The new era of justice for victims of workplace sexual abuse has been forged by victims and reporters exposing the misconduct of uniquely powerful men—Harvey Weinstein, John Conyers, Mark Halperin—who preyed upon their subordinates.
Given the way the narrative has taken shape so far, one could assume that the epidemic of harassment and intimidation has been confined to the realms of media, entertainment and politics, and generally takes the form of untouchable men abusing voiceless women.
Both of these assumptions are wrong—the problem is far more pervasive. I know, because I experienced first hand how a culture of abuse within an industry can stifle and stymie the professional advancement even of women who have already blazed paths into executive suites. And I experienced it on Wall Street, which has somehow managed to avoid—for now—a reckoning long in the making.
Wall Street has been been plagued with sexual harassment cases dating back decades. So, as revelations of rampant sexual harassment swept Hollywood and Washington, I wondered why women who work or worked on Wall Street were not coming forward with their own #MeToo stories in the same numbers. It’s a question I can’t fairly ask of others without turning it on myself. Why didn’t I share my own story while I still worked at Goldman Sachs? Why has it taken dozens of brave women outside the financial sector coming forward to tell their stories to convince me that it’s time for me to break my silence, and share all the painful details?
Wall Street is a very conservative industry. People get fired for speaking to the media without prior approval, internship offers are rescinded if prospective interns are found to have offensive social media profiles, group emails are always addressed to the most senior recipient. It demands conformity in all professional interactions; except for the latitude men are given to intimidate women. When I decided to share my story, I reached out to several women I met when I worked on Wall Street, many of whom still work there. None agreed to share their experiences on the record, because they fear the consequences.
The potential consequences vary widely. Women on Wall Street, like women in every profession, are made to fear that standing up to abusive bosses will get them blackballed. But women who are the bosses are often confronted with a terrible choice: play nice or watch the boys trash their reputations.
After two years at Goldman Sachs, my male boss was relocated to another office, and replaced by a female vice-president. Right away, my colleagues from other teams began asking questions like, “is she smart?” Not once, did I hear anyone ask that question about my male boss. (For the record, my female boss was smart, savvy, and incredibly effective.)
I wasn’t the only person who had a female boss. In my division, many of the senior people were women. Inevitably, whenever one was promoted to become a managing director, or partner, the floor buzzed with nauseating rumors. “She must have slept with someone.” That’s the culture on Wall Street. I witnessed it at Goldman Sachs and witnessed it again years later when I went to work at Merrill Lynch.
For most of the six years I worked at Goldman Sachs, I never experienced the kind of blatant sexual harassment that is finally getting powerful men fired. In fact, I praised Goldman for their programs to promote women. When I became a vice-president, I came to believe that I had managed to escape unscathed.
I was wrong. In the Spring of 2010, I attended a conference in Miami to court Goldman’s private wealth advisors, and convince them to use my team’s products in their client’s investment portfolios. My team structured derivatives meant to help our wealthiest clients protect their portfolios, leverage their investments, or invest in esoteric asset classes. I covered the Southeast and Latin America for my team and private wealth advisors were my internal clients.
There was nothing unusual about the trip: dinners followed meetings, and drinks followed dinner. On the last day of my trip, I attended a big group dinner with all the private wealth advisors who covered Latin American clients. I sat next to an advisor from the Geneva office, who was in his late thirties, and slicked his hair back the way somewhat stylish European guys who are trying too hard tend to do. During dinner, he showed me pictures of his wife and kids.
After dinner, we all went out to a Miami nightclub. We ordered bottle service, and we danced in a big circle. He began trying to hold my hand while we danced in the circle. I was taken aback by the brazenness of this man, who had just beamed about his family, making a pass at me. But I was also worried about the rumor mill.
Did anyone see him trying to hold my hand? And if they did, what would they think? That I had welcomed it? That I must have slept with someone to become a vice-president?
Fortunately, I had a 6:00am flight to catch, so I had a perfect reason to excuse myself. The Geneva man walked with me as I left. Outside the club, I politely ignored his continued advances. He was my internal client, on Monday morning I’d have to call him and pitch him the latest products for his clients.
As I said good-bye he pulled me in and planted a kiss on my face. I pushed him away, and got in the cab. He tried to get into the cab with me, based on the false assumption and false pretense that we were staying at the same hotel, and sharing a cab would be convenient. That’s when I made a big mistake: In advising him that we were staying in different neighborhoods, I mentioned the names of both of our hotels. Then I slammed the door.
On the drive from South Beach to my 5-star hotel, I cried out of anger. My immediate reaction was to blame myself. I should have gone back to my hotel after dinner. What did I do to make him believe his advances were welcomed?
But if I hadn’t played along, if I hadn’t stayed out to court my clients, my male colleagues would have, and my career would have suffered as a result.
I got to my room, changed into pajamas and went to sleep. An hour later, the man from Geneva was banging loudly on my door. “Julissa, Julissa, open up!”
How the hell did he have my room number? I was terrified. If the hotel had given him my room number, against hotel policies, did he also have a key?
The only thought that crossed my mind was, “I am going to get raped and there is nothing I can do about it”. I was overcome by fear, and because I felt trapped I began to panic.
I locked myself in the bathroom for hours. I couldn’t remember if I had dead-bolted the door. Thankfully, he didn’t have a key, or maybe I did remember to deadbolt the door. Either way, I flew back to New York the next morning safely.
I didn’t complain to the hotel for giving my room number to a strange man. I didn’t tell my boss. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t even sure about where or to whom I could report this behavior. Goldman has included anti sexual-harassment training in new-hire orientation for the last decade, but when I went through this orientation in 2005, this was not the case. Today, new hires go through an hour-long training role-playing scenario with actors that covers various workplace issues, including sexual harassment.
At the time, the idea that I should complain about this man, write down his name, and share my story widely didn’t occur to me at all. In 2010, Goldman was sued by three women who claimed improper sexual advances. The Guardian quoted a Goldman spokesperson as saying, “We believe this suit is without merit. People are critical to our business, and we make extraordinary efforts to recruit, develop and retain outstanding women professionals.”
That Monday morning, my mind preoccupied with the concern that the Geneva man had lied to his colleagues and bragged that something happened between us. I’ll never know if he did.
He got away with his conduct, not despite the fact that I had reached senior ranks at Goldman, but because of it. I was one of very few Latina vice-presidents at Goldman. I worried my success was precarious and would disappear if people got the wrong idea about how I had achieved it.
Maybe if I had complained while I was at Goldman, something would have been done. I reached out to Goldman for comment, with details of this story, and a spokesperson issued this statement:
“A critical part of our culture is making our people feel comfortable raising issues when they see them. We’ve always had strong anti-harassment policies and encouraged people to escalate any concerns they have. Over the years, the firm has continued to reinforce and expand its policies and reporting channels to make it even easier for women, or any other employee, to come forward and report on any unacceptable behavior. ”
Recently, a male Goldman employee in London was fired after an internal investigation confirmed the allegations of a female employee who complained of inappropriate behavior. But I worried that if I had done the same, I might also have lost my job. It was a risk I felt I couldn’t take. In a place like Wall Street, where winning is the ultimate goal, winning with women is part of the game. The onus continues to be on women to watch what they wear, what they say, where they go. The onus is on us to prove we are smart enough to get promoted and to dispel all the rumors.
I understand why none of the women I spoke to wanted to go on the record. Our careers and reputations are on the line. I left Goldman six years ago, and Wall Street altogether three years ago, and it still took dozens of brave women to come out and share their stories before I fully shared mine. I also have no intention of going to work on Wall Street again. Would anyone hire me after this? Without the #MeToo movement, the answer would almost certainly be no.
I hope my story helps to dispel the notion that sexual harassment only happens between powerful men and their subordinates, and illuminates the nuances women have to navigate in deciding to share our stories. Wall Street’s culture won’t be changed with one story, but now, because of the #MeToo movement, we can battle against the masters of the universe.