June was not a proud month for men. In fact, it has to have been one of the worst months in recent history. Between Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged sexual assault, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decades-long infidelity and deceit, and Anthony Weiner’s tweeting, the 24/7 news cycle was overflowing with depressing examples of why success doesn’t always translate into maturity, or even basic moral behavior, from men in power.
Many a smart woman has commented, since these stories broke, about the consequences for all of us. Laura Kipnis argues that we are looking at a new “species of male masochism” and Marlo Thomas writes , “This string of salacious spring scandals has filled me with optimism—because, in each case, women have drawn a new line in the sand.” But all this news has prompted me to revisit a different issue, and in fact, a long forgotten moment in my own past.
I became a partner of Goldman Sachs in 1996, at 32 years old. I was a trader and desk manager in the fixed income division. In 2000, by invitation of CEO Hank Paulson , I took on a firm-wide human resources role where I had responsibilities in the areas of leadership development, performance evaluation, promotions and more. In this new capacity I was encouraged by a fabulous male mentor of mine to get to know some of the senior leaders better, particularly those that I had not worked with directly. The next day I picked up the phone and set up lunches to talk with many of them about my new role and how I might serve them in their respective areas.
See where this is going?
Actually, you probably don’t. During one of the lunches, I noticed that this particular senior leader had left the door open to the private dining room where we were lunching and, consequently, our conversation was continually being disrupted by what was happening in the hall. Finally, I asked if I could close the door. To my surprise, he said, “I’d rather you didn’t. My policy is that when I am with a female colleague alone, I always keep the door open.”
In a state of stock I managed to ask, “But then how is it possible, given your role, to work with women on your team and at the firm in general?”
He just smiled awkwardly and replied, “Yes, that does make it difficult.”
I had to press on and asked the obvious question: had he had a bad experience? What followed was even more shocking. He said that quite a few years back he had shared a cab with a woman from the airport. During the ride they talked about his role at Goldman, his beloved wife, among other topics. When they pulled up to the first hotel, hers, despite having just had a long conversation about his loving family, she asked him to join her. “Ever since then,” he said, pointing to the door, “it stays open.”
This, I have to believe, is not an isolated incident. This man, and countless like him, rise to positions of power and authority and make financial and career decisions affecting countless people, all under the assumption that women cannot be trusted. In a world like Goldman Sachs two things count, trust and respect, so it should come as no surprise that I witnessed few women thrive under his supervision.
We must—both individually and collectively—hold men (and women) responsible for their bad, and sometimes even immoral and/or violent, behavior. The gift of Anita Hill’s courage, among so many other brave women, is a country where sexual harassment is a commonly understood term and a violation frequently prosecuted.
But it’s not just the incidents of this kind that we need to look out for. We also need to shift the workplace culture of distrust and gender segregation. Women, like the one that this senior leader encountered in that cab, provide fodder for senior leaders’ fear of women in corporate America. These weary guys won’t end up embarrassed by lawsuits and arrests, but their resistance to working with half the population result in an absence of women in any position of power, management or leadership in critical mass. I have heard many a man say, “What is the upside for hiring, training, and investing in women?”
It’s important that men feel as if they are going to be held accountable, but the end goal is not to pit women and men against each other. The goal is an open door of opportunity, a culture of meritocracy, and greater self-awareness of one’s assumptions and biases that can lead to less than inclusive workplace behaviors. Today’s work world looks very different than it did when Anita Hill first spoke out; women comprise over 50% of the paid workforce. And yet, a minority of leaders and senior managers are women, suggesting that the time is now for open dialogue and learning on how to create a truly diverse, collaborative workplace.
While I have had to cope with atrocious, sexist, behavior in my time in finance that no young women should have to deal with, I have also had extraordinary male managers that showed that proper workplace behavior is not really that difficult. Research has shown that getting men to both care and act in a more inclusive manner is positively correlated to whether they personally have experienced negative bias, and/or if they have daughters.
All those years ago, I might have said to my lunch companion, “If I was your daughter, talking to her senior manager and he said to her what you just said to me, what would your advice have been to her?” My guess is that, as a father, he would have told her to quit and find a firm where she could be fully supported to succeed.
Our country is one where white, middle-aged men are disproportionately the leaders and managers of our companies and institutions. Though few make headlines for their absurd behavior, the subtle and often undetectable manner in which they prevent women from advancing to their full potential is perhaps equally damaging. My hope is that we can all think more deeply on how our backgrounds, assumptions, fears and insecurities play out in the workplace. With increased self-awareness, and the behavior change that comes from it, our workplaces will become more culturally intelligent, allowing us all to thrive.