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The Financial Services Sector's Not-So-Secret Gender Discrimination and Harassment Problem

Given recent headlines about Uber and Google, it might be tempting to assume that tech is the only sector still facing stubborn problems with gender discrimination, hostile work environments, and sexual harassment. That certainly isn't the case, and one only has to look at the financial services industry to see that the issue is very prevalent in many other workplaces.

Discrimination Rampant in Financial Services

There is probably no better example of the unequal treatment women receive in financial services than how they are disciplined. A troubling study released earlier this year titled "When Harry Fired Sally: The Double Standard in Punishing Misconduct" describes this in stark detail.

Researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Stanford University, and the University of Minnesota found that women working in the finance industry are three times less likely than men to commit infractions, but receive far harsher treatment. After their misconduct is discovered, 55 percent of women resign or are fired as compared with just 46 percent of men. Women receive significantly lower severance packages than men and only 37 percent will find a new position in finance, but 47 percent of men will get another job in the sector.

Of course, this sort of "taste-based discrimination" - where men prefer to work with men and treat each other more charitably than they do women - only compounds the problem of the woeful underrepresentation of women in finance, particularly in the higher ranks. Earlier this year, the Financial Times surveyed 50 of the world's largest financial institutions and found that, though women make up half of the workforce in finance, they only hold 25.5 percent of senior positions. The survey further revealed that women occupy 58 percent of junior level jobs and 39 percent of mid-level positions.

The glass ceiling is very real for women in finance. The statistics bear this out.

Recent Litigation Highlights the Problems Faced by Women in Finance

The kind of lawsuits being filed against financial services companies of all sizes give a good sense of the types of discrimination and harassment women face in the sector.

Last fall, for example, Bank of America settled a gender discrimination and pay inequity lawsuit brought by a former managing director who alleged she was paid significantly less than male colleagues and that women were treated as "second-class citizens" by the bank. The plaintiff alleged she was paid a third of what a man in the same position earned in Bank of America's entrenched "bro culture."

Bank of America is not the only well known financial institution to face similar lawsuits. Citigroup paid $33 million in 2008 to settle a bias suit brought by women brokers. In 2007, Morgan Stanley paid $46 million into a claims pool in a sex discrimination settlement with former financial advisors.

Goldman Sachs has also been called out for its treatment of women. The investment bank faces an ongoing class action from women who allege rampant sex discrimination. The plaintiffs allege they were underpaid, received unfair evaluations, and were terminated or left Goldman Sachs because of discrimination.

There are also examples of women in finance enduring hostile work environments that are, quite simply, horrific. Women working for Corporate Bailout LLC in New Jersey filed a lawsuit alleging the company was "the epitome of a sexually-hostile working environment" that "shamelessly created a sexual harassment playground fueled by drugs and alcohol and swarming with hand-picked young women rewarded for dressing and behaving provocatively all in order to indulge their misogyny and vulgar sexual perversions." An article on the case - which settled shortly after it was filed - provides further, very graphic details, including descriptions of office sex parties.

Examples of Discrimination and Harassment Directed at Women in Finance

Obviously not all discrimination and harassment directed at women in financial services is as egregious - or overt - as the Corporate Bailout case. Whether it's visible or subtle does not matter, however. All of it is illegal and likely grounds for litigation.

  • Marginalization, including exclusion from social and networking activities
  • Sexist and harassing behavior
  • Implicit and unconscious bias
  • Pay inequity
  • Title inequity
  • Difficulties with, and retaliation for, taking family and pregnancy leave
  • Retaliation for reporting illegal conduct
  • Sexual harassment
  • Hostile work environment

What Women in Finance Can Do to Combat Discrimination, Harassment, and Hostile Work Environments

There are ways for women to push back against barriers to their success in the financial services sector. Many women worry about negative consequences from speaking up, but there are strict federal and state laws that bar companies from retaliating against those who do.

Women also do not have to go it alone. If it's happening to one woman in a company, it's likely happening to many, many others. There is strength in numbers, particularly when pushing for change. Smart companies across all industries are even creating discussion groups and internal coaching networks for women and other members of protected classes.

An experienced employment lawyer can also offer significant support and insight into a particular situation. Often just one discussion is all that's needed to develop a plan for addressing issues of discrimination, harassment, and hostile work environments. Though the eventual path could lead to litigation brought by either an individual or class of employees, there can be other ways to address matters that a knowledgeable legal counsel can explain.

Women do not and should not have to put up with barriers to their rightful and equitable inclusion in the financial services sector. A cultural shift is obviously necessary, and those women who are pushing back are leading the way.

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