Two investment bank chiefs call their industry’s #MeToo excuses “paranoid and fundamentally wrong”

For women in finance, there’s a long way to go.
For women in finance, there’s a long way to go.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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To the claims of bankers that working with women in the age of #MeToo is too risky, Richard Handler and Brian Friedman, the CEO and bank president of investment bank Jefferies, suggest an alternative view: “We cannot control the markets, but we can control how we act and behave.”

In an open year-end letter to staff, Handler and Friedman decried “the thoughtless, paranoid, and fundamentally wrong reaction that many people in our industry are expressing about the #MeToo movement.”

The stand comes less than two weeks after the publication of a much-discussed Bloomberg article, titled “Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Costs”. Some 30 executives, mostly anonymous, described living in fear of a “false accusation,” and the measures they were putting in place to mitigate it. Mentorship, adjacent plane seats, and even one-on-one meetings were described as being potentially fraught.

The result post-#MeToo, reporters Gillian Tan and Katia Porzecanski suggested, might be Wall Street “becoming more of a boy’s club, rather than less of one.”

Handler and Friedman write that such disproportionate fears say far more about those who don’t know “how to conduct [themselves] as a responsible, courteous and balanced human being” than they do about a system purportedly “designed to ensnare the innocent.” Claiming the opposite, in fact, is tantamount to arguing that women are waging an active campaign to slander men—and choosing “publicity, stigma, pain and tribulations as a short cut to career success and riches.” If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is, they argue. “Seriously? Do you have sisters, daughters, girlfriends, wives or mothers and have you ever spoken with them?”

The MeToo movement has led to dozens of men in Hollywood, media, politics and other sectors stepping down after being accused of sexual harassment. Perhaps surprisingly, the financial sector has been comparatively unaffected. Few heads have rolled, few high-profile accusations have hit the headlines. Early this year, Bloomberg suggested that it might be industry culture, rather than simply high-calibre men, keeping women schtum. In interviews with 20 women, there were multiple reports of having “been grabbed, kissed out of the blue, humiliated, and propositioned by colleagues and bosses.” These women “stayed quiet because of cultural and financial forces that are particularly strong in banking,” reported Max Abelson. “They say they have a lot to lose by speaking out, no certainty about what they’d gain, and legal agreements that muzzle them.”

If such an undercurrent exists, as the story and many other reports suggest, it’s not false accusations these men have to worry about. Instead, as they may anticipate (or fear), it’s that a long-overdue cultural shift may be on the horizon, one that would allow women in the industry to speak out without fear of losing their jobs, status, and reputation.