#MeToo, say as many as 3 out of 4 women in the mortgage business.
That’s how many say they’ve experienced sexual harassment as defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Claire Weber, chief operating officer of FormFree -- a technology company that provides verification of borrower assets, employment and income -- is one of them. She says she has been assessed and devalued by men who assume her goal is to be physically pleasing in a professional setting.
“Frank, unwarranted, unrelated assessments of my appearance and the fit of my clothing in the middle of a serious business conversation is one of the milder examples that I can cite,” Weber says.
She has experienced such poor behavior on numerous occasions. So she knew instinctively what could happen to a new female employee, just five months out of college, at the Mortgage Banker Association’s (MBA) convention last fall in Denver.
It “was a topic I could not overlook, both as a female professional in this industry and as an executive at our company,” she says. So over lunch with her rookie worker, Weber got right to the point:
“At this conference, one or more of the following will happen: You will be spoken to inappropriately, looked at inappropriately, touched inappropriately, have comments about your appearance or clothing made, have inappropriate invitations extended to you,” she warned. “One way or another, you will be treated as a sexual object instead of a business professional.”
Sure enough, within a few hours of the opening bell, Weber recalls, “one of the very things I had warned her of took place right before my eyes.” She quickly interrupted the unwanted interaction and escorted the powerful man back to his male colleagues.
“Despite the fact that I have encountered this so many times myself, and despite the fact that I was prepared and had prepared her, I felt shocked,” Weber says.
Scenes like this seem to play out just as often in the mortgage business as they do in the worlds of entertainment, politics, the media and sports. “It is an open secret that the mortgage industry harbors a subculture of male privilege and adolescent impulse that repulses female professionals,” says Weber.
According to a poll by the MBA’s mPower platform for female members, 3 out of 4 of the approximately 260 respondents said they had experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment.
The most frequent incidents happened in the office, and the most frequent behavior was inappropriate comments. But less than 1 in 10 reported the offending remarks to human resources, and just 1 in 5 ever mentioned them to someone in the chain of command who could address the poor behavior. Sound familiar?
The survey was not scientific, nor can the results be seen as indicative of the broader population, says Marcia Davies, chief operating officer at the MBA. Rather, mPower intends to use the data to start a conversation among its members about workplace sexual harassment.
“The women in mPower have been eager to discuss the issue head-on,” Davies says.
Some people maintain that they don’t know exactly what sexual harassment is, just that they “know it when they see it.” But the federal government’s definition is quite explicit. The EEOC defines it as: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”
Whether such conduct expresses itself as open leering and suggestiveness, or the subtler practices of minimization and exclusion, says Weber, “there is a vestigial fraternity of poorly evolved males for which women have developed a keen sense, and aversion.”
Other than perhaps a little flirting, Rosalie Berg says she has been the target of improper and unwanted sexual advances twice in the 15 years since she opened Strategic Vantage, one of the top marketing and advertising companies in the mortgage field. Both incidents were instigated by “very well-known, very powerful CEOs, who were probably used to getting what they want,” she recalls.
In one case, she was asked to continue a business conversation in the “gentleman’s” hotel room. Twice he implored her to join him in his room, and twice she said “no.” After that, it never came up again, Berg says. “When men leave home, many feel like they never had a wedding ring on.”
As Berg sees it, the way a women deals with harassment is paramount. “How you handle it defines who you are,” she says. “In my case, I felt empowered enough that if I lose business, so what? At least I still feel good about myself.”
As the MBA survey pointed out, many women aren’t in that strong of a position. And many simply don’t know how to handle it when men come on to them in a business setting.
Davies of the MBA says that, based on mPower’s poll, “it is clear that many women in our industry have to put significant effort into dealing with workplace sexual harassment.”
But, she adds, “the business does not need a scientific survey to estimate how many women (this has to affect) before we start to take action, because one is too many.”