Stamping Out Sexual Harassment
Here’s how independent advisors can build a culture of zero tolerance for gender discrimination, Kimberly Foss says.
Here’s how independent advisors can build a culture of zero tolerance for gender discrimination.
Empowerment that comes from running your own shop can provide a wall of protection from those who would unfairly use superior positions as leverage.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT IS NOT primarily about attraction — it’s about power. Give more power to women, the reasoning goes, and sexual harassment gradually fades away. Unfortunately, this logic isn’t always borne out. Consider Fidelity.
The Boston-based financial firm is led by several visionary and principled women, including its CEO Abigail Johnson and Kathleen Murphy, president of Fidelity Personal Investing, a unit with more than 12 million customer accounts and $1 trillion in assets. Both women are included among Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women.
But even with strong female leadership, Fidelity found itself in the throes of a sexual harassment scandal. In October, two senior male executives at Fidelity left for making inappropriate comments amid what some describe as a broader culture of sexual discrimination and bullying.
Fidelity isn’t alone. Allegations of sexual harassment and class-action lawsuits have plagued respected Wall Street firms such as Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch over the past few decades. But the Fidelity controversy could hit closer to home for independent advisors, as the firm is a major provider of clearing, custodial and other services .
Fidelity says it has taken a number of steps to foster a respectful work environment, including creating a sexual harassment response committee. “As our CEO, Abby Johnson, has made clear, when allegations of harassment or other inappropriate behavior are brought to our attention, we investigate them immediately and take prompt and appropriate action,” Fidelity spokesman Vincent Loporchio says.
Harassment and outraged responses to it are not new, of course. In the 1980s, a male friend advised me that I would not be successful in the financial industry because of my gender, as I related in my book “Wealthy by Design.” I wish that had been the worst thing that had happened. But it wasn’t.
I remember the frantic feeling of studying for my securities licensing exams while running the gauntlet of simulations, training sessions and other exercises that were — and in many cases, still are — part of the onboarding experience for financial consultants.
After interviewing with other houses, I staked everything on going to work for Merrill Lynch. In the midst of this frantic time, I felt grateful when a regional manager offered to help me prepare for my exams. But not long after I arrived at his palatial residence, he began to try to kiss me … and worse.
When I refused his advances and told him to call me a cab, he said that, if I left, I would never work for his firm.
I took a deep breath and said I would rather be out of a job and still have my personal integrity intact. Thankfully, I was able to get in the cab and leave.
Merrill Lynch declined to comment last month about the incident.
Years of similar incidents, many of which ended much worse than my own story, have forced major firms to establish guidelines, protocols, hotlines and no-tolerance policies regarding sexual harassment and misconduct. And yet, even after all these years, the problem is still rampant.
A young associate of mine who worked previously at another large firm told me recently that the culture is still uncomfortably similar to what I experienced all those years ago.
Here are four concrete steps independents can take to help change the culture:
• Opening up the top ranks of management to women will ultimately advance the campaign for a harassment-free workplace. As the current problems at Fidelity suggest, this is certainly not a cure-all, but there is room for improvement. Moreover, a recent GAO study indicates that women have made little or no progress toward increasing their presence in the industry since 2007.
• The independent financial planning industry must continue to press for zero tolerance of sexual misconduct of any type. Unfortunately, sexual harassment and gender bias is not limited to specific firms or workplaces; advisor conferences can become hubs of unwanted comments, attitudes and activity.
“I would walk through exhibit halls as a planner and I would be asked whose assistant I am. Why did [they] assume that?” asked Breanna Reish, an experienced planner who recently launched her own firm, according to a recent news report.
The 2017 Dallas conference of the XY Planning Network, a group of fee-only advisors who specialize in Gen X and Gen Y clientele, opened with the announcement of a code of conduct that prohibits any form of discrimination or harassment.
“Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks, workshops, parties, Twitter or other online media,” the code read. The app for the conference even included a function that facilitated the reporting of inappropriate conduct.
XYPN also offered a networking track focused on women advisors.
The group has formed its own diversity committee, and it is dedicated to helping member advisors promote diversity in their firms and practices. Such initiatives are an important beginning and other firms need to join the movement.
• We should embrace the adage that was popularized by the British Transport Police in their campaign against terrorism: “See it. Say it. Sorted.”
The Harvey Weinsteins of the world cannot systematically victimize unless bystanders look the other way. We need to stare sexual harassment in the face and call it what it is.
• Finally, we must listen and believe in the voices of women and others who have been silenced for too long. It is very difficult to speak truth to power — especially when the speaker has suffered the abuse of that same power.
We need to take up the cause of those who have been wronged. When they talk, we need to listen and take action.
For years, independent financial advisors have been leading the way in providing reasonably priced services with a commitment to the client’s interests above all.
It is time now for us to lead the charge to eradicate all forms of sexual harassment and gender discrimination from the financial industry.
The Fidelity controversy could hit closer to home for independent advisors, as the firm is a major provider of clearing, custodial and other services.