Merry Christmas Eve, dear readers!
Here’s a special holiday-themed post for your Christmas blog-reading pleasure.
During my first year in banking, I was the only female executive in our team. The only other women were two assistants, one friendly Australian gal who got along with everyone, and the team secretary who bragged about her previous job as a stripper and ignored the junior executives.
I had avoided the large company-wide Christmas party, because I wasn’t required to attend, and the few other women on the trading floor had told me it was an excuse for everyone to get drunk and hook up. Having no inclination for drinking cheap wine nor hooking up with a coworker, I decided to pass.
However, our team of around 15 people would have a private party at a restaurant. This sounded much more appealing, as I got along well with those in my team and I looked forward to spending more time with them socially.
We shared cabs on the way over, and when we arrived, I noticed our secretary had changed out of her workclothes into a micro miniskirt and sparkly top. Not being her target, I sat at the other end of the table in the private dining room arranged for the evening. A senior salesperson sat next to me and we made small talk. He was friendly, but I was wary given his aggressive flirting with every woman around.
Champagne was brought out, and everyone ordered cocktails. Still early in the night, before the food arrived, I felt a hand on my thigh. I looked over and the senior salesperson was laughing and joking along with everyone else, and didn’t even acknowledge that he was groping me. I wiggled out and said oops, and apologized, as though I had accidentally placed my thigh under his palm. He grinned. A few minutes later, his hand was back. I excused myself and went to the ladies room. When I came back, he resumed his game. Finally, I firmly moved his hand away and said “Please don’t.” I wasn’t sure anyone had noticed, but after half an hour of this, our boss appeared next to us and said to him “Since you can’t seem to keep your hands to yourself, you’ll trade places with me.” My boss sat down next to me and I was embarrassed but relieved. He explained away Mr. Gropey’s behavior by saying he had a cocaine problem and was going through a divorce.
After dinner, before dessert, it was time for the Secret Santa gifts. These were meant to be a gag, and I had purchased a tacky musical photo frame for the colleague whose name I’d drawn. As everyone opened theirgifts, I realized that nearly everyone else purchased a gift that was of a sexual nature. The gift given to me by a male colleague was chocolate body paint and a set of dice, one with body parts and the other with actions. I felt my face growing warm as everyone laughed and made jokes. My boss received a set of three juggling balls shaped like breasts, another colleague received furry handcuffs and so on. The only ones clearly uninterested in this game were a much older man on our team (old in banking being over 50) and the guy who worked directly for him. They both lived in the suburbs and when they announced that they needed to catch their trains home, I jumped up and said “Me too!” On the way out, I dumped the body paint and dice in a trash can. The doorman hailed a taxi for me and I said good night to the two others as I climbed in.
My professional experience was quite limited at this time, but having been through the bank’s training program, I realized that this particular Christmas party violated a number of policies. The next day at work,there were no repercussions – only jokes and reminiscing about what a great evening it was. At the time, it was surprising to me that the behavior was so overt and included most of the team.
This was shocking at the time simply because I had limited experience in banking. However, I had enough experience to know not to complain. It was widely known that complaining would get you a permanent trip out the front door and would mean the end of your career. Leaving one bank after complaining of sexual harassment would mean that no other bank on the Street would touch you. So I kept my mouth shut and continued to put in the long hours and tried to avoid the pushy colleague with the wandering hands. It would be several more years before I developed the seniority, confidence and attitude necessary to ward off the majority of the sexual harassment. Even then, there would always be someone more senior, or simply arrogant enough to think he had the right. It was one of the main reasons I left this employer, but it wasn’t the only bank where it happened.
I don’t doubt that it still happens to women at all levels, across all industries, not only banking – as evidenced by the many examples featuring the #MeToo hashtag. At the last bank I worked for, the harassment was minimal. Everyone joked that it was because they’d had several high profile lawsuits that called attention the behavior. Hence it was time for this to stop – not because it was wrong, but simply because it was costing the bank too much money. Sexism on the other hand, was still in huge supply. Much less overtly egregious and harder to prove.
But these were the early days in my career and the effects of those high profile lawsuits hadn’t yet trickled down. I was young and terrified of the more senior employees at the bank, desperately wanting to succeed. I didn’t know it yet, but that Christmas party would turn out to be one of the more mundane experiences of my time at that particular bank. Stay tuned…