By Prarthana Mitra
The #MeToo movement has had a lot of unanticipated impact on the lives and work of women all over the world. It has resulted in innumerable noteworthy men like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein losing grace and sometimes their jobs over systemic harassment at the workplace. It has also strengthened the collective voice of women, turning victims into survivors who are more inclined to call their abusers out today than they were a decade ago.
It has brought the futility of due process to the very fore; Tarana Burke’s hashtag has given women the kind of visibility and universality, which underscored the widespread nature of abuse in all sectors.
But Wall Street co-opted the one impact #MeToo was wont to create: Men avoiding women and the entire conversation about consent, to save themselves the trouble of wading legal waters. According to some Wall Street moguls, even hiring a woman these days is “an unknown risk,” for the fear of being misconstrued. “It’s creating a sense of walking on eggshells,” said David Bahnsen, a former managing director at Morgan Stanley in an interview with Financial Post.
This is hardly a single-industry phenomenon, as men across the world are either lashing out in vengeance or protecting themselves against “unreasonable political correctness,” noticeably in sectors which have historically thrived on the power of influential men, like the Malayalam film industry.
So when the storm travelled from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to finally crash on America’s leading bankers, investors and market analysts, you already knew this would not be good for women’s empowerment.
Manifesting in regression and segregation
Across Wall Street, men are clamouring to adopt controversial strategies, to safeguard themselves and their reputation in the #MeToo era and, in the process, making life even harder for women. Several hedge funds, law firms, banks, private equity firms and investment-management firms have adopted policies that could potentially isolate women and seriously hamper their career.
Some of them include refusing business dinners with women below 35, refusing to sit next to female colleagues on planes, booking hotel rooms on different floors, avoiding one-on-one meetings, and refusing to meet female employees in rooms without windows. Many management-level male employees anonymously said they were afraid of working with women, especially young and attractive ones, and would rather avoid the potential liability or the rumour mill.
Earlier this year, a survey pointed out that male managers were now more uncomfortable mentoring women or working alone with a woman. Given the male dominance in Wall Street’s top jobs (85% of executives and 74% of senior managers in finance are men), women have little options for mentors who are also women. Thus, the loss of male mentors who can help them climb the ladder is one of the most pressing consequences for women.
The Pence effect
Starting with Bloomberg, national and global media have flagged this gender segregation as catastrophic for women in finance. Several news outlets have directed their criticism at US Vice President Mike Pence, whose own bizarre policies about meeting women are believed to have inspired some of these strategies. (He refuses to take dinner meetings without his wife; several Wall Street executives have even admitted to channeling Pence.)
While it is a good thing that men know what it’s like to live in constant fear, or to feel like basic decency is being mistaken for an invitation for sexual advances, cutting women out of the conversation altogether will not solve the problem. Avoiding women and leaving men to catch up for after-work drinks will literally turn the system into a boy’s club, that financial sector already resembles owing to the lack of women in upper ranks.
“Women are grasping for ideas on how to deal with it, because it is affecting our careers,” said Karen Elinski, president of the Financial Women’s Association and a senior vice president at Wells Fargo & Co. “It’s a real loss.”
Another journalist said, “Not only is it absurd, it is also impractical to ice out an entire gender out of fear of being accused of sexual harassment. It’s a reaction—not a solution.”
Instead of addressing the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace head-on, Wall Street seems to be settling for a medieval and unbecoming solution, at the cost of women’s careers. Tackling the subject of consent, equality, decency and professionalism should replace the Pence effect.
As one of the anonymous interviewees realised after pondering on Pence-esque strategies to tackle the problem, it’s really not that hard, “Just try not to be an a**hole.”
Meanwhile, in India
The country has experienced a #MeToo upheaval since October, when female journalists and actresses started coming forward, reporting abuse against noted politicians, directors, musicians, editors-in-chief over social media. It also spread to the education, advertising, trade and literary circuits, causing employers to sit up and look at the loopholes in implementing the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act.
Internal committees are being formed anew; several news agencies and film production houses have removed the accused from their ranks. Following the recent allegations brought against the “bro-culture” at Only Much Louder (OML, an events organiser that hosts music festivals and stand-up events), the board said they have been trying to sign more women artists, and nominate more women to high-ranking positions.
Prarthana Mitra ia staff writer at Qrius.
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