not uphold accusations where this is merited. Too often HR start with a pre-conceived idea of who the guilty or innocent party is and work towards substantiating this, rather than evaluate the evidence and apportion responsibility accordingly. It is also important to help the accuser and the accused move on once the matter has been dealt with. The majority of these type of situations in the workplace are best dealt with via some form of mediation. Also, line managers shouldn’t be too quick to pass on conflicts in their team to HR, they should try to resolve them first (unless of course the line manager is the one being accused, in which case a more senior manager should look into the matter before passing to HR).

  9. Title should read: how my groper escaped to work his trades elsewhere….

  10. Well done for speaking up!
    I worked for an Investment Bank last year and I felt shocked how male-dominated it was.
    While my team was friendly and welcoming it simply is not healthy to have an environment were 90% of staff and 98% of senior staff are men and at that white men.
    Diversity is the key to inclusion and a fostering of respect.
    Clearly, banks are not changing quickly enough so I think the government needs to step in. Cultures need to change. The City is the last bastion of the Old Boys Club.

  11. I commented earlier about how I was sexually harassed by HR. Most of the HR department at the bank where this happened were female, and I am aware of the same thing happening at other banks. While it is certainly the case that banks need to be more diverse in terms of gender as well as in terms of race (in every bank I have worked for there has been a striking lack of UK black males, other than in jobs such as security), I don’t think that increasing diversity will make the problem of workplace harassment and abuse go away. What is needed is a change in culture and power structures within banks, as this is what allows harassment to occur. If alpha male managers were replaced by alpha female managers, sexual harassment would still occur, but just in different ways.

    In most banks I have worked for, senior management have been skewed (sometimes considerably) towards people from the country where the bank is headquartered. I agree that most management and senior management are men (in my experience I haven’t come across any banks where 90% of managers and 98% of senior managers are male – I don’t say this isn’t the case in any bank, but would be interested to hear what banks have so many males in management, and I guess to an extent it depends how senior management is defined). I think the way to improve diversity is through transparency, i.e. how many people are applying for roles, what are the reasons why people are being turned down for positions. Problems to be considered with government intervention include i) some people might end up getting jobs they aren’t the best candidate for, ii) banks may move jobs out of the country if quotas are brought in, iii) banks may massage statistics by putting females in rotating non-exec director roles or figurehead Chairperson roles, while the real powerful executive roles remain filled by males (this is common), iv) should government intervention only apply to females, or should it also apply to other areas, e.g. BAME, or areas where males are under-represented, e.g. HR?

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