No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.
In fact, as a wealth adviser put it, just hiring a woman these days is “an unknown risk”. What if she took something he said the wrong way?
Across Wall Street, men are adopting controversial strategies for the #MeToo era and, in the process, making life even harder for women. Call it the Pence Effect, after US Vice-President Mike Pence, who has said he avoids dining alone with any woman other than his wife. In finance, the overarching impact can be, in essence, gender segregation.
Interviews with more than 30 senior executives suggest many are spooked by #MeToo and struggling to cope.
“It’s creating a sense of walking on eggshells,” said David Bahnsen, a former managing director at Morgan Stanley.
This is hardly a single-industry phenomenon, as men check their behaviour at work, to protect themselves in the face of what they consider unreasonable political correctness — or to simply do the right thing. The upshot is forceful on Wall Street, where women are scarce in the upper ranks.
The industry has also long nurtured a culture that keeps harassment complaints out of the courts and public eye, and has so far avoided a mega-scandal like the one that has engulfed Harvey Weinstein.
Now, more than a year into the #MeToo movement, Wall Street risks becoming more of a boy’s club, rather than less of one.
“Women are grasping for ideas on how to deal with it, because it is affecting our careers,” said Karen Elinski, president of the Financial Women’s Association and a senior vice-president at Wells Fargo & Co. “It’s a real loss.”
There’s a danger, too, for companies that fail to squash the isolating backlash and don’t take steps to have top managers be open about the issue and make it safe for everyone to discuss it, said Stephen Zweig, an employment attorney with FordHarrison.
“If men avoid working or travelling with women alone, or stop mentoring women for fear of being accused of sexual harassment,” he said, “those men are going to back out of a sexual harassment complaint and right into a sex discrimination complaint.”
While the new personal codes for dealing with #MeToo have only just begun to ripple, the shift is already palpable, according to the people interviewed. They work for hedge funds, law firms, banks, private equity firms and investment-management firms.
For obvious reasons, few will talk openly about the issue. Privately, though, many of the men interviewed acknowledged they’re channelling Pence, saying how uneasy they are about being alone with female colleagues, particularly youthful or attractive ones, fearful of the rumour mill or of, as one put it, the potential liability.
A manager in infrastructure investing said he won’t meet with female employees in rooms without windows anymore; he also keeps his distance in elevators. A late-40-something in private equity said he has a new rule, established on the advice of his wife, an attorney: no business dinner with a woman 35 or younger.
The changes can be subtle but insidious, with a woman, say, excluded from casual after-work drinks, leaving male colleagues to bond, or having what should be a private meeting with a boss with the door left wide open.
Loss of mentors
In a charged environment, the question is how the response to #MeToo might actually end up hurting women’s progress. Given the male dominance in Wall Street’s top jobs, one of the most pressing consequences for women is the loss of male mentors who can help them climb the ladder.
“There aren’t enough women in senior positions to bring along the next generation all by themselves,” said Lisa Kaufman, CEO of LaSalle Securities. “Advancement typically requires that someone at a senior level knows your work, gives you opportunities and is willing to champion you within the firm.
“It’s hard for a relationship like that to develop if the senior person is unwilling to spend one-on-one time with a more junior person.”
Men have to step up, she said, and “not let fear be a barrier.”