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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Industry's Diversity Aspirations Undercut by Subculture of Disrespect

By Claire Weber
January 24, 2018

Topics:
Sexual Harassment
Claire Weber
FormFree


Claire Weber is COO of FormFree, Athens, Ga., a fintech company that provides verification of borrower assets, employment and income. She joined FormFree in 2016 and has been instrumental in building the company's organizational structure. In 2017 she was recognized by HousingWire with its Insiders Award, honoring unsung heroes behind companies in the housing industry.

ClaireWeberAlthough I am encouraged to see the mortgage industry address issues related to "racial, gender, sexual orientation and ethnic diversity" (as cited on the Mortgage Bankers Association's Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives website, https://www.mba.org/who-we-are/mbas-diversity-and-inclusion-initiative), I am nonetheless troubled by a pernicious trait in our industry--one that is at best detrimental, but at times far riskier.

The scenario I will describe to make my point is an example of an "elephant in the room" obstacle to the industry's diversity aspirations. And it is why I decided to name it in a public forum.

In mid-October, as our team was preparing for the MBA Annual Convention & Expo in Denver, I knew in my gut that there was one final key preparation that I needed to make. It involved an uncomfortable conversation that I would have preferred to avoid, but I knew that I couldn't.

A woman had joined my team straight out of college in May, and there was a topic I could not overlook both as a female professional in this industry and as an executive at our company.

Over lunch with her, I got straight 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. One way or another--you will be treated as a sexual object instead of a business professional. You have FormFree's and my full support to reject any of this without question. It is not okay under any circumstance. We have a zero tolerance policy for this kind of behavior and you will be supported. You can stay with me the entire time or call me if something happens when I am not with you."

As sad as I was to feel a moral and professional obligation as her manager to have this disheartening conversation with her, I was even more saddened to witness one of the very things I had warned her of happen right before my eyes within the first few hours of the event. 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 and unsure of how to respond.

This is the insidious nature of these interactions. This man was, after all, very powerful and... what would happen if I said something?. Would it make him uncomfortable? What if he retracted business? Would I be supported or told that I am ‘overreacting?'

I quickly interrupted the interaction and escorted him to male colleagues and then went to talk with her.

My personal experience with this type of behavior is how I knew to warn our employee, without equivocation, that it would happen. I wish I knew how to tell her to handle it when it does happen, as I have never handled it or seen it handled effectively. Actually, rather than spending time and mental energy that I could be using to further the goals of my company and this industry to learn how to "handle it" better, I wish I knew how to stop it.

I'm not a career mortgage professional, but I have participated in enough events to have an understanding of a culture that often overlooks and tolerates, and at times tacitly encourages, boorish, or worse, behavior. I have been similarly assessed and similarly devalued by the assumption that my 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.

Further, being the kind of person who likes to check and test her impressions of the world, I've asked around. It is "an open secret" that the mortgage industry harbors a subculture of male privilege and adolescent impulse that repulses female professionals. Whether it expresses itself as open leering and suggestiveness, or the subtler practice of minimization and exclusion, there is a vestigial fraternity of poorly evolved males for which women have developed a keen sense, and aversion.

One can almost hear the standard response--"Well, if they can't handle or fit in with the culture, maybe they should pick another industry," as though it would be a dilemma for talented women with today's burgeoning options to move on from an industry that does not disavow abusive and disrespectful attitudes. Herein lies the risk--our (or any) industry cannot both tolerate abuse and disrespect of women in its many forms while simultaneously targeting gender diversity.

My sincere hope is that calling out and naming this behavior will prompt leaders to emerge from both the general ranks of membership and from the upper echelons of the mortgage industry to clarify that women will be extended the courtesy and respect of their peers, that they will be able to come to a business event and conduct business without feeling the need to protect themselves or their female colleagues from unsolicited sexualization and that open disrespect cloaked as "just paying a compliment" is not an accepted industry norm. My greatest hope is that I will never again feel compelled to have a conversation like the one I had with our employee with anyone else again.

(Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect policy of the Mortgage Bankers Association, nor do they connote an MBA endorsement of a specific company, product or service. MBA Insights welcomes your submissions. Inquiries can be sent to Mike Sorohan, editor, at msorohan@mba.org; or Michael Tucker, editorial manager, at mtucker@mba.org.)

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