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Is #MeToo Backlash Hurting Women’s Opportunities in Finance?

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When my mother graduated from college in 1972, she interviewed at an investment bank where a manager told her that for certain positions, women were interviewed but never hired. Even in the late 1980s, she went on interviews with headhunters who would explicitly tell her, “They want to interview a woman,” with the emphasis on “interview”— as in, not hire. Through the decades, as she’s climbed the ranks to become a CFO of publicly traded company, I’ve often told these stories to show how much more opportunity exists in the workplace today.

In the aftermath of the MeToo movement around sexual harassment, I wonder how much progress we’ve really made; recently, several men have privately told me that they have no intention of hiring women for open roles, or of managing young women if they can avoid it. I now worry that the movement has already sparked a destructive backlash.

As someone who works in finance and is currently a student in the executive MBA program at the Wharton School, I’ve heard men say that they’re less likely to hire or associate with women as a result of the intensity of MeToo. Whether consciously or not, I am not sure how any man in America isn’t reassessing his hiring practices. I have heard directly from male executives at two prominent Wall Street firms that they are moving their female direct reports to report to female bosses.

Even if we could get past the troubling message this sends, this isn’t practical — women only make up about 25% of the executive team at the top Wall Street firms, and there simply aren’t enough women to sustain this model. I’ve also heard from male fund managers that they didn’t want to take on the “risk” of hiring a woman in their small shops. An employee of a large bank shared that any future women analyst hires should be “unattractive.”

This environment is particularly troubling for my female classmates and me if we want to obtain a job in financial services, which is what Wharton is known for. Even if I were smarter or more qualified than one of my male classmates, why would an employer hire me when the guy next to me is good enough and is less likely to make an accusation of harassment? Females make up just over 25% of my class, there is no short supply of male MBAs to hire. I have already heard from some men at small hedge funds that they won’t hire women because we’re too “risky,” and from men in VC that they won’t have one-on-one meetings with female founders.

But such candor is rare, and off the record, because such discrimination is illegal. And women may never know why they were passed over. In some ways, I think my mother was afforded a better interview experience — at least they were being honest when they flat-out told her they won’t hire women. I fear this spring will see many female MBAs interviewing at firms that wish to appear to be striving for gender parity, but have no real intention of hiring any young women.

To some, including the men I spoke with, it seems like the MeToo movement is not just about stopping harassment, but essentially trying to achieve the impossible: desexualize the workplace, which goes against Darwin. Chemistry between human beings can’t be stopped, so what’s the answer? To many men, that answer is protecting themselves by avoiding socializing with or hiring women. It may be illegal, but that won’t stop it from happening — most cases would never get to court, and even if they did, they’d  be really tough to prove.

My close friend, Vanity Fair contributing editor, Bethany McLean, views this fear as another excuse exclude women. Before becoming a writer, she spent her days as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and certainly understands Wall Street culture. “That argument betrays a fundamental lack of respect for women,” she told me. “When men say that they’re afraid of being alone with women, what they’re actually saying is that there is a high likelihood that all women are crazy and will read something into a situation that isn’t intended. Women shouldn’t buy into the patriarchal point of view that women can’t be trusted.”

Her point of view is supported by a 2016 study on corporate sexual harassment policies. It found that most corporate sexual harassment policies were ineffective because employees interpreted them as protecting irrational or oversensitive women at the expense of men. “We found that the actual words of the sexual harassment policy bore little resemblance to the employees’ interpretations of the policy,” wrote one of the researchers. “Although the policy clearly focused on behaviors of sexual harassment, the participants almost universally claimed that the policy focused on perceptions of behaviors.”

Although men’s fears may be grounded in an unconsciously biased view of women as untrustworthy or irrational, I do think that the MeToo movement bears some of the blame for the backlash I’m currently seeing. The hashtag and media reports have had a telescoping effect, essentially blurring important distinctions between rape, groping, and clumsy come-ons. As a victim of sexual assault who lived through a U.S. federal landmark case, I want to support the movement, but when the social media waterfall started last fall, I couldn’t bring myself to share my experience — which brought me to the brink of depression for three years — under the same hashtag as women who were briefly fondled at a holiday office party. While neither sexual harassment and assault should be tolerated under any circumstances, they are not the same thing. But the level of condemnation offered to each now seems to be the same. As Sarah Chiche, one of the main authors of a French riposte to MeToo, told the New York Times, “Men whose only fault was sending a slightly salacious text message or email were being treated, on social networks, exactly the same way as sexual criminals, like rapists.” Watching the pendulum-swing of society’s reaction to sexual assault has been whiplash-inducing, and to me, worrisome.

I’ve heard many female peers say that they think the MeToo movement will speed gender parity in the workforce and create access to more executive positions. But we are not at a moment of celebration yet. As a society, we’ve worked so hard to try and take gender off the table, and now more than ever, it seems like it’s very much there.

The response to MeToo shouldn’t be to celebrate with expectations about the promise of this future. I don’t have the answers, but I do believe the start requires addressing the reality of how scared men have become to work with and hire women as a result, and that trust between sexes in the workplace is broken. If the MeToo movement allows us to address this openly and honestly, then society will be much better for it. My concern is this is not happening; rather, women are silently being pushed to the side, making the road to the C-suite and boardroom just as hurdled as it was for my mother 40 years ago.

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