Merchants of menace

The Goldman Sachs scandal, which cost three traders their jobs, may have shocked the world at large. To Linda Davies, who worked for seven years in the City, it comes as no surprise at all.

To outsiders, the Goldman Sachs sex case must seem mystifying: three foreign exchange traders, each reputed to earn $1m, fired for their imaginative suggestions as to how a secretary might secure promotion. It might seem unreal, paranoiac, manically politically correct, but the alleged harassment is all too easy to imagine. The reaction is measured, entirely appropriate. But it is also surprising.

I speak as a former insider. I worked in the City for seven years for three prominent merchant /investment banks, in corporate finance, management buyouts, venture capital and bond sales. Two years ago I left, not because I didn’t enjoy the job, but because I didn’t enjoy the environment. I think the City’s achievements – its huge contribution to GNP, for example – are impressive. But the environment and prevailing attitudes – harsh, blinkered, inhospitable, aggressive and lacking in humanity – are less so.

Photograph illustration from “A Raw Deal”, interview with Linda Davies in The Sunday Times, 4 July 1993

The firing of sexual harassers may be extremely rare but the harassment itself, in its various forms, from the outrageous to the subtle, is extremely common.

It is difficult for those outside the City to gain insight into its inner workings. Try to get anyone working there to talk to a journalist on the record about sexual harassment or any vaguely controversial topic and you will see self-censorship in action. It is also difficult for insiders to gain any perspective into their insular, all-consuming environment. If you put in 12 hours a day for all your working life in the City, objective judgement is clouded, and other bases of comparison lacking.

So how does sexual harassment manifest itself? It is different from pure prejudice, although both are on the same continuum, denoting a fundamental lack of respect. It is concentrated on trading floors in the City, although it is by no means absent from corporate finance. It starts early in the morning, around 7:30am on a trading floor, a time when you might think most people’s thoughts would be far from sex, but, then, sexual harassment, I suspect, often has little to do with sexual desire, more to do with power.

At 7:30am, as you arrive at work and walk across the catwalk of the trading floor, you will receive a stream of comments on your outfit from the innocuous, ‘You look nice,’ to speculation as to what you might look like without it. A few propositions follow. Then, at some stage during the day you might hear the popular trading floor refrain about what you might have to give to get ahead. The details of verbal sexual harassment might sound petty in isolation; many of them are. It is more the barrage, the constant background noise, the expectation of it, that make it so insidious.

Other forms of harassment are slightly more oblique. Trading floors are dotted with pornographic calendars. These calendars are, at best, off-putting. When you are talking to a trader, trying to get a price, and three inches from his screen, facing you, is a naked woman, it is slightly disconcerting. This is chiefly because of the suspicion that this is what he thinks of women, how he likes to relate to them publicly.

Then there are the deliberately loud conversations where traders discuss last night’s conquests. That most of these triumphs are probably fictional, does little to make the conversations less offensive. If, while trying to analyse the direction of markets for the day, you have to listen to a catalogue of sexual exploits, all in white-knuckle detail, again, it is, at best, distracting. The tenor of the conversation denotes an aggressive lack of respect for women.

The volume of the conversation, its very broadcasting, is intended to convey that lack of respect. I’ve seen the look of triumph on too many male traders’ faces as I’ve turned and told them to shut up to give them the benefit of the doubt.

When the Goldman case broke, a friend of mine, in the media, asked me about sexual harassment in the City. When I gave him details, he asked why I had done nothing. Very simple. During my time, there was nothing effective you could do. In theory, there were a number of options: the first is to fight back. This very quickly disintegrates into a slanging match, one which the offender – cruder, louder, better practised, more vulgar by far – will always win. The danger in fighting back directly is that you harden yourself. To immunise yourself and to repel attack, you can toughen yourself, become unfeeling and aggressive. Look around at some City women: it happens. After I had worked on a trading floor, one close friend remarked that I had changed in a not altogether welcome way. I had developed a hard, protective barrier, which, incidentally, my having left the City, is now gone. But when in the City, why should you have to neuter your softness and femininity just to defend yourself from the advances of reprobates?

In any case, a meek ‘shut up’ will just be rewarded with a smile of satisfaction as the offender realises he has ‘scored’ by provoking you.

Another reaction is to ignore it and do nothing; traditionally the wisest and only viable response. Or, you could go to a superior and complain. The result of this will be a comment to the effect of ‘if you can’t take the heat…’ as if there were something admirable or worthy in putting up with offensive behaviour, as if it were an integral, necessary part of the job, and that if you did accept it, then you would be doing your job better. Clearly, the latter supposition is nonsense. But sexual harassment is an integral part of the job.

Why is this? The answer is, I suspect, money and power. Money is the prime motivation of those who work in the City, many of whom make sums running into millions for their employers and themselves. That much money confers power, and a feeling of potency, upon those who make it. The link between money and power and sex is strong. The terminology of the City accolade, ‘big swinging dick’, is no coincidence. The atmosphere in the City is aggressively masculine. The level of excitement, particularly on a trading floor, is high. The testosterone level is high. Volatile markets produce excitable people. Add to these feelings of power and potency, a sense of invulnerability, an enjoyment of risk, and it is easy to see the genesis of a desire for sex, or at least its verbal proxy. It is just another form of droit de seigneur.

The other component is competition. The motivation here is not sexual, it is to do with rivalry and dominance. Because of the sums of money at stake, the competition, especially on trading floors, is intense. The encroachment of women into what was traditionally a male monopoly has exposed them to that competition. If a man loses a large sum of money, very often, more than his professional competence is threatened. His job is closely tied up with his identity. The link between money and power and sex becomes inverted when some male traders lose money; they feel impotent. One quick remedy is to force their sexual persona on to female colleagues, by propositioning them, by making offensive sexual references, by any of the means described above.

The motivations can be both conscious and unconscious. The City, international force that it is, is parochial, self-obsessed, blinkered, lacking in perspective. It is all too easy to accept the status quo as immutable. New male recruits pick up the prevailing culture and soon find themselves engaging in some of the minor, almost unconscious forms of harassment; the jokey propositioning of female colleagues assumed to be weaker, easier targets, and secretaries. So what can be done about sexual harassment? Perhaps the banks could admit that it exists and confront it. Goldman Sachs, as part of its selection process, will interview candidates up to 25 times. Many City banks have similarly rigorous procedures. What they do not test is the ability of female applicants to tolerate and accommodate sexual harassment. But, given its incidence, perhaps they should. As well as asking whether candidates are willing to work 18-hour days and sacrifice their private lives (which they don’t ask, but should), perhaps they could try asking whether women are willing and able to put up with a constant background of sexual harassment. No, they don’t ask it. It is tacit. It goes with the job, a perk for the boys, penance for the girls. We take City jobs, but they don’t warn us what we’re buying into. It is a case of caveat emptor, the buyer takes the risk; but then so much of the City is, these days.

Part of the problem in dealing with sexual harassment has been that, in the past, there has been so little desire to do anything about it. Those who made the rules, who established the culture, were almost without exception, men. They had no direct, immediate interest in changing the status quo.

The prevailing ethos has been that those who make enough money can get away with whatever they like in terms of the way they treat their women colleagues, as long as they do not become violent. But, finally, the times might be changing. The Goldman case was encouraging. After receiving much support from her female peers in a meeting convened in the ladies’ loos, the woman concerned reported her case to a committee which had been specially set up to deal with such complaints. This committee took action, and sent out a message, loud and clear, to Goldman’s employees and to the rest of the City. In one easy stroke, three big swinging dicks were felled.

Originally published 1 May 1994

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